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South Asian History and Culture

ISSN: 1947-2498 (Print) 1947-2501 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rsac20

Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanu's sacrificial


metamorphosis in death
Michael Roberts
To cite this article: Michael Roberts (2009) Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanu's sacrificial
metamorphosis in death, South Asian History and Culture, 1:1, 25-41, DOI:
10.1080/19472490903387191
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19472490903387191

Published online: 05 Jan 2010.

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South Asian History and Culture


Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2010, 2541

Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanus sacrificial metamorphosis in death


1947-2501
1947-2498
RSAC
South
Asian History and Culture,
Culture Vol. 1, No. 1, Oct 2009: pp. 00

Michael Roberts*
South
M.
Roberts
Asian History and Culture

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Department of Anthropology, Adelaide University, Adelaide, SA, Australia


Set within the context of the Sri Lankan Tamils liberation war dominated by the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), this article examines the series of events that followed
Pirapaharans (Prabhakaran) decision to eliminate Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in order to
pre-empt his election as Prime Minister. The details of the LTTEs intricate killing
operation under operational commander Sivarasan set the scene for a focus on facets of the
attire adopted by suicide bomber Dhanu. Saffron-green outfit, kanagambaram in hair
and sandalwood-pellet garland may have been directed by pragmatic reasoning. But
circumstantial contentions also point towards cosmic reasoning. Taken together with
the kill teams preceding supplications to the god Ganapathi at a temple in Chennai,
these indications suggest that Dhanus explosive transformation into ash was geared
towards a transvaluation of self in the cycle of rebirth. Information on Hindu practices
taken from the researches of Mines, Fuller and Tanaka amplify the significance of the
details deployed during this operation as supplements to plastic explosives, ball bearings and suicide vest.
Keywords: transvaluation; enchantment; assassins; Hindu substances; tantric encirclement

The kill and its context


Late at night on 21 May 1991 Rajiv Gandhi attended a campaign meeting in the southern
town of Sriperumbudur in support of a Congress Party candidate in the forthcoming general elections. As he greeted a bespectacled woman in a green and orange salwar kameez
who carried a sandalwood pellet garland, she bent down in a standard act of respect and he
was blown apart by a vest bomb that she detonated.
The assassin was Dhanu, an experienced fighter1 in the ranks of the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Under her original nom de guerre Akino, she had been trained in a
Tiger camp at Dindigul2 in India in the mid-1980s. Dhanu has been identified by different
names; all that is clear is that she was the daughter of Rajaratnam,3 a government clerk and
activist in the Federal Party in Sri Lanka who was part of a small splinter group of firebrands
known as the Pulip Padai (Tigers Army) that took an oath in 1961 affirming faith in armed
struggle.4 Rajaratnam (who died in 1975) was one of those who had inspired a number of
youngsters,5 including Pirapaharan in his teenage days. Significantly, he was posthumously
honoured in mid-late 1991 at an LTTE ceremony chaired by Pirapaharan himself.
I begin with a clarification of the context of this event. By the 1970s disaffected Sri
Lankan Tamils had moved to a position where even their moderate parliamentarians were
impelled to declare (on 14 May 1976) that their goal was a separate state to be called
Thamililam or Eelam. By the late 1970s, moreover, a medley of clandestine militant groups
*Email: galleonroberts@gmail.com
ISSN 1947-2498 print/ISSN 1947-2501 online
2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/19472490903387191
http://www.informaworld.com

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M. Roberts

committed to armed struggle existed in the north of Sri Lanka. The scene was set for the
moderate Tamil parliamentarians to be shunted out of centre stage. At stage a transformative
event occurred, namely, a horrific pogrom directed against Tamils living in the Sinhalamajority districts in July 1983 a process of terror that involved both government functionaries and ordinary people from many walks of life. Thereafter, it was a hot war with strong
ethnic hues. During the guerilla stage of the Tamil liberation struggle in the years 1983
1987 the massive growth in the various Tamil fighting groups was assisted materially by the
support of the Indian Government, as well as various political forces in Tamil Nadu. All the
fighting Sri Lankan Tamil groups received military training in camps in India, and at least
1012 batches of LTTE fighters (among them Dhanu) were trained in such camps.
When the Sri Lankan government launched a military offensive in the Jaffna Peninsula
in mid-1987, the Indian Government intervened against the Sri Lankan state. Pressure was
also exerted on the Indian states little allies, the Tamil fighting groups. Pirapaharan was
flown to New Delhi as part of this process and had meetings with Rajiv Gandhi as well as
senior Indian officials. Eventually, these manoeuvres resulted in the government of
J.R. Jayewardene accepting the idea of an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) entering the
northern and eastern districts in order to maintain order. The understanding was that the separatist rebels would disarm and work towards regional autonomy under Indian guarantee.
The degree to which the Indo-Lanka Accord of 27 July 1987 was acceptable to the Sri
Lankan Tamils is a bone of contention.6 Be that as it may, the LTTE took a different line:
we have been betrayed by the government of India, by Rajiv Gandhi. I have been stabbed
in the back, is one statement attributed to Pirapaharan himself as he was confined to
Room 518 in the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi.7 However, the IPKF troops were initially
greeted as saviours by the residents of the Jaffna Peninsula, where people thronged to
welcome them . . . wept and garlanded them.8 Even Pirapaharan was a hero when he was
brought back. A massive crowd assembled at the grounds of Sudumalai Amman K0vil
Temple to hear him speak on 4 August 1987, a peroration that was a fine tightrope walk
that revealed seeds of dissent and potential resistance.9
These seeds quickly sprouted. By 10 October 1987 the LTTE and the IPKF were at war,
with the Tigers reverting to guerilla tactics. Atrocities and rapes by Indian troops did not
help their cause.10 Despite the presence of some 132,000 Indian personnel at some stages
and a 20:1 balance of the forces in their favour, by the time a ceasefire was agreed upon in
September 1989, the IPKF dead numbered 945 and that of the Tigers 754.11 Insofar as the
LTTE held out against the might of the Indian army, this episode in the history of the LTTE
and the Tamil struggle raised Pirapaharan to the status of a living legend as Dayan
Jayatilaka remarked shortly thereafter.12 The foundations for Pirapaharans decision to kill
Rajiv Gandhi were created during this series of events, events that involved the loss many of
his comrades and embraced the sufferings of the Tamil people under the IPKF regime. The
LTTE hierarchys intense hostility to both the Indian Government and Gandhi himself was
revealed in a compendium entitled The Satanic Force, which they began preparing in March
1989 under the guidance of Baby Subramanium, their political chief in Tamil Nadu. As
many as 3000 copies of this compendium had reached binding stage by mid-1991 at an
establishment in Chennai run by a Dravida Kazhagham activist linked to the LTTE. This
massive dossier revealed quite starkly the LTTEs hatred for the IPKF and Rajiv Gandhi.13
Among circumstantial evidence, in March 1991 Pirapaharan reacted in anger to Kasi
Anandans evaluation of Rajiv Gandhi and virulently remarked that Gandhi deserved to die
at the hands of a woman.14
The preparation of The Satanic Force was informed by the changing political scene in
India. V.P. Singhs coalition government was on unstable ground in a situation where the

