Rajiv Gandhi Assassination: ‘There was a loud noise and everyone in front of me fell to the ground’

Rajiv Gandhi Assassination: ‘There was a loud noise and everyone in front of me fell to the ground’

He was the first to break the news of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi to the world, an assignment that started out as a fairly routine one but turned out to be the assignment of his life. In a first-person account, senior journalist R Rangaraj, then with the Press Trust of India, India’s premier news agency, walks us through the events of that fateful day.

It was late in the evening on May 21, 1991, and we, the press corps, were eagerly waiting for Rajiv Gandhi to arrive at Chennai’s old Meenambakkam airport. Rajiv was to address the press in the airport’s VIP lounge and was running 2 hours late. My bosses at the Press Trust of India (PTI) had asked me to cover the press conference and then accompany the press convoy to Sriperumbudur, then a little-known town 40 km away, where Rajiv was to address a Congress election rally immediately thereafter.

When we were told that the press conference was to take place, after all, we were very relieved. For the media, the press conference was extremely important as the country was waiting to hear Rajiv’s views on various issues facing the country.

Opinion polls had indicated that Rajiv would form the next government and that he would be Prime Minister soon. So, every word he uttered at the press conference would be significant, and his views dissected and analysed by political observers and diplomats all over the world.

Rajiv breezed into the airport and greeted us with a “Hi folks, sorry I’m late. Sorry, I kept you waiting.” He was relaxed, he was calm and confident.

He talked about all sorts of issues under the sun – non-aligned countries, Third World, arms race, Pakistan, political issues in India, reservations, the Ayodhya issue, Tamil Nadu and so on. Clearly, he was prepping for the PM’s chair.

After the press conference, Rajiv was to drive straight to Sriperumbudur, to address the public meeting organised by the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC). It was one of the last rallies in Tamil Nadu during the 1991 general elections.

The old terminal at the Meenambakkam airport | Wikimedia Commons

As I waited at the Meenambakkam airport for Rajiv to arrive, a series of thoughts ran through my mind: How would I file my press conference report? What if Rajiv left for Sriperumbudur immediately after the press meet? I was to travel with his convoy to Sriperumbudur from the airport but what if I didn’t make it? Those were times when communication facilities were almost nonexistent – no cell phones, no laptops, no email. And in Sriperumbudur, where would I find a telephone? Would I have to make an STD call to Chennai?

My fears came true because immediately after the press conference, Rajiv said “bye” and rushed towards the convoy headed for Sriperumbudur. Most of the reporters from Chennai returned to the city to file their reports; only a few were to proceed to Sriperumbudur and I was one of them. I had no choice but to immediately get into the van that was taking the press.

In a news agency, every minute is crucial as deadlines are everything. I was expected to file my Rajiv Gandhi press conference report immediately. But I was part of a moving convoy, so how was I to do it?

On the way, the convoy stopped at Porur junction, where a few Congressmen wanted to garland Rajiv. I seized the opportunity and rushed to a shop and used their landline phone to give my news agency, PTI, four or five short paragraphs, with which they could lead their story on Rajiv’s Chennai press meet.

As Rajiv concluded his brief speech and stepped down from the dais to climb into his vehicle, I quickly disconnected the call and rushed to the convoy van. I barely made it. The next halt was at Poonamallee, where he once again alighted from his vehicle to make a brief speech at a roadside reception. Again, I used a telephone at a medical shop to give PTI another four or five paragraphs of the Chennai press meet. I barely managed to jump into the press van as the convoy resumed its journey!

That’s how it was done when you filed field reports back in the day.

Arriving at Sriperumbudur

As the convoy entered Sriperumbudur junction at the entrance to the town, Rajiv was asked to garland the Indira Gandhi statue there. Firecrackers exploded and the sound followed the convoy as it reached the venue of the public meeting, about 2 km away.

The meeting venue was a forlorn piece of temple land. Rajiv alighted from his vehicle and straightaway walked on the carpet towards the dais. I was barely 20 feet behind him, making my way towards the dais and the press enclosure.

Even as he was greeted with fireworks, there was a loud noise. I assumed it was another firecracker, a big one.

