Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent remarks on the misuse of an Indian Navy warship by late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has divided retired naval officers on their accounts of a 30 year old event.
During a speech at the Ramlila grounds in New Delhi on May 8, 2019, Modi stated that Rajiv Gandhi and his family had used Indian Navy's former flagship, INS Viraat, for personal use to go on a holiday.
Modi's official Twitter handle also tweeted that the Gandhi family had used the vessel as a 'taxi for personal holidays' and attached a thirty year old article by India Today that provided a detailed account of events from 1987-1988, which included the use of INS Viraat for personal use by former prime minister.
A tale of an idyllic vacation
When journalist Anita Pratap wrote the article back in 1988, it made very little noise.
Little did she know that it would take thirty years for a future prime minister to notice it in the midst of a general election, which would then throw her right into the limelight.
The article details an exotic and luxurious holiday at Bangaram, an atoll in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep islands, hosted by the Gandhi family in January 1988.
According to the story, the island saw high profile celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and his family, to guests from Italy representing Sonia Gandhi's family, arriving at the island to join the Gandhis for a 'idyllic' week of fun and frolic at the secluded archipelago.
However, the story took a serious turn when it mentioned that India's former aircraft-carrier INS Viraat "was used to transport the Gandhis and moved in the Arabian Sea for 10 days".
The article went on to suggest that an entire retinue of escort ships along with a submarine were deployed, which "deprived the navy of its most effective fighting component merely to suit Rajiv's holiday plans."
True Story or Exaggeration?
As the current prime minister revived the 30 year old article, the details provided by the author and its veracity have come under question.
BOOM reached out to the spokesperson of the Indian Navy for a comment, but was declined on grounds of confidentiality.
Meanwhile, retired naval officers stationed on INS Viraat during the period in question have provided conflicting accounts of the events from 1987 around the use of the aircraft-career by the Gandhi family.
Retired Admiral L Ramdas has issued a statement, drawing on responses from retired Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha, the then commanding officer of INS Viraat and others who were involved in the event under question, that refuted the claims around the use of the warship by the India Today article.
The statement claims that INS Viraat was used by the former prime minister for an official purpose en route to Lakshadweep islands to attend a meeting held by the Islands Development Authority (IDA) in December 1987.
It also stated that the western fleet of the Indian Navy had planned a yearly naval exercise in the Arabian Sea in advance, to provide an opportunity for the naval officers to interact with the former prime minister.
Meanwhile, retired Commander VK Jaitly, who was also on board INS Viraat during this time, supported the details provided in the India Today article in a tweet, where he stated that the vessel was used by the Gandhi family "to celebrate their holidays at Bangaram island".
BOOM reached out to Commander Jaitly who stuck by his statement on Twitter. However, when asked about whether the trip was official or unofficial, he declined to comment, stating, "I am no one to confirm whether it was official or not, it is not my job. But they did go on holidays."
To get further clarification on the conflicting statements given by the naval officers on board INS Viraat during the 'idyllic' trip, BOOM reached out to retired Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha, who was the Commanding Officer of the warship at that time.
According to Pasricha, the only members of the Gandhi family to be present on board were Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi along with their 16-year old son Rahul, and the vessel was used to escort the family from Trivandrum to Lakshadweep for the IDA meeting.
"It was an official visit and there was nothing unusual about it. After visiting a few islands for official meetings, we dropped them off at Trivandrum," said Pasricha.
During the conversation with Pasricha, BOOM brought up the topic of a conflicting statement by Commander Jaitly, which the retired Vice Admiral dismissed as factually incorrect
"I do remember him (Commander Jaitly), he was a young officer at that time. The statement he has provided is factually incorrect in my opinion," he said.r
So what does the author have to say about it?
Anita Pratap, the author of the story, may have settled in Norway, but her work from three decades ago have now followed her all the way from India.
Following the row over the intricacies of the Gandhi family holidays and official trips, Pratap was brought back to the limelight by her former employers India Today, to answer a few questions regarding the authenticity of the story.
She stuck by her story and claimed that when she wrote it back in the late 80's there was no denial from the government, nor from the Navy, thus rousing suspicions as to why it was being denied now.
"Both affirmation and denial (of such an event) can be seen as more political now," Pratap told India Today.
She also stated that her story was overshadowed by the Bofors scandal, which was a much bigger story for the Indian media.
BOOM reached out to Pratap for a comment, and the article will be published if and when she responds.
Whose truth is it anyway?
Going by the different accounts, one can be sure that an IDA meeting was in fact held in Lakshadweep islands in December 1987, which was attended by Rajiv Gandhi.
However, the question around the utilisation of INS Viraat for personal use still remains under doubt, as there is a lack of consensus around the events that transpired around 30 years ago by those who were present
This is not the first time Prime Minister Modi had stirred up controversy with remarks about the former prime minister during the ongoing general elections.
Earlier this month, during a speech at a rally in Pratapgarh he stated that Rajiv Gandhi died as Bhrastachar (Corrupt) No. 1, a statement that has drawn sharp criticism from the opposition and has polarised the public in their opinions on the matter.