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Congress Party remained the largest single group in Parliament. When Singhs coalition
collapsed in late 1990, it was anticipated by most that the Congress Party and Gandhi would
return to power at the forthcoming elections. This is where Pirapaharans deep antipathy to
Rajiv Gandhi seems to have led to a set of adamantine convictions, namely, that on his return
to power (1) Gandhi would not only resist any progression towards a separate state of Eelam
but (2) would also re-introduce Indian troops into the island. In retrospect, we know that the
second reading was surely a prejudiced leap in the dark.
Convinced thus, the LTTE leader proceeded in his manner born. That is, his generalship has always been marked by three aspects that have usually contributed to outstanding
military achievements and feats of assassination: (1) long-term contingency planning,
(2) meticulous preparation15 and (3) pre-emptive strikes on the principle that attack is the
best form of defence. Clearly, such an assassination was deemed simpler before Gandhi
came to power as Prime Minister. Contingency preparations for the assassination are
believed to have begun as early as November/December 1990. Baby Subramanium proceeded to cultivate both Dravida Kazhagam and other local Tamils with an eye on the
expansion in the LTTEs network of safe houses. Such pan-Dravidian extremists as
Muthuraja, Subha Sundaram, Arivu and Irumborai were already on board, while the family of Padma and her two children Bhagyanathan and Nalini were gradually converted to
the LTTE cause.16 The actual assassination project was organized by operatives of the
LTTEs Intelligence Wing (INT) headed by Pottu Amman and his deputy, the female
commander Akila (Somasekaram Satyadevi). Pottu Amman chose Sivarasan as his operational commander and kept in regular wireless communication with him throughout the
exercise. Born at Udupiddy as Chandrasekaram Pakiachandran, Sivarasan (Raghu Anna
or Siva Master in Tiger circles) was a former government functionary turned experienced fighter. Critically, he had knowledge of Chennai and had been one of the leaders in
a commando strike in June 1990 that massacred the leadership of the Eelam Peoples
Revolutionary Liberation Front at an apartment in the city.17
Armed with gold biscuits as readily convertible assets, Sivarasan went to Chennai
early in 1991 where he was joined by Murugan in February for their early preparations. He
returned to the Jaffna Peninsula for the final briefing from Pottu Amman on April 28, a
meeting that involved Akila as well as Dhanu and Subha, with Subha designated as
standby for Dhanu. The team then embarked for Kodiakkarai on the Indian coast on the
night of the April 30 where they met their partners at a safe spot. Proceeding to Chennai,
Dhanu and Subha were placed in Nalinis house and quickly developed a bond with her,
while the others were located in different safe houses.
On 7 April 1991 the hit team made a dry run by attending a major election meeting,
with a local photographer Haribabu recording the occasion. A little later Dhanu went
shopping with Nalini and purchased a salwar kameez in the Congress colours of orange
(saffron) and green, a combination that happened to be in fashion at that time.18 On
21 May Subha helped Dhanu fit the suicide vest under her salwar kameez, after which
photographs were taken. Sivarasan, dressed like a journalist in kurta pyjama, joined them
at Nalinis flat and with Nalini making a fourth they headed in the early afternoon for the
bus stand where Haribabu was waiting for them with a garland of sandalwood pellets
which he had bought as instructed.
At the electioneering rally at Sriperumbudur they latched unto a local Congress activist named Latha Kannan and her daughter K0kilavani. K0kilavani had right of access to
the podium to read a poem and Dhanu moved cleverly in her wake in order to penetrate
the relatively lax security cordon and detonate her explosives an eruption that killed
Gandhi, herself, K0kilavani, Kannan and 14 others, including Haribabu, and wounded 44.

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Like the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the assassinations by the LTTE, whether by
suicide bomber, sniper or electronically triggered explosive, carried out in the years
19902007, were meticulously worked out and have been, for the most part, successful.19 One facet has been a policy of videotaping their major operations for both training
and propaganda purposes: soldier teams of video camera persons from a section known
as Truth Tigers monitored their sea and land attacks.20 For this projected assassination
in foreign territory, however, they decided to hire a local photographer, one Haribabu,
to record the scenes, and SIT investigators came to the conclusion that Haribabu was
privy to their deadly intent. In any event, he got too close and was killed along with
Dhanu, Gandhi and others.21
His camera however did not die. Dhanu, Sivarasan and others were thus caught
napping, so to speak, and revealed to the Indian intelligence services (Figure 1).22 The
final moment with Dhanu behind K0kilavani with kanagambaram in her hair and two
steps away from garlanding Gandhi was also captured by the cameraman (Figure 2).
From these striking images, as the clich has it, the plot unfolded. It was this film that
enabled the Indian investigators to identify the assassins, hunt them down and assemble
comprehensive evidence of their guilt, thereby foiling the LTTEs conviction that the
assassination could be so fine-tuned that it would never be traced to the LTTE.23
A suicide bomber was central to this clause of being untraceable. Apart from ensuring certainty of kill and not calling for an exit strategy, such a killer cannot be located and
questioned or even easily identified from the remains when s/he is from another country.
The LTTE is unique in demanding that all its fighters take an oath to bite the cyanide capsule (kuppi) they carry during operations whenever they are in danger of being captured.
As Pirapakaran told the BBC in late 1991:
To be caught alive by the enemy is a great disgrace. To die as a prisoner is a great weakness to
our people. Because I was determined not to be caught alive, I decided that I personally
should start wearing a cyanide phial. Later, that became our practice and all our warriors
started to wear this cyanide.24

Figure 1. Dhanu and Sivarasan wait for the moment to strike. Dhanu is in spectacles between
K0kilavani on her right and Latha Kannan on her left. (Courtesy of Ashik Bonhofer and the
Observer Research Foundation.)

