Can a nation forgive its assassins? India has come close.
Recently, the Indian Supreme Court commuted the death penalty to life imprisonment for three Tamils convicted in the May 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Earlier, the court had taken another four conspirators off death row. Then last month, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the southern state where Gandhi was killed, attempted to free all seven convicts. It would be akin to California’s governor pardoning Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
For many Indians, this was an act of forgiveness that went a step too far. The federal government, led by Gandhi’s Congress Party, is appealing to the Supreme Court to stop the plotters’ release.
Here altruism blends into realpolitik. The Tamil chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, is betting that pardoning the prisoners might help her party secure Tamil votes in India’s general elections, which start next month.
In nearby Sri Lanka, the army finally defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009 after a pitiless military campaign that caused thousands of civilian casualties. Five years on, many Indian Tamils still feel the anguish of their island brethren. Freeing the seven might be a sure vote getter in Tamil Nadu, but it is an outrage to Indians elsewhere in the country.
This legal tug-of-war over Gandhi’s killers revived old memories for me. I was a foreign correspondent in India when Gandhi was assassinated. And for the next 20 years, the shock waves from that explosion reverberated through my reporting career.
Flash of the Blast
It happened on May 21, 1991, in the final stretch of an Indian election that had Gandhi’s Congress Party battling against Hindu nationalists. I was at a party in New Delhi with other foreign correspondents, shaking off the scorching heat and dust of the campaign trail.
The phone rang, and our host, an Australian broadcaster, answered. His lanky body stiffened as if the telephone had shot 300 volts into his ear. He whispered into the receiver and hurried into an adjacent room. Five minutes later, he popped his head out.
“My desk called,” he said nonchalantly. “I have to do a story, but don’t mind me. Keep the party going!”
The Aussie wanted to get the jump on us all. Shortly, all around the room, pagers started buzzing madly. Rajiv Gandhi dead. An explosion. At a rally in Tamil Nadu.
It turned out that the assassin was a woman. There was a terrible intimacy to the killing. After presenting Gandhi with a sandalwood garland, she bowed to touch his feet, a sign of respect, and then blew herself up with a suicide vest.
She was killed instantly, and so were Gandhi and 14 others. Barbara Crossette, of the New York Times, who was accompanying Gandhi, had witnessed the assassination from ten yards away and saw “only the flash of the blast and the circle of bodies that fanned out from its epicenter.”
The next 24 hours were a blur. I filed story after story.
Gandhi had plenty of enemies; Sikh militants had killed his mother, Indira, while she was prime minister. But suspicion focused on the Tamil Tigers, a secessionist guerrilla movement on the nearby island of Sri Lanka. There was a motive: As prime minister, Gandhi had sent in the Indian army to fight the Tamil Tigers and, if elected, had vowed to do it again.
And the macabre method of killing also fit neatly into the Tamil Tigers’ strange cult of martyrdom. I later visited their stronghold in Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka. The Tiger combatants, mostly teenagers, wore cyanide capsules on strings around their necks—suicide was preferable to capture—and at night their cemeteries were lit up merrily like fairgrounds.
I didn’t see my reporter colleagues again until May 24, when we were herded into the back of an open truck to follow Gandhi’s funeral cortege as it crossed through the million mourners flooding the parks and esplanades along the procession route. Gandhi’s death had disfigured the certainty of their lives.
A former airline pilot with a beaming smile, Rajiv was the third generation of a family dynasty (no relation to Mohandas K. Gandhi, known as Mahatma) that had guided India since its nationhood in 1947. When the news of his assassination broke, Indians were bereft, confused, panicked. Riding in the truck through the crowd was like traversing a tumultuous sea.
The crowd was ready to blame anyone for his death—even us, the foreign press. A mob converged on our press truck shouting “Death to CIA!” The police cracked a few heads with their batons and the mob ebbed away.
