July 30: India has conquered the man who hated the country so much that he tried to smash its Prime Minister’s head at a televised event.
Former Sri Lankan naval rating Wijemunige Vijitha Rohana de Silva has fallen to the charms of Bollywood tunes and now makes a living selling Hindi music cassettes in Colombo.
Exactly 20 years ago today, he had swung his rifle butt at Rajiv Gandhi as the visiting Prime Minister inspected a guard of honour in the Sri Lanka capital, scripting perhaps the only bid on an Indian leader before TV.
“I saw some movement… I sort of ducked in a reflex action. By my ducking down, he missed my head and the brunt of the blow came on my shoulder below the left ear,” Rajiv later said.
Rohana, who was grabbed immediately, explained that he loathed the peace agreement signed between Colombo and Delhi the previous day — July 29, 1987 — which later brought Indian troops to the island to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
He has now told The Nation newspaper he had nothing against Rajiv personally and didn’t want to kill him. But he had seen six colleagues killed by the Tamil separatists and believed that Delhi was helping the rebels, and so had decided to “insult” Rajiv.
“I only protested against Gandhi for helping the LTTE,” he said.
But Bollywood has doused that fire of hatred.
“I sell very popular cassettes with Hindi songs,” Rohana, now 46, said at his store in a Colombo suburb. “I also enjoy these songs. I am a music lover.”
The sailor had been court-martialled and sentenced to six years in jail but was released after two years by then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, a critic of the Indo-Lanka peace accord signed by his predecessor, Junius Jayewardene.
The pact, however, did cost Rajiv his life even though the fatal attack came not from Lankan nationalists like Rohana but their opponents. Furious at the Indian Peacekeeping Force’s (IPKF’s) actions against the rebels, the LTTE killed Rajiv when he was no longer Prime Minister.
Rohana said he had sent his condolences to Rajiv’s family after the May 21, 1991, assassination by a suicide bomber.
The Lankan’s wasn’t the only attempt on Rajiv at a public function. On October 2 morning in 1986, as the young Prime Minister paid homage to the Mahatma at Rajghat, a 26-year-old Sikh fired three shots at him from behind the overgrowth but missed each time.
Rajiv’s security had dismissed the first shot by Khalistani sympathiser Karamjit Singh as backfire from a scooter and got cracking only after the next two rang out.
After Rohana’s bizarre attack, an embarrased President Jayewardene, too, had tried to brush it off as an accident.
A navy guard had fainted and dropped his gun on Rajiv, who “tripped a little and slightly lost his balance” he told reporters even as Indian TV showed footage of the attack.
An hour later, Rajiv himself spilled the beans: “What is all this nonsensical speculation' Of course, I was hit.”
The hit left him with a lump. “Rajiv continued with the ceremonial function, and was attended to only when we were air-borne,” Sonia later said.
“For a very long time after, he could not move the shoulder freely or sleep on his left side.”
The anniversary of the peace accord that brought so much bloodshed was observed in a low-key manner yesterday with Lankan troops still engaged in their bloody war with the Tamil Tigers.
Written with a PTI report