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Suicidal commitments therefore began for the Tigers around 1983/1984 as defensive
suicide to avoid torture and to protect ones comrades, and it was not till 5 July 1987 that
the first suicide attack was launched in battlefront conditions. By then the special force of
suicide attackers known as Black Tigers or karumpuli was in existence. This commitment
marked a spirit of selfless sacrifice as well as courage among the LTTE personnel. It
endeared them to many Sri Lankan Tamils though not to all. This vital constituency took
heart from the arpaNippu (dedication) symbolized by such acts. The kuppi was a talisman
that legitimized their cause and assisted the mobilization of recruits.
The cause was a separate state within Sri Lanka, one that was explicitly proclaimed to
be a secular state. Thus, many scholars regard the LTTE to be a secular organization.25
Secular is understood in the conventional Western sense of not being attached to religious
principles in any significant way so that its suicide bombers are not motivated by thoughts
of the afterlife or ideas of redemption or atonement. Behind this reading, of course, is an
explicit or implicit contrast with the Islamic suicide bombers on the path of shahadat, personnel that are deemed to be fundamentalists inspired by religious goals. I have consistently challenged this position by focusing on the embodied practices of LTTE fighters,
their supporters and the kinfolk of their fallen. In a setting marked by pluralistic forms of
religious worship, and considerable cross-fertilization of practices across the Hindu/Christian divide, it is feasible for the LTTE to provide scope for the religious principle of sakti
(divine energy) without the use of markers that distinguish a particular religion. As
regards the idea of being secular, I am concerned not so much with the play of religion,
but rather a broader and more encompassing notion one associated with a cluster of concepts, namely, the overlapping ideas enchantment, cosmic and supramundane. I am
guided here by Weberian sociology and its reading of the transformations in Western
Europe between the late medieval period and the modern era. The secularization of society
was seen to occur hand in hand with the implantation of rationality, including the rationality of market capitalism. This process undermined the degree to which the lifeways of
people and institutions were enmeshed in what Weber called enchantment (linked in turn
with magic and irrationality).26 This essay, then, is part of my larger project in this direction through a focus on the empirical specifics associated with the LTTEs assassination
of Gandhi, that is, with the murder teams activities on the way to their kill as well as
afterwards. The technological pragmatism of an improvised explosive device and the
pragmatic steps taken to circumvent the security cordon around Gandhi, I contend, were
girded and threaded by a number of enchanted embellishments.
Dhanu and the meaning of ash in Tamil cultural praxis
In a speculative argument that cannot be empirically substantiated, I contend that there
was a careful threading of Dhanus persona with religiously significant artefacts, for
instance the ideationally valourized sandalwood, which would balance and mediate her
own explosive death, thereby enabling her to secure a enchanted form of transcendencecum-transvaluation. It may have even rendered her act into a rite des passage that metamorphosed her being into a particle of ash within a higher realm. This cluster of conjectures, clearly, is informed by attentiveness to a religious context where a majority of
Hindus understand that each person has many lives and that ones worldly existence is a
stage of transition from past existence towards future worldly lives27; that this continuous
movement into different realms is conditioned by the karmic laws of cause and effect that
are, in turn, directed by ones morality. Thus, Hindus believe that they can be reborn as
any living thing depending on the merit earned as grass, plant, bird, reptile, human,

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deva or asura (email from S.V. Kasynathan, 6 February 2007). Because ash is such a pervasive and central aspect of meaningful transactions in the course of Hindu worship, its
significance in the Saivite Hindu world is elaborated at the outset in order to underline my
deployment of this element as metaphorical tool. The intention here is to emplace the
reader within an appropriate milieu.
The specific context for this illustrative preamble is the pseudonymous village of
Yanaimangalam (hereafter Y) in the extreme south of Tamil Nadu as depicted in the ethnography provided by Diane Mines. In Village Y, as throughout India, ash (vip1ti, or vibh1ti,
in Tamil) is Sivas special substance. The ash that is distributed liberally in Siva temples is
made from cow dung, though scented factory-produced ash is also available nowadays. As
directed by Hindu myth and ritual, ash is considered cooling, pure and generative.28
While produced out of destruction, it is regarded as a remnant seed that regenerates the
cosmos. Once ash is transvalued through contact with a specific deity, it becomes prasad,
that is, it is transformed and rendered into a beneficial substance.29 Thus, in smearing
ash on body or forehead a person imbibes the deitys qualities. Ash-smearing and ash distribution is a common and vital aspect of most festivals (kotai, which also means gift) at
Village Y. At temple festivals ash transactions are dense: outstretched surround and follow god-dancers, who push through the crowds hastily flouring palms and foreheads.
This is not merely a transmission of a religious boon: at Y the giver and receivers not
only conform to acknowledged [village] rankings, they make and re-make those rankings
publicly.30
Ash is not only amenable to body decor, it is also edible and can be ingested as prasad,
sometimes as a potent transformative device. Take the unscripted moment at a rite in
Village Y where the elderly AM was serving as an oracle before the god Muntacami. An
entranced woman rushed across the space to him. She was deemed to be possessed by an
inappropriate spirit, so AM promptly took countervailing measures. One procedure was to
feed her the deitys divinely charged, pure, and cooling ash. When later asked by Mines
whether the ash had the power of sakti (cakti, shakti) to effect an exorcism, AMs exasperated response for any local would not have asked such a stupid question ran thus:
Cakti!? Thats the gods cakti! It has nothing to do with my cakti. Between the god and me
there is a . . . kind of connection . . .. He thinks and it reaches me. It isnt because of what I do
that it stops . . . it is because of gods power at this place.31