Suddenly, amid the din, I saw those walking ahead of me fall to the ground. There was a big wall of smoke and the terrible smell of burning flesh.

Looking down, I noticed that my clothes too had pieces of flesh on them. Every single person who had been walking in front of me was lying on the ground. No firecracker, no matter how intense, could have done this. That’s when I knew it was no ordinary explosion.

Police vehicles with flashing red lights were leaving the scene, and it seemed as though Rajiv had been moved to safety. There was chaos. People were rushing away from the venue and policemen were asking people to leave as there could be more blasts.

However, I instinctively rushed ahead, towards the scene of the blast, not away from it. I was a news reporter and I guess it was natural to be curious. I needed to know what had happened.

A few of us ventured towards the bodies. My first instinct was to look for Rajiv. Was he among those lying on the ground? Was he injured? Or had he been rushed to the city in an ambulance?

But he wasn’t.

Making my way among the bodies, I was amazed to find him lying there. His clothes were dishevelled, I could see glimpses of his skin, and his stark white shoes which I noticed at the press meet – he was dead.

Along with me, the first to spot Rajiv were All India Congress Committee (AICC) leader G K Moopanar, Congress leader Jayanthi Natarajan and Police Officer R K Raghavan. They too realized that Rajiv was dead.

Later, his body was lifted onto a makeshift stretcher and carried to an old, rickety police van, to be driven to the Government General Hospital (it was later renamed as Rajiv Gandhi General Hospital) in the city. Two policemen and Moopanar were holding on tight to the long, torn stretcher, which kept trying to slide out of the van.

Various newspapers reporting Rajiv Gandhi's assassination

Breaking News

I had to file my report and, given the gravity of the news, literally every second counted. I made my way from the blast site at Sriperumbudur towards the nearest telephone. I was lucky to get a lift from someone with a car, and even luckier to find a shop with a telephone. 

The person who gave me the lift was kind enough to wait while I called the PTI office. The landline was working. The person who took the call for the first two reports – from Porur and Poonamallee – expected me to give them the third part of the press conference report.

He couldn’t believe what came next. But there was no time for shock. I told him, “Just take down the sentence I am dictating, rush to the Editorial Desk, and ensure that it is transmitted as a Flash.”

This may seem unthinkable in today’s digital age but, back then, PTI teleprinters were installed in the editorial rooms of newspapers. Paper rolls carrying the news had to be cut from time to time by an attendant or an editorial staff member and handed over to the News Desk!

What we call ‘Breaking News’ today used to be transmitted to a newspaper office or All India Radio or a Doordarshan Kendra as a Flash with the sound of a bell.

The sound was meant to alert the editorial team in newspaper offices that an important item was being put out.

That night, the bells were ringing across newsrooms in India and the world.

I knew that the reporter or the sub-editor could be in a state of shock once I gave them the news and wanted to prepare them on how to handle the situation. I then dictated my first report – the first sentence on the death of Rajiv Gandhi, on the blast, on the number of people who could have died along with him, and so on. Just the bare, hard facts.

I asked the reporter to file the first para of information and then come back. When he came back, I gave him another para, asked him to transmit it, and return to the phone. Thus, in a couple of minutes, I had filed the bare essentials of the story – and the agency’s report went out simultaneously all over the world.

Later, I was told that several thousand radio and TV stations across the world broke the story of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination at around 10.30 pm, cutting into their regular programmes, quoting our PTI report from India.

In India, barring newspaper offices that had received the PTI report, all the others were blissfully unaware of the assassination. This was the era before the 24/7 news channels.

Meanwhile, that night, after reaching the Chennai office, I had to put out stories on Rajiv Gandhi, anything at all, for the worst thing the agency could have done then was to carry other news reports and not put out anything further on Rajiv Gandhi. I never completed the report on Rajiv’s press conference in Chennai. No one asked for it either.

So, I hammered out articles with other facts – Sonia and Rajiv’s children were safe. Fortunately, they were in Delhi and had not travelled with him. Next, a story on Rajiv Gandhi, the man who promised to take India into the 21st century but never saw it himself. After all, newspapers would have two or three pages dedicated to Rajiv, and they would need material. And so we, at the Chennai News Desk, kept putting out stories like this.