Gandhi’s remains were placed under a giant tent, on a heap of ice and flowers. The temperature topped 105°F, and I watched my photographer, an Englishman, turn livid shades of pink and gray until he collapsed from the heat.
Without hesitation, a stranger appeared with a chunk of ice, flecked with marigold blossoms, and used it to revive the photographer. The ice had been cooling Gandhi’s shrouded body.
It was later determined that Gandhi had been killed by a five-member hit team. His actual killers either died in the blast or, when cornered months later, bit into their cyanide capsules. The seven Tamils who were caught and put on trial, and who are at the center of the tussle between Delhi and Tamil Nadu, were marginal to the plot.
An Era of Suicide Bombers
From then on, as a reporter, the specter of the suicide bomber was my constant shadow. That suicide vest designed for Gandhi’s assassin was a prototype for those now in use today, everywhere.
Having covered so many blasts, first in Sri Lanka (where, throughout the 1990s, the Tigers were far more obscenely prolific as suicide bombers than any Islamic militant group) and later in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel, and the West Bank, I tried to understand what could induce a person to carry out such a horrendous violation of the sanctity of life.
Was it an act of desperation? Revenge? Idealism?
In Afghanistan, right after 9/11, the first suicide bombers were all Arabs; Pashtuns liked to stick around after their battlefield exploits and hear their praises sung. But that changed after the madrassas in neighboring Pakistan, virtual jihadi factories, started recruiting young, easily malleable Koranic students for martyrdom.
In Iraq, volunteers came from as far away as Morocco to blow themselves up, and I wonder how many of them peeled off their vests and ran when they found out their targets were civilians at a busy restaurant or Shia Muslims instead of the infidel enemy.
Not many, I guess.
Often, the reasons for self-annihilation were complex and personal. In the West Bank, I heard of a young Palestinian woman who had been coerced into donning a suicide vest to use against Israelis because militants had threatened to reveal to her parents that she was having sex with her boyfriend. Better martyrdom than family dishonor?
Still searching for an answer, I visited Iran in 2005. My destination was a 12th-century castle known as Alamut in the Elburz Mountains. It was here that Hassan-i-Sabbah formed his cult of the Assassins.
His assassins were expected to die in the act. Before sending a man out to kill, Hassan-i-Sabah would first drug him into a deep sleep. The man would awake in a perfumed garden of flowers and fountains and beautiful maidens.
Then the man would be drugged again. On awakening, Hassan-i-Sabbah would tell the man that he had glimpsed paradise, and this would await him if he killed his intended victim. For centuries, people had searched for traces of this garden near the castle, but it was never found.
Wandering along the castle’s windy ramparts, my Iranian guide turned to me and said: “I was once given a key to paradise.” He paused. “It was plastic. Made in China.”
He explained that he had been a soldier on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war. The mullahs had given each soldier a plastic key to hang around their neck that would open a door “in a golden palace with hundreds of rooms, and a beautiful virgin in each room.”
“You see, we were facing certain death,” he said. “The Iraqis had poisonous gas.”
My guide didn’t believe the mullahs’ promises for a minute, and he figured out a way to get pulled off the frontline. Thousands of other Iranians weren’t so lucky. Not much has changed since the days of the Assassins.
A Question for India
Is forgiveness the answer, a way to break the cycle of revenge and stop the rise of more suicide bombers?
In India, the chain of events that led to the commuting of the conspirators’ death sentences began with an act of mercy by Rajiv’s widow, Sonia.
There was a woman, Nalini, among Rajiv’s seven convicted plotters, and when Sonia found out that Nalini had given birth on death row, she appealed for Nalini and her daughter to be given clemency.
The court agreed. And Nalini later said she “regretted” her role in the assassination plot. It now remains for the court to decide whether India is ready to accept if those responsible for Gandhi’s murder should walk free.
Tim McGirk is the former New Delhi bureau chief for Time and the managing editor/lecturer at the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California Berkeley.