Besides having these capacities, ash has the advantage of being infinitely divisible. It is
understood, moreover, that ones corpse dissolves into ash when it is cremated, a practice
that many, if not most, Hindus in India adhere to. In the context of rebirth beliefs and a
cultural theory that emphasizes the transvaluation of bodily substances in this world, it follows that this corporeal transformation at death is also divisible. Ones ash, logically, can
fructify (or decrease) and take multiple routes in future lives in various realms. That is a
logical possibility,32 not necessarily a theory that is explicitly ordained by some religious
authority. This capacity on its part is also in step with the fundamental Hindu principle of
the many goddesses being part of the one goddess Sakti, a holographic principle where
each part also embodies the whole.
Interpretation
Just as the LTTEs machinations unravelled as a result of Haribabus film roll, so, too,
does my picture develop from his photographs. Consider photographs 1 and 2 both taken

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by Haribabu.33 Dhanu knew she was going to die. The suicide belt with plastic explosives
(and ball bearings) as well as her salwar kameez and appearance would have been geared
to the pragmatics of the occasion and her cover as a supporter of the Congress Party. In
purchasing a salwar kameez with the aid of Nalini, Dhanu selected a colour combination,
namely, green with orange (of saffron hue) that was popular at that time, one that matched
the colours of the Indian national flag and thus would help her to blend in with the mass of
people.34 It was towards this end that Sivarasan and Dhanu befriended a local Congress
Party worker, Latha Kannan, who is the women standing to the left of Dhanu in Figure 1,
her daughter, K0kilavani on the other side, both blissfully unaware of the deadly human
bomb between them. Garland and appearance, therefore, were obviously organized in generally coherent ways.
Nonetheless, there are several clues that point to a supramundane perspective in the
accoutrements so carefully designed for herself by Dhanu, perhaps in collaboration with
the mastermind Sivarasan. Let me stress here that the clues are several and circumstantial.
When unconnected clues point in the same direction, any good detective follows the
import. That is what I do here rather like my previous analysis of a famous Sinhalese
story depicting the arrival of the first Portuguese ships in the sixteenth century.
The garland was obviously part of the rational-means-to-end. It was not a garland of
flowers, but one made up of sandalwood pellets: thus a symbolically meaningful garland
appropriate to a high-value person quite pragmatically rational. But this does not prevent
another theme, a form of cosmic rationality, from being part of the mix created by
Dhanu/Sivarasan. Sandalwood, as earlier observed, is deemed a cooling substance in
Hindu Saivite worship. Many deities are deemed, that is known, to be powerful, heated
and thus potentially dangerous beings. During ritual episodes their icons and/or substances
embodying their essence have to be encased within, or attached to, what are believed to be
cooling substances such as margosa leaves, sandalwood and turmeric. Sandalwood also
has medicinal and purifying properties that enhance its religious character.35 It is therefore
an item of prasad in some parts of southern India. In this sense sandalwood is a religious,
cosmic substance of considerable import.36 Let me illustrate.
In both the fishing village of Udappu (occupied mostly by Karaiyar Saivite Tamils)
and in the temple complex at Munnesvaram on the western coast of Sri Lanka there is an

Figure 2. Rajiv Gandhi listens to K0kilavani in paternal fashion, little realising that Dhanu
(foreground with kanagambaram in hair) is waiting patiently to greet him and blow him apart.
(Courtesy of Ashik Bonhofer and the Observer Research Foundation.)

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annual festival to Bhadrakali. One preparatory rite during the Munnesvaram festival
involves the priests flouring the image of Bhadrakali with sandalwood paste in order to
encircle, and thus balance, the expansion of the goddesss heated potency, while also
enliven[ing] her gaze.37 Likewise, at the kotai (festivals) held at Village Y in Tirunelveli,
India, the young girls and boys fulfilling previous vows made on their behalf by elders
were dressed in a new cloth after a bath at the river and then had light yellow sandalwood
paste [smeared] all over their chest and arms together with red kumkumam powder.38
It is in this setting, one permeated by the cosmic ideas imbricated within such embodied practices, that one should consider the question: why did Dhanu/Sivarasan choose a
garland of sandalwood pellets rather than one of flowers? My speculative answer is that
sandanam, sandalwood, would cosmically englobe Dhanu with what is symbolically
believed to be a cooling and purifying substance as she her being that is passed
through into another world. By itself this pointer may seem fanciful. But there are other
clues directing us in the same direction of supramundane transvaluation. Take Dhanus
salwar kameez outfit: it is orangish-saffron in colour with a green top to embellish it.
Moreover, as Figure 2 reveals,39 she has upon her head orange/saffron-coloured flowers,
locally known as kanagambaram, a type of crossandra that is as much favoured in Hindu
worship as the jasmine flower.40 Kanagambaram is widely used for decorations in Tamil
Nadu, but on religious occasions it is often mixed with jasmine when strung into garlands
(kadambam), while the outer ring of the headpiece worn by bharatanatyam dancers is
kanagambaram.41 Bharatanatyam is a dance form that is unique to the south of India,
especially Tamil Nadu and Karnataka; and most of the repertoire, inclusive of the music,
is based on devotion to God (email from Maya Ranganathan, 7 February 2007). In brief,
among Tamils the kanagambaram flower carries conventionally profound cultural resonances with interlacing religious threads. It is the orange-saffron-hued salwar kameez
however that carries greater significance. As Sathiyamoorthy informed me, in India the colour saffron is associated with the idea of sacrifice and it is for this reason that it constitutes
one-third of the Indian national flag. It therefore has a religious connotation, and many
sanyassin and sadhus in India adorn saffron42 as a proclamation of their endeavour
(though orange, red and yellow may also be adopted by some). This cluster of colours also
animates gatherings of personnel associated today with the Hindutva movement.
The sandalwood in Dhanus garland, moreover, takes a pellet form rather than being a
continuous chain fashioned like a sausage. This form of garland, as Maya Ranganathan
forcefully insisted in opposition to my initial conjectures, is common in southern India. It
is not constituted of pure sandalwood, rather it involves hollow beads made of wooden
shavings that would have been scented with sandalwood perfume. In short, we have ersatz
sandalwood, not the pure, godly substance (but does that change its signification and its
meaning for religiously oriented Tamils?). Again, because politicians never keep to time,
it is sensible for followers to deploy sandalwood garlands rather than flowers that are liable to wither. Given Dhanus intent, moreover, a cumbersome flower garland was more
likely to draw a security search than a bare string of pellets.43 So a string of sandalwood
pellets was pragmatic. But that, to repeat, does not preclude a further cosmological import
being intentionally overlaid on the rationality of means.
Herein, there is an intriguing angle to add to the set of clues favouring the argument
that there were cosmic fibres within the pragmatics of the Dhanu/Sivarasan operation. As
Angela Hobart suggested on the foundations of her Balinese fieldwork, beads are an
aesthetic form that allows the adept (Dhanu in this case) to bud forth sprouts of
beauty,44 that is to become absorbed in the essence of the Divine (understood as the
immaterial, invisible world).45 This is a Tantric principle. Whether Tamil-speaking

