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The Untold Story Of A Failed Military Operation That Led To Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination

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On 5 October the prisoners asked for some stationery, which was duly supplied by the soldiers of the 54 Artillery Brigade. Around noon came tiffin carriers with lunch for the prisoners. The Indian soldiers allowed in the food after cursory checks, as they had been doing the past three days. But that day they missed a crucial element in the lunch boxes. Buried in the food was something more potent than a Tamil curry: cyanide capsules.

At ten that morning, Major Sheonan Singh, leader of the para commandos team, had received orders from 54 Division to hand over the prisoners to the Sri Lankan army at 4 p.m. Sheonan’s men had laid the MMGs and the grenades as a protective measure, to allow the Indian soldiers to safely leave the building after the handover.

The handing over of the LTTE prisoners to the Sri Lankans had been a contentious issue. The anti-India faction of the Sri Lankan government had demanded that the LTTE men be brought to Colombo for trial. The LTTE said that their men had been granted amnesty and would be tortured if taken to Colombo. The LTTE was hoping that the IPKF would not bow down to Sri Lankan pressure. After all, the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka – for which the LTTE had taken up arms – had been supported by India.

Sheonan understood the political consequences of the orders he had received. He pleaded with the military operations directorate at Delhi not to hand over the LTTE prisoners to the Sri Lankan army – it would lead to a dangerous rupture between the LTTE and the IPKF, and alienate Tamils, both in Sri Lanka and in India – but to no avail. Kumarappa, who overheard his conversation, asked Sheonan, ‘Why are you doing this? Our leaders have told us that if we are handed over to the Sri Lankan army we will have our last meal and write our last letter.’

At the time, Sheonan didn’t grasp the import of what Kumarappa had said; his words would come back to haunt him later.

He looked at his watch. It was 4 p.m. He walked up to the Sri Lankan colonel and, as he handed over charge of the LTTE prisoners to him, said, ‘All yours and I wish you the best.’ Sheonan then informed the Colonel GS – the principal staff officer to General Harkirat – over the wireless radio that the LTTE prisoners were now in the custody of the Sri Lankan army.

Sheonan and his men drove back to their base 500 metres away. Within a few minutes, a staff officer from Division HQ, which was within walking distance, came running. He told Sheonan to return to the building and take back custody of the prisoners from the Sri Lankans. An angry Sheonan retorted that he needed specific orders to do so. Minutes later the Colonel GS, who had taught Sheonan at Staff College in Wellington a couple of years earlier, came personally to ask him to take the prisoners back from the Sri Lankans.

Sheonan’s response was: ‘Am I to open fire if Sri Lankans don’t hand the prisoners back? What am I to do if Sri Lankans open fire on the LTTE prisoners? What if both sides fire on each other?’ He wanted explicit orders to cover all these contingencies. The Colonel GS tried to get through to the military operations directorate at Delhi for answers, but it was already too late. While he was on the phone, Sheonan got a wireless message from the Sri Lankans: Pulendran, Kumarappa and the other prisoners had swallowed cyanide pills. And thirteen of them were dead.

The suicide of the prisoners turned the LTTE bitterly and violently against India and the IPKF. The vacillation by New Delhi on 5 October 1987 was to cast a long, dark and bloody shadow, leading to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in May 1991. But the immediate consequence was a military debacle.

Excerpted with permission from Mission Overseas: Daring Operations by the Indian Military by Sushant Singh, exclusively available on

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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