Prateep V Philip was only a few feet away from Rajiv Gandhi when a powerful bomb killed the then Prime Minister and others on May 21, 1991 at Tamil Nadu's Sriperumbudur.
The IPS officer, then 29, suffered injuries and trauma as a result of the explosion. More than two decades since the incident, he has recently emerged triumphant in a court battle, winning permanent custody of his name badge and official cap, which were marked as material objects in the murder trial of the late PM.
On January 5 this year, the Chennai City and Civil Court allowed Philip permanent custody of his name badge and cap, which was taken as evidence in the case. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has three weeks' time to comply with this order.
Philip, on the other hand, will have to produce both things as and when the Court requires him to, in “exceptional circumstances”.
After years of battling the trauma, Philip derives symbolism from the court verdict, calling it a victory over his own sufferings.
Philip, who retired as the Director-General of Police, Training in September 2021, praised his legal team headed by Advocate Sanjay Pinto in bringing closure to what he called the “greatest setback” that any police officer could have suffered early in their career.
Caught in the crossfire
The events of May 21, 1991, are ingrained in Philip’s consciousness as if it happened yesterday.
"It is a vivid memory and never dies. It was as if I was frozen on that day and age,” he recalled.
The blast snuffed out 18 lives and among the 40 injured was Philip, who suffered fractures on his right hand, and flash burns on his left limbs. Even today, he has around 100 steel pellets embedded in his body.
Besides the lasting physical and mental distress, the police officer lost his belongings, dear to any young police officer. His glasses and his ceremonial cane adorned with the Ashoka Chakra, were never to be found post the blast.
“For many years, I had cherished this hope of getting my personal properties, but only two items could be identified. My glasses and the ceremonial cane, which I had carried because an important person was coming, could not be recovered. Because it was someone like Rajiv Gandhi coming on that day, I was carrying my ceremonial cane with the Ashoka Chakra,” he recalled.
The cane, incidentally, saved Philip's fingers from being blown off by the shockwaves of the blast. The implement absorbed most of the shock, as a result of which only his metacarpal bones were fractured.
“Getting this back symbolises my triumph over the trauma and to draw meaning out of suffering,” he shared.
Reminiscences of a fateful day
The incident has taught Philip to “take home positive lessons”, as it had happened despite the best efforts and arrangements being in place. Apart from Philip, his senior Mohammed Iqbal, who was a Superintendent of Police (SP), was also on duty that day with the former Prime Minister.
“The police paid a heavy price. I survived this, but what about the SP? He didn’t survive and neither his family asked for any of his belongings. Probably for them, it would have been a bitter experience,” Philip pointed out.
Philip had received Gandhi near the barricades at the venue and was a few feet ahead of him, trying to control the crowd that was trying to reach him.
“He wanted to reach out to the crowd. The SP and I were the only ones who had received him at the alighting point and we were trying to control the people, who tried to touch him or hold him,” he remembered.
When Gandhi turned towards the red carpet which was a few feet away from the stage, Philip tried to be beside him, but the SP told him to be a little ahead in order to manage the crowd.
“I was trying to turn constantly and see. At one point when I didn’t see him (Gandhi), I tried to retrace my steps and that’s when the blast had taken place,” said Philip.
A group of women present in the crowd had gathered around Gandhi.
“At a particular point, a girl was reading out a poem in Hindi eulogising him. Her mother, who already had a conversation with the assassin and the group, was shouting ‘this is my daughter’,” Philip revealed.
The explosion that followed discharged thousands of steel pellets in the air, causing deaths and injuries.
“The intention was to cause maximum, lethal damage. My right hand took a different shape and was twisted. The bones above the knuckles were fractured due to the shock waves,” shared Philip.
His deformed fingers could only be made to look normal after multiple plastic surgeries. Even today, his grip is not a hundred per cent.
“Whether it is a pen or gun, the grip is always a little less,” he said.
Dealing with trauma
Philip dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder, something he discovered while coping with his emotions.
“My faith in God and a thought process called equilibrium thinking helped me with post traumatic stress. First few months, I used to feel the emotions with the slightest of provocations. But I constantly practiced it, which is my own discovery. You can overcome by being positive,” he said.
Later, Philip’s superior was hesitant to depute him to a district upon his promotion as SP, but finally relented. Philip told him that his faith had reinforced his strength “a million times,” making him much stronger.