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Hindus in India and Sri Lanka are attuned to Tantrism or not, the suggestion here is that
this specific Tantric notion embodied in artefact (bead, bangle, amulet, necklace) may
have been insidiously incorporated into Saivite Tamil practices without a necessary reference to its origins. So the sandalwood pellets carried a double import, cooling and sacred
as well as enchanted, beautifying.
Finally, there is the act itself of garlanding. This is, of course, a mundane political
act, the honouring of a person. The garlanding act was the ostensible means for Dhanu to
get within reach of Rajiv Gandhi. But it so happens that the motion of encircling and
encompassment is a central, significant and widespread operation in Hindu worship.
Indeed, the forms and means of encirclement are as manifold as they are profoundly significant. There is a whole genre of circling rituals (arati in Sanskritic Tamil) that are
intended to remove unwanted negatives from a person or place.46 Officiating personnel
at many temple rites throughout India commonly make circling motions with lamps or
camphor flames in order to encompass the worshippers, or a particular vow-giver, within
the grace of the deity reigning at the site. As god-dancers or vow-givers moved through
Village Y in procession during festivals, people emerged from their houses and gifted
them bangles or fragrant garlands to the point of excess.47 Some Hindus wear amulets and
bracelets as a form of protection, while a womans marriage tali [around the neck] must
never be cut off except at the death of her husband for the [severance] of encircling ties
that bind and protect is to open one to danger.48 Again, virtually everywhere in the Tamilspeaking world village processions circumnavigate the central part of the village to signify
the communitys protection and renewal. At Village Y this circumnavigation explicitly
defined the ur, the interior heart of the village and demarcated it from the ghost-ridden
katu, namely, the adjacent wasteland/wilderness/outside.49 This fundamental Hindu practice has also become an integral part of the LTTE commemorative iconography. During
Heroes Week every flagpole at various LTTE offices and display sites in Kilinochchi had
a small circle of jasmine flowers adorning its base, while a picture of the flagpole at the
entrance to their tuyilam illam (resting place) at Vavuniya reveals a profusion of nitya
kalyani (periwinkle, a species of jasmine) around it.50 In brief, their fallen, the mavirar,
are also symbolically encircled and protected by cosmic forces.
This set of clues within the attire associated with Dhanu does not mean that she was
treating Rajiv Gandhi as a god. On the contrary, from the LTTE viewpoint he was more
like an Asura standing in the path of the Tiger Suras and liberation fighters. And like an
Asura, Gandhi was destined for obliteration. But insofar as Dhanu, gifting herself as
uyirayutam (weapon) to the LTTE cause,51 was destined to turn to ash in the same process, she and Sivarasan made sure that she was suitably attired for the journey. She had
an orange/saffron dress and orange/pink flowers to signify her sacrificial character. She
had the sign of sandalwood to serve as a cooling and purifying substance balancing the
heated process of transvaluation she was about to undergo. That is, the sandalwood was
for Dhanu herself as she passed into heated, explosive oblivion in what one can, in further
embellishment, present as a cosmic process of transvaluation. Dhanus blow was a sacrificial act of destruction directed towards the creation of Eelam. In effect, it was a generative
strike in aid of the LTTEs punita cutantiram or holy goal of liberation. This objective,
in her eyes and that of the LTTE, rendered her work transcendental. Dhanu herself then
became immortal in their eyes,52 transformed both literally and figuratively into a particle
of ash within a higher realm.
In this reading Dhanus act entailed an extinction of self that secured a cosmic union
that was, for her, a liberation.53 The idea of union arising here is not incidental. As
Penelope Logan stresses, a basic process in Hindu p1ja, or worship, is that embodying the

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deity and disembodying man.54 This point is utilized by Chris Fuller when he develops
the argument that Hindu worship involves a movement toward identity between deity and
worshipper. This identity of being is revealed not only by the sequential logic of a ritual, but, to add, also by a multi-media assault on all the senses that seeks to enfold and
subsume the participants in one globe. It is because of its englobing and pervasive capacities that a camphor flame is a favourite tool in a Hindu p1ja in front of a deitys image
and so often scheduled for its climax. At that moment, the
divine and human participants are most fully identified in their common vision of the flame
and hence in their mutual vision of each other the perfect darshana. God has become man
and a person, transformed, has become god; they have merged and their identity is then reinforced when the worshipper cups the hands over the camphor flame, before touching the finger tips to the eyes. By this means, the deitys power and benevolent protective gaze, now in
the flame, are transmitted to the worshiper and absorbed through the eyes . . . Light, most
especially the camphor flame, is thus an extraordinarily potent condensed symbol of the quintessentially Hindu idea, implied by its polytheism, that divinity and humanity can mutually
become one another, despite the relative separation between them that normally prevails in
this world where men and women live and must die (emphasis mine).55