Also, as is customary while filing reports on an investigation like this, we were iterating that no one had claimed responsibility and it was too early to say who was behind the assassination, and so on.

Remains of clothing worn by Rajiv Gandhi during his assassination | Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum, New Delhi

Tailed by the LTTE?

Then we had to rush to the Government General Hospital where Rajiv’s body had been taken. Moopanar was there, aghast that doctors would not even officially receive the body or perform a post-mortem before certain formalities had been done. Calls were made to the Raj Bhavan and Governor B N Singh arrived 20 minutes later. It was only after this that some police officers arrived at the hospital, and doctors performed a post-mortem.

Two coffins were kept ready. One for Rajiv. But the second one? We knew it was for Pradeep Gupta, his Personal Security Officer, who too had been killed in the blast.

We travelled along with the convoy carrying the two coffins to the airport. Sonia and other members of her family, including Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, were scheduled to reach Chennai in the wee hours and take the bodies with them to Delhi.

Interestingly, I noticed a black car following our convoy all the way to the airport. The car was definitely not part of the convoy. It drove erratically, sometimes coming close to the convoy, sometimes hanging back. 

Later, we found out that the LTTE had been worried about the fate of Dhanu, the suicide bomber, and was trying to retrieve her body. It was possible that the LTTE had assumed that the second coffin was carrying Dhanu’s remains and wanted to see where the coffins were being taken. Later, we also learnt that the LTTE had made several unsuccessful attempts to retrieve Hari Babu’s camera from the police via operatives who had posed as the deceased photographer’s friends and associates.

Hari Babu was a local photographer who had been engaged by the Sri Lanka-based separatist organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to take pictures of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit. (Apparently, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran would get photos clicked and videos recorded of its operations to show LTTE cadres at training or brainwashing sessions.)

Moopanar and TNCC President, Vazhapadi K Ramamurthy, were at the airport, trying to console the Gandhi family. After the plane left for Delhi, Ramamurthy made a statement accusing the DMK of being responsible for the death of Rajiv Gandhi.

How the Story Unravelled

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over the case and set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by D R Karthikeyan, a senior officer familiar with the terrain and logistics of Tamil Nadu. K Ragothaman was the Chief Investigating Officer.

The first breakthrough came from the photos of Hari Babu.

Given his brief, he had clicked pictures of key suspects at the site – including one of the suicide bomber Dhanu bowing in front of Rajiv as she detonated the explosive device.

Hari Babu had perished in the blast but his images blew the case wide open. His camera was retrieved from the site, and as soon as his pictures were published in a Chennai daily, the SIT began receiving calls from Sri Lanka and LTTE watchers, including some journalists, about the identity of one of the suspects in the pictures. He was identified as Sivarasan (also called ‘One-Eyed Jack’), who led the terrorist squad that executed the assassination.

The SIT then uncovered propaganda material including videos circulated by the LTTE. These showed Sivarasan and a group of women Tigers undergoing training. Then, from the clothes worn by a woman whose body had been extensively damaged in the blast, and the recovery of pieces of explosive with fragments of cloth stuck to them, forensic experts figured that the suicide bomber had worn a belt-bomb, which she had detonated to carry out the blast.

Videos and pictures of LTTE camps in Sri Lanka helped identify her as ‘Dhanu’ (her real name was Thenmozhi Rajaratnam), believed to belong to the Black Tigers group of the LTTE. Having identified Sivarasan, Dhanu and Subha (seen in a group photo of other accused in the case), the SIT had clinching evidence of LTTE involvement.

Dhanu (left) next to Latha Kannan who also died in the blast, Rajiv Gandhi rally, Sriperumbudur, 1991 | Wikimedia Commons

The Accused: The SIT went flat-out to ferret out the accused and eventually filed charges against 41 individuals. While LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and chief of the LTTE’s intelligence wing Pottu Amman were considered absconding, 39 others were accused in the assassination.

Of these, 13 died – two of them perished at the assassination site (Dhanu and Hari Babu) and four others under various circumstances. In a dramatic twist, seven others committed suicide in their Bengaluru hideout, to avoid capture when on 19th August 1991 the SIT was about to storm the premises. Among them was Sivarasan, leader of the assassination squad. He left behind a handwritten poem in Tamil wishing that the “flag of Tamil Eelam fly again in Sri Lanka”. It was an indirect admission of the LTTE’s role in the assassination.