“It helped to take tough decisions, including those for law and order, policing and administration in the 30 years that followed,” added Philip.
The healing process prompted Philip to start a project called Friends of Police as part of a community initiative in Tamil Nadu, with the idea of bridging the gap between civilians and the police.
Although he faced dissuasion from some of his seniors, the project led him to be rewarded by the Queen of England with a British scholarship for excellence in leadership in 1997. In 2002, he won the Queen’s award for innovation, training and development, for ideas that could transform the police not only in India but across the Commonwealth.
With the reward money, he set up a multimedia training centre in Chennai, helping police personnel and civilians train as part of his project. Over 100,000 participants have been trained, as per his estimates.
“Though I had a disastrous start, I had to rise from the ashes and turn around,” Philip noted.
During the course of his career, celebrated Tamil writer Thiruvalluvar’s classic Thirukkural inspired him to write 3,300 inspirational quotes in a book that won him both the Asian and World Records.
“My work was partly inspired by that and also my experiences. So in the chapter on life, I have said that death and near death experiences teach us lessons that life cannot,” he underlined.
People and the Police
During a career spanning 34 years, Philip was Superintendent of Police (SP) in four districts of Tamil Nadu. He also served as SP of Narcotics at the Intelligence Bureau; Deputy Inspector-General of Police (DIG) (Intelligence); DIG (Tirunelveli); IG (Social Justice); Additional Director-General of Police (ADGP) (Economic Offences Wing and Crime); and the Director General of Police (DGP) of the Crime Branch, Crime Investigation Department, before retiring as DGP (Training) on September 30, 2021.
On the back of this experience, Philip opined that policing in India should not be run-of-the-mill, and that the leadership setting the tone for the police required sensitisation.
“Leadership sets the tone for the police, so it should be sensitised. It shouldn’t be run-of-the-mill policing. India calls for a humane order of policing. People by and large are law abiding,” the former DGP argued.
The disconnect of the police with law, ethics, humanity and people sometimes paved for some incidents, he said.
“Therefore, brutality should not find a place. Police should use powers within the framework of law. It in itself is a creation of law. To know that we derive a power from the Constitution which starts with ‘We the People of India’. So it is not like the government gives the power to the police, but it’s the people. My emphasis is that it should be pro-people,” the veteran IPS officer highlighted.
He illustrated that suppose a boy stole a food item during the pandemic, a police officer ought to have the discretion to notice that he is a first-offender since the law allows the release of such people with a warning.
“If he wants to show his power for a minor incident also remand people, they will get further brutalised. Once in jail, they become more hardened,” he thought.
“The least we can do for our brethren, we are trying to do.”
Large-hearted lawyers on a quest
Philip was granted temporary custody of the badge and cap at the time of his retirement, but he made it clear to his lawyer, Sanjay Pinto, that he wanted permanent custody.
“Somebody asked why it has happened now and not 1991? Philip wanted to do it only towards his retirement. Less than a month before his retirement, he contacted me and said he wanted it,” Pinto revealed.
When Sanjay initially filed the petition, he sought temporary possession of his client’s belongings for the last day of service in September 2021. The Court allowed it on a bond of ₹1 lakh for a month.
“We got it in the nick of time, before his retirement. When we got it, we did not want to sully the situation by talking about the condition it was given in. We noticed that it was nibbled by a rat. The cap was in bad shape. That was one reason and the second reason was that this was of no use to anyone else,” disclosed Sanjay.
In court, the CBI contended that there was every likelihood that the name badge and cap would be required for further proceedings if a supplementary chargesheet was to be filed by its Multi Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA), currently investigating a wider conspiracy in Gandhi’s assassination. According to the CBI, the material objects had “inviolate integrity” that had to be preserved.
In response, Sanjay made the following submissions:
“If it was of 'inviolate integrity', why was it in this condition? Why was it evidently bitten by rodents? Secondly, the CBI admitted in its counter that he had suffered only collateral damage. We all know that the prime target of this assassination was Rajiv Gandhi."
While Sanjay argued the case, it was his wife Vidya, along with Akhil Bhansali, Vishwanthini and Veera, who carried out the bulk of the research needed. They found out that the shoes and kurta that the former Prime Minister had worn on that day were displayed in a museum in Delhi.