This basic principle holds for acts of worship among the Tamil Saivites in Sri Lanka. At
some rites its character as a fusion of beings is extended in metaphoric ways. At Udappu
the final rite at the Bhadrakali festival, known as velvi, is the offer of a consecrated black
goat to the goddess, a moment when the crowd shouts arohara as the neck is cut off. This
rite is understood to complete the process of securing Bhadrakalis protection for the community. However, Tanaka extends the meaning of this rite of velvi: because the goat is
garlanded and a pandal (canopy) is erected for the ceremony, he suggests that it is akin to
a marriage ceremony where the goddess Bhadrakali herself is transformed from fierce
deity into a benevolent one, a cosmic force oriented towards the protection of Udappu.56
Many such rites involve ritual specialists of some sort. For a Hindu bhakta worshipper, however, an intermediary adept is not required. Bhakti practices involve personalized
devotion to a deity through heartfelt participation. The devotees focused mind linked to a loving heart is believed to secure unity with the deity through participatory love-linked-awe.57
This koinonia can be achieved even within a shrine at ones home. But the beauty of transcendental unity and the greatness of a deitys sakti increases enormously when the worship occurs at a primordial site associated with that deity, the one towards which pilgrims
travel. The tapas arising from the pilgrims ascetic regime and the rigours of journey to
such a place, often located on some mountain top, helps deepen the cosmic character of
the marriage between devotee/ascetic and powerful deity. From her position, therefore,
Dhanus deadly embracing of Rajiv Gandhi was a step towards a transcendental metamorphosis of self on a path to a greater good.
Reflecting creatively on the possible thoughts flashing through Dhanus mind in the
period immediately before the kill, as she was dressed with explosives by a specialist,
assumed to be male, Charles Sarvan fashioned a literary piece, a fiction, that likened her
anticipation to that of a bride as the moment of marriage approached.58 An interesting and
powerful trope, is it not this image of marriage/wedding? We know that it is deployed in
many contexts and can even locate on LTTE publication in Tamil, which insisted that we
are married to our cyanide.59 Sarvans brilliant composition is a product of his literary
imagination. But, as we may understand from the ethnographic practices described by
Tanaka, the image of marriage is one that is commonly deployed in Hindu religious
practice. It is no surprise, therefore, that my initial, one-page formulation of the thesis

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embodied in this article evoked thoughts of marriages when it reached peers for comment.
One such response came from Tanaka himself, who noted that the ideas of wedding and
sacrifice overlap strongly and neatly in the thinking of some Tamils (email, 27 January
2007). Even more significantly, Sathiyamoorthy in Chennai deciphered the direction of
my thinking and made a connection between my question to him about the colour of flowers used to garland sacrificial goats in the rites of velvi and my questions on Dhanu: if
there is any relation to your query on sacrificial lambs, the question obviously is were
the suicide-bombers (male or female) prepared as if they were for their wedding, or any
other celebration (email note, 31 January 2007). This was a perceptive piece of dialogic
analysis. He echoed Sarvan without ever having read Sarvans essay.
The speculative thesis here is that, in carrying out a suicide attack on behalf of the
goals set by Pirapaharan, Dhanus sacrificial step was wrapped in cosmic ingredients
that would assist her metamorphosis into a better realm. The proposition is not demonstrable.
The issue is whether it is plausible.
Pertinent to this evaluation is the ordination that all LTTE soldiery went through in
being inducted into their fighting force. They took an oath and committed themselves to
their holy (punita) aim: The task (or thirst) of the Tigers (is to achieve) Motherland
Tamililam.60 They committed themselves to biting the cyanide vial, the kuppi, which
they carried with them on most perilous occasions. This was a commitment that many
Tigers, both ordinary soldiers and leaders, men and women, have adhered to. Indeed,
Schalk calculates that as many as one-third the personnel who died between 1983 and
1992 killed themselves by swallowing the kuppi, a staggering proportion.61 The determination of the LTTE fighters was widely attested. We also know that their best fighters
were those selected for the Black Tiger suicide ranks.
Sivarasan, Dhanu, Subha and Murugan were Black Tiger quality. Their commitment
was not only to the ideal of Eelam, but also to the leader Pirapaharan, to whom Tiger personnel pledge personal allegiance on top of their affirmations for Eelam.62 By 19891990
Pirapaharan undoubtedly stood forth as the embodiment of Eelam for many Sri Lankan
Tamils. Chandrakanthan, a Catholic clergyman who moved to Canada in 1995, affirms
that several migrant Tamil households have pictures of the talaivar (leader) Pirapaharan,
images which are treated as that of a deity.63 During the Sri Lankan armys successful
conquest of the Sampur region just south of Trincomalee in late 2006 the regional centre
Sampur was a ghost town as they marched in, but they discovered an old lady abandoned
by her sons [who] was carrying a photograph of Prabhakaran. She called him Ishwara.64
Ishwara is the One and the Supreme God in much of India, but in the south is suffixed to
various names for Siva. Clear evidence of Pirapaharans hallowed status was gathered by
Chris Morris and Stephen Lambert when they anchored a BBC teams visit to Tiger territory in late 1991.65 In visiting the Kilinochchi area in May 2003 Brendan ODuffys interviews with senior Tiger leaders reinforce[d] the [evidence of] mythic reverential
perceptions of the leader. Indeed, Sanappah Master insisted that he and others considered Prabhakaran as God become man.66
Two items of evidence unearthed by the Indian security team confirm the degree to
which Pirapaharan looms as inspirational hero within Tiger ranks. Cornered within his
hideout in Bangalore and aware of his impending death, Sivarasan proceeded to destroy all
documents in his possession, but left a Tamil poem written by himself for public consumption: extolling the Tiger chief and their flag and urging all Tamils to wake up and strengthen
the leaders hands.67 The second item of evidence is even more significant because it was a
private exchange. This was on 12 June 1991 when Sivarasan and Subha, on the run, and with
narrowing options, had wireless communications with Pottu Amman.68 The latters orders

