Newspaper ad. this morning reminded me of the night Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber at an election meeting in Sriperumbudur, Tamilnadu, in 1991. I was then The Times of India (TOI) correspondent in Chennai. My colleague Pushpa Iyengar who witnessed the scene sounded pretty shaken on phone as she phoned to alert me of the newsbreak. It was not an eventful day till then, for us at the Madras news bureau.
Pushpa’s phone call shattered the calm. All hell broke loose in Bombay, from where TOI news editor frantically called me to telex a news report in 30 minutes. This was a tall order, considering the constraints of newsgathering those days. It was around 10 p m, an hour or more after the blast, I believe. And no one was any wiser on what had happened . All that anyone in Chennai knew at that stage was that there had been a blast at the election campaign meeting at Sriperumbudur, an hour’s drive from Chennai. Those in media would tell you, when there is a major newsbreak facts are hard to come by. Even the state police intelligence chief in Chennai, normally the first source we tap in such circumstances, said he was awaiting details, and made himself unavailable to reporters for rest of the night.
Those were days before cell phone. Internet and the 24×7 news channels were unknown then. And reporters on the scene at Sriperumbudure had to scram in search of a public phone booth to get in touch with their newspapers. The venue of the election meeting was an open space by the highway that bypassed the town. First thing the police did after the blast was to cordon off the area around the venue, till ambulances came to take the victims to Chennai . Newspaper reporters were stuck within the cordoned area for quite a while after the event.Pushapa was lucky. She got a lift back to Chennai in the VIP car that had brought Rajiv Gandhi to Sriperumbudur. She was among the privileged few who managed to beat the police cordon. It was the vehicle that had carried Rajiv Gandhi from Chennai airport to the Sriperumbudur election meeting.
Though she sounded agitated, and somewhat shaken, Pushpa retained her perspective. She gave me a lowdown on the sequence of events that led to the deafening bang. Her description of the scene was surprisingly cohesive. I remember telling her it would make a good story, if she merely typed out whatever she blurted out on phone to me. Pushpa had to drive back to our Nungambakkam Rd. office to file her Rajiv assassination story. By the time Pushpa and I got down to typing the news report (I was helping her), it was past normal edition time. Bombay and Delhi (the only places where TOI was being printed ) were on phone every few minutes, breathing down our proverbial neck, and reminding us that we were holding up the edition. (Some months later, at an office party in Bombay a big guy in the circulation, blamed us for loss of thousands of copies that day because of delayed printing .) The Times of India boasted of the highest circulation in Bombay those days.
Circulation guys couldn’t be expected to know of , much less appreciate, the pressures under which we worked that night. As a developing story our report needed updating even while typing. Pushpa and I alternated to make calls for updates and attend incoming ones from other newspaper reporters who were in the same plight. Far from seeing them as rivals, reporters in various newspapers co-operated and shared details, at times of such major newsbreak. Camaraderie was the defining word in media beradhri.
It was this camaraderie that enabled Pushpa to make it back to Chennai from Sriperumbudur, while most others in the media were still caught up within the police cordon. As she put it, Pushpa, still in a daze after the blast, waded through the shattered remains at the spot, where a few minutes earlier she had seen Rajiv Gandhi walking towards the dais, accepting garlands from the local notables lined up to greet him. And then, Pushpa suddenly heard the blast, too loud for welcome firecrackers.
Amid the rush of those fleeing the scene in panic Pushpa staggered towards the spot where she found a small crater had formed under the impact of explosion. Cause of the blast was unclear at that time. It was much later that we learnt of the presence of a female suicide bomber, with RDX explosives strapped to her body, among those lined up to greet Rajiv Gandhi. How the suicide bomber, later identified as Dhanu from Sri Lanka, managed to get so fataly close to the VIP with Z category security cover is a question that still remains unanswered.
At the scene of the blast Pushpa met two other women journalists - Nina Gopal of The Gulf News and a woman representing The New York Times. They had accompanied Rajiv Gandhi in his car. Nina had interviewed him for her newspaper during the ride from Chennai airport to Sriperumpudur. Pushpa struck a conversation with them – “As I got talking to this girl from Gulf News a driver came up and asked us to leave the place quickly and get into his car,” . Pushpa heard the driver say, ” Rajiv sir had instructed me to make sure the madams reached their hotels safely after the meeting.” And the loyal driver was there to follow Rajiv’s directive. Pushpa joined the Gulf News girl and the other reporter on their trip back to Chennai. Irony was she got a lift in Rajiv’s car, to be able to file her report on his assassination. Pushpa Iyengar is now Chennai-based staff writer for The Outlook.