In court, Sanjay pointed out that if the late PM’s belongings were in a museum in Delhi and not with the CBI, then the material objects of somebody who had admittedly suffered only collateral damage should not be retained by the CBI.
“That too when the trial was over in 1998 itself, 23 years ago, and especially now when all appeals, mercy pleas have been exhausted and some of them are even trying to come out, why should this be retained and that too for a hypothetical supplementary chargesheet for an international probe (MDMA) for international conspiracy?” the lawyer asked.
The legal team produced about 10 judgments of the Supreme Court and various High Courts, including the Madras High Court, where it had been underscored that under Section 452 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, even objects used in the commission of a crime such as, revolvers, knives or even lorries, had to be returned to the owners on conclusion of the trial.
Sanjay underlined that Philip’s cap and badge were not used in the commission of the crime.
“He happened to be on duty and suffered collateral damage. So it has zero evidentiary value. We also argued that in light of the amendments to the Indian Evidence Act, Section 65B, photographic evidence is also admissible today,” he added.
The CBI, he had submitted, could take high-resolution photos or videograph the objects, and since Philip was a law-abiding citizen who almost died in the line of duty, in the event of any unprecedented circumstances or unheard of angle that was required to be probed, he would willingly cooperate.
Sanjay surprisingly found the CBI’s conduct to be fair in the case.
“We usually talk about judicial delays, but this sort of bucked the trend. We were able to get him relief and the CBI, which is often referred to as a caged parrot, was in this case a beautiful swan because they were very fair.”
“So any which ways, we are more than happy to cooperate. I must say although the CBI filed a 11 page counter, they did not question his bonafide. They were quite reasonable in their stand. I was surprised actually because CBI is known to fight tooth and nail. But they were very fair in this,” Sanjay conveyed.
Philip is grateful to "large-hearted” lawyers like the Pintos, who fought the case pro-bono, leaving no stone unturned in getting him his possessions back permanently. For Philip, it was not just an emotional outcome, but a defining moment of his life.
“He was very emotional when he got it. First thing he told was I will have to accept fees, I told him no and if at all you insist on it, I will pull a Harish Salve and raise invoice for ₹1,” jested Sanjay.
Sanjay knew that the cap and badge held a higher meaning for Philip and thus wanted him to have them permanently.
“At my mother's funeral, the person who said the final prayer before my mother’s coffin was taken out of the house was Philip. So there was a personal angle to it and this was something which he wanted very dearly and I was thinking what to give him as a farewell gift,” he said.
Though the pandemic made it challenging for Sanjay and his team to venture out on multiple occasions to attend hearings, he believed that the verdict will resonate for times to come.
Walking in the client's shoes
Sanjay explained that as per the traditional school of thought, a lawyer should not get passionately involved with a client or a case.
He believes in the opposite.
"I believe that unless I get into the client's shoes and know how it feels, only then I will be able to give my best."
Attachment gave Sanjay the benefit of feeling his client’s tribulations.
"When I am passionate about a cause that I'm fighting for, I tend to give it my all. Stepping into the shoes of my client often generates more empathy. This gives my legal battle impetus. It may be considered an unconventional approach, but I fight every case like it is my own,” he noted.
He stressed that representing someone whose suffering was known could help lend a voice to that person in court.
However, he clarified that he does not let it cloud his judgment. At the right time, he tells his clients that a case is not worth fighting for or advises them to settle or go for arbitration.
“For instance, if you look at Justice Anand Venkatesh, he clearly declared that he is not fully woke in that LGBTQI+ judgment. Suppose one is to take a line that look we cannot be passionately involved with this and it has to absolutely objective, he wouldn’t have gone for counselling,” Sanjay pointed out.
Sanjay, who has spent a decade in the legal profession, found that there is a common skillset for lawyers and journalists - effective communication.
His experience as a journalist, more specifically the requirement to keep up with breaking news pace, brought him an advantage as well as a disadvantage.
“It is a disadvantage because you are used to breaking news and the deadline is as fast as you can get your story up on air, especially for television news. You can come in for a lot of disenchantment when you face the legal system, as adjournments can make the case go on for a long time,” he mused.
During arguments in a public interest litigation, the respondent sought one month to file a counter, evoking an instantaneous reaction from a perplexed Sanjay, who exclaimed,
“The Court said that the government is not as fast as the media. That was an indication that you have to get used to the new pace of things,” he said.