The SIT chargesheet also mentioned 26 other accused. All of them were found guilty by a TADA court. The Supreme Court later confirmed the conviction of only seven of these accused, and the charges against the remaining 19 had to be dropped.

All these seven are currently serving life sentences in the Vellore prison in Tamil Nadu, after their death sentences were commuted to life. Among them are Nalini and Murugan, who were arrested on a tip-off at a bus stop in Chennai after being on the run for several months.

During the course of the investigation, several interesting bits of information filtered in. Two of the main accused – Murugan and Nalini – had fallen in love with each other and got married, even though marriage was a violation of the LTTE’s creed. Not only that, after the assassination, the couple visited the famous temple at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, on a “thanksgiving mission” for the ‘success’ of the assassination.

Murugan also tonsured his head (an offering of hair to Lord Balaji is considered the most sacred act by a devotee) at Tirumala. In Chennai, Sivarasan and other members of the terror squad ‘celebrated’ the assassination by distributing sweets.

Even while the SIT hunted down the accused, Sivarasan and Subha undertook a risky adventure and left Chennai for a hideout in Bengaluru by hitching a ride in an oil tanker in true filmi style!

SIT sources had said that Sivarasan had told some of his contacts in Tamil Nadu that he had never expected the CBI to cast such a wide net, solve the case and nab the accused. He was confident of outwitting the Tamil Nadu police but had not accounted for the CBI officers’ prowess. High praise for the CBI from unusual quarters!

It also emerged that Prabhakaran had planned to assassinate Rajiv in Delhi if the mission in Sriperumbudur had failed. As part of this plan, a young, female, suicide LTTE operative and an elderly gentleman, posing as her grandfather, had been dispatched to Delhi, where they lived in a rented house in Moti Bagh, waiting for instructions. They were arrested while trying to flee the country via Nepal.

The SIT made another disturbing discovery. The LTTE had got two emissaries to meet Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi, on two separate occasions, to ascertain his views on the LTTE and the Indo-Sri Lanka accord. One of them was Kasi Anandan, who had met Rajiv on 5th March 1991. The other emissary was Arjun Sitrambalam, a Sri Lankan Tamil and a banker based in London.

Rajiv is believed to have told Sitrambalam that it would be best if the LTTE laid down their arms and came to the negotiating table. Prabhakaran reasoned that If Rajiv Gandhi came to power, a government headed by him would push for implementation of the accord, which would mean calling a halt to the LTTE’s struggle for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. According to the SIT, this is why Rajiv had been assassinated.

Seven pillars, each featuring a human value surrounds the site of the blast at the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial in Sriperumbudur | PlaneMad via Wikimedia

A Government Falls: The Jain Commission, set up by the Government of India to explore the conspiracy angle of the case, made an error in its interim report by listing the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by M Karunanidhi as an accused, in the Annexure of its report. This, even though the SIT had never named a DMK member as an accused in the case.

Nevertheless, the error caused the fall of a government at the Centre, as the Congress withdrew support to the United Front government led by I K Gujral in 1998. The Congress had demanded that the government drop the DMK ministers in the Cabinet till they were cleared by the Commission in its final report but the government refused.

The LTTE has never claimed responsibility for the assassination. Instead, its leaders made a statement at the time that the killing of Rajiv Gandhi was “regrettable”. 

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi can be seen as a near-sighted victory for the LTTE as it seriously harmed the militant organisation’s cause, which was the establishment of a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. Many countries refused to recognise its cause while the Indian government altogether banned the organization, a ban that continues to this day.

LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran himself was killed by Sri Lankan defence forces in Northern Sri Lanka in 2009, and he seemed to have taken the dream of Tamil Eelam to his grave.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

R Rangaraj is a senior journalist with 35 years’ experience and is President of the Madras Reporters’ Guild. He pursues his passion for news and for writing by contributing to print and television journalism, and the new media. He writes on current affairs, history, music, culture and archaeology.

This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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