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M. Roberts

were clear: do not allow yourselves to be caught alive, come what may. In response Sivarasan
sent a terse message, swearing upon the sweet name of his leader Prabhakaran that no
stigma would be attached to the LTTE on their account.69 Here, then, Pirapaharan was the
equivalent of a Bible or Quran. Later, on June 20, when Sivarasan broached to Pottu Amman
the idea of attacking the headquarters (Malligai as it was called) of the Indian Central
Bureau of Intelligence, he said: The soul of sister Anbu (Dhanu) would find some peace and
the CBIs morale would come down a little.70 Dhanu, therefore, had an atman.
It was entirely in keeping with such fundamental beliefs that after the successful assassination on 21 May, and before they were fully alive to the dangers they themselves would
be facing soon, on 25 May as desired by Sivarasan Bhagyanathan arranged a taxi that
took Sivarasan, Subha, Nalini, Murugan and Padma to Tirupati, South Indias most
famous pilgrimage centre, [on] a thanksgiving trip (emphasis mine).71 This step, a propitiatory worship of the Hindu gods, was but proper given that, just before their journey by
bus from Chennai for Sriperumbudur on 21 May for their task of assassination, when
Sivarasan met Dhanu and Subha at Nalinis home at 3:15, the group of four first repaired
to a local temple to offer prayers before meeting the cameraman Haribabu near the bus
terminus. This was because Dhanu wished to say her final prayers.72 The temple was a
Pillaiyar k0vil lorded over by that prince of powerful guardians, Ganapathi, the elephantheaded Remover of Obstacles or Vinayakar.73 It is reasonable surmise that Dhanu and
Sivarasan propitiated Ganapathi, the protector, to ensure a successful assassination.
Assisted by Dhanus initiative and contingent luck, the god could, indeed, be said to have
fulfilled his promise to these earnest devotees . . . up to a point anyway.
These votive visitations provide circumstantial support for the speculative thesis presented in this essay. Central to this interpretation is the enchanted religious context within
which most Tamils have been nourished and the cultural premises they have imbibed
relating to such fundamental beliefs as the atman the many realms of existence that
embrace all forms of animal life and every persons cycle of many lives. Working within such
cultural foundations, I contend that Dhanu, while serving her gods Eelam and Pirapaharan
by laying her body on the line as weapon, also ensured that she carried cosmic ingredients
that would effect a transvaluation of her being and would metamorphose her body/being
into particles of ash within a higher realm.
Notes
1.

2.

3.
4.
5.

Tamil and pro-Tiger sources circulated stories that Dhanu (or her mother) had been raped by
IPKF soldiers; and this point has invariably been stressed by foreign scholars, usually with the
proviso alleged, but without entering further caveats that recognise the likelihood that this
was a legitimisation exercise by LTTE spin-doctors. It is likely that this is disinformation for
the reason that (1) Black Tigers, both men and women, routinely engage in suicidal missions
and it is ridiculous to think that all have been raped and (2) Dhanu was a Black Tiger of relative seniority in the LTTE military structure. Note, too, a radical parental background that is
clarified in the body of the essay.
One source (Sarin 1998) says Dhanu (alias Anbu) trained at the Maithiya Camp rather than
Dindigul. The LTTE trained 10 or 12 batches in India in the period mid-1983 to mid-1987,
some under the aegis of Indian agencies and some independently run. Gunaratna, International
and Regional Security.
Telephone interview, February 9, 2007. Sabaratnam is a journalist and author of a serialized
biography of Pirapaharan on web. Sabaratnam, Pirapaharan. Also, Kaarthikeyan and Raju
(hereafter KR), Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 1289, 142.
Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Sri Lanka, 24; Jeyaraj, Composition, Ideology and International
Dimensions, 28990.
KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 128.

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6.
7.
8.

37

Cf. Clarance, Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka, 48; Jain Commission Interim Report.
KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 124.
Email note from Daya Somasundaram, May 5, 2007. For a more detailed description see
Somasundaram, Scarred Minds.
9. Samaranayake, Amirthalingam in Retrospect. This was confirmed by the Indian journalist
P.K. Balachandran who was present at Sudumalai and said that Pirapaharans review was
tinged with great sadness (tel. conversation, May 5, 2007).
10. Clarance, Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka, 52.
11. KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 177.
12. Videotaped interview for BBCs Suicide Killers in Inside Story (1991).
13. KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 1223, 41; Jain Commission Interim Report.
14. KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 75. The precise connotations of this second-hand report
(Sivarasans information conveyed to his aide, Murugan, another hardcore Tiger) is a puzzle.
Cf. Prabhakaran had Rajiv killed for being anti-Tamil, http://www.rediff.com/news/1998/
jan/28rajiv3.htm
15. Thus, for instance, specific situation plans with mock-up landscapes of battlegrounds have
generally been part of its preparation for major assaults.
16. KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 407, 50, 151. Note that, in any event, Murugans cultivation
and indoctrination of Nalini in early 1991 developed into an intimate liaison. Nalinis child
was born on January 21, 1992.
17. KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 356, 44, 60, 757.
18. Ibid., 51. Maya Ranganathan had precisely the same combination of colours in her salwar
kameez at that time when she was working as a journalist and covered the case for Indian
Express. It was because of this intimate knowledge that she knows about Dhanu and Nalinis
shopping expedition (email note, February 5, 2007). Also see Ranganathan Cover Girl.
19. For a long list of killings, trawl through IPCS at http://www.ipcs.org/; UTHR at http://
www.uthr.org; http://www.spur.asn.au/ltteatro.htm and sites maintained by the government of
Sri Lanka.
20. Sri Lanka. The Truth Tigers, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, May 15, 2002.
21. It is alleged that Haribabu must have had some inkling of the subversive character of the LTTE
operation and that he had been brainwashed into believing that the IPKF operations in Sri
Lanka had been brutal. The fact that he was a protege of Subha Sundaram and was privy to
incriminating evidence led the SIT team to a similar verdict of complicity. KR, Rajiv Gandhi
Assassination, 401, 69. This however does not quite fit with his proximity to the blast
unless he had been misled by a statement that it was another dry run or was unaware of the
lethal distance of the ball bearings.
22. Penchant for photographic record nailed LTTE, http://www.rediff.com/news/1998/jan/
28rajiv.htm; Subramanium, Unraveling the Plot.
23. KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 185.
24. Videotaped interview for BBCs Suicide Killers. In another segment of this documentary,
Yogi, a senior LTTE spokesman at the time, was careful to stress the requirement that they bite
the kuppi not just swallow it.
25. Reuter, My Life Is a Weapon; Pape, Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 243; and Gambetta,
Can We Make Sense of Suicide Missions?, 2613.
26. For a brief review, with a critical note on Webers theoretically unwarranted antithesis
(to use Talcott Parsons comment) between rationality and irrationality, see Roberts,
Pragmatic Action and Enchanted Worlds, 779. Apart from Webers own oeuvre, see, in
particular, Kalberg Max Webers Types of Rationality; Gellner, Legitimation of Belief,
1889.
27. Sax, Pilgrimage Unto Death, 202.
28. Mines, Fierce Gods, 31, 127.
29. Prasad is a divinely charged substance/artefact, the transformation emanating from contact
with a deity.
30. Mines, Fierce Gods, 86, 88.
31. Ibid., 170.
32. Responding to my argument S.V. Kasynathan (who taught philosophy in my time at Peradeniya University) stressed that rebirth in Hinduism is conceptually related to the atman and
not to the body. But he then remarked that the physical body dissolves into its elements and

38

33.
34.
35.
36.
37.
38.
39.

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40.
41.
42.
43.
44.
45.
46.
47.
48.
49.
50.
51.

52.
53.
54.
55.
56.
57.
58.

59.
60.
61.
62.
63.
64.

M. Roberts
may regenerate through the normal decay and growth processes in the biosphere as plants,
those that eat the plant etc. That of course means that parts of your body can find rest or unrest
in a very large number of places or realms as you put it.
I thank Ashik Bonofer of the Observer Research Foundation in Chennai for sending me better
quality images.
See note 18.
In affirming that sandalwood was considered purifying, Maya Ranganathan noted that most
women (and beauty parlours here [in Tamil Nadu]) use it as a face mask (email, February 7,
2007).
Ironically, a log of pure sandalwood was dropped into the funeral pyre of Rajiv Gandhi as
normally done for extraordinary people (email note from Maya Ranganathan, February 5,
2005).
Bastin, Domain of Constant Excess, 25, 141.
Mines, Fierce Gods, 160.
The girl reaching Gandhi is K0kilavani (with white jasmine on hair), so it is the back of
Dhanus head with kanagambaram that is in the foreground of the image.
K0kilavani, who had just recited a poem in praise of Gandhi, has jasmine flowers on her head.
On the importance of flowers in both Tamil culture and in contemporary LTTE commemorative practices, see Roberts, Pragmatic Action and Enchanted Worlds, 8691.
These invaluable insights on the kanagambaram flower have been provided by Maya Ranganathan (email note, February 5, 2007).
When Rajchandra Mehta, the ascetic Jain householder in Bombay, proceeded to fast unto
death and died in the samadi maran position in the presence of many observers, devotees all,
the people said there was a rain of saffron. Laidlaw, Life worth Leaving, 181.
In fact the police had designated only three garlands for the occasion and had security checked these
three beforehand. Rajasingham, Sri Lanka: The Untold Story; KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination.
Zoetmulder, Kalangwan, 179.
Email note from Angela Hobart, January 11, 2007.
Mines, Fierce Gods, 219, 39.
Ibid., 15762.
Ibid., 389.
Ibid., 40.
Personal observations during visit to Kilinochchi on November 2527, 2004; Roberts, Pragmatic Action and Enchanted Worlds.
The term uyirayutam (also uyirayutham) translates as life [gifted-as-] weapon and is a clever
innovation of Tiger coinage that describes those who sacrifice their lives by swallowing cyanide or serving as human bombs. See Chandrakanthan, Eelam Tamil Nationalism, 164;
Schalk, Resistance and Martyrdom, 74, 76.
The Great Heroes Day observances provide [the Tigers] with the feeling that by sacrificing their
lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality. Jeyaraj, No Public Speech Ceremony.
I am indebted to Angela Hobart for this idea.
Quoted in Fuller, Camphor Flame, 72.
Fuller, Camphor Flame, 73.
Tanaka, Patrons, Devotees and Goddesses, 119.
See Prentiss, Embodiment of Bhakti, 67, 1518; Cutler, Songs of Experience, 1, 8, 1011; and
Fuller, Camphor Flame, 1568, 1649, 2107.
Sarvan, Appointment with Rajiv Gandhi, 35761. Though it does not matter for his fiction,
Sarvan has assumed that the explosive specialist was male, but we now know that Subha
helped Dhanu to dress indicating a knowledge of explosive devices befitting the Black
Tigers.
Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Tamil Tigers, 67.
Schalk, Resistance and Martyrdom, 645.
Schalk, Beyond Hindu Festivals, 396.
BBCs Suicide Killers.
Chandrakanthan, Eelam Tamil Nationalism, 15970. Also a statement during a personal conversation in mid-April 2006.
Ranga Jayasuriya, Military Gains Which Went Obscure, Sunday Observer, October 29,
2006. For outside observers there is irony here. With a command economy and a command

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65.
66.
67.
68.

69.
70.
71.

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72.
73.

39

state at his biding, this reading is not far wrong. It is partly because of Pirapaharans supremo
status as well as his name that staunch Sinhalese opponents depict him in ironic disparagement
as the sun god.
Conversations with Morris in Oxford, February 2007.
ODuffy, LTTE: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, 265.
KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 105, 138.
Both wings of the LTTE in Tamil Nadu had skilled wireless operators and sophisticated
equipment. They used alphanumeric codes. After the assassination, India put extra effort
into deciphering these codes and succeeded, being aided subsequently by the recovery of
some code sheets.
KR, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, 94.
Ibid., 145.
Ibid., 50. Bhagyanathan was Nalinis younger brother and Padma their mother. This family
seems to have become embroiled with the LTTE for financial incentives.
Sarin, Confessions of an Accomplice; Subramanium, Unraveling the Plot.
The god Pillaiyar is also known as Vinayakar (Remover of Obstacles) and as Ganesh,
Ganapati, etc. He is the most beloved and revered of all the Hindu gods, and is always
invoked first in any Hindu ceremony or festival. He is the son of Parvati [the wife of Shiva, the
Destroyer, the most powerful of the Hindu trinity of principal gods]. http://www.lankalibrary.
com/myths/ganesh.htm.

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