Remembering Rajiv Gandhi

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.

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10 Responses

  1. I have always cherished Rajiv’s memory in my heart. I had occasion to serve him during Second SAARC Summit at Bangalore during 1982 in the documentation division in Windsor Manor Hotel for about 1 week. He was such a suave and polished gentle giant who commanded instant respect from all great and small people alike during the entire summit.. On the last day of the Summit I had designed certain cards containing minute to minute Airport departure details of the seven heads of nations which he kept in his breast packet and meticulously followed the protocol and bid them warm farewell. He did not want to rest in between and was on the tarmac of the Airport all the time.

    Rajiv was a darling of the masses and a chocolate boy. Nobody expected him to be blown into pieces in such a cruel manner. Rajiv and Sonia were like love birds. Hope their kids Priyanka and Rahul will fulfill the dreams of their loving Dad Rajiv.

    Vasanthkumar Mysoremath
    heritage city of Mysore

  2. Absorbing. It was a very tragic event. perhaps Your write up reminds us of the days of controls and monopolies thrust upon us not with any bad intentions but with the belief that it encourages self rellaince
    Best wishes

  3. Dear GVK,
    Your recollections are poignant. Even now revisiting the night when Rajiv Gandhi was killed by an LTTE woman suicide bomber on May 21, 1991- as though they shot down a sparrow- is too real to be believed. Working for the Press Trust of India then, I had just returned after covering an election meeting at Mangolai in Mylapore in South Chennai addressed by then West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyothi Basu, along with another colleague. I must have typed about three or four paragraphs of Jyothi babu’s meeting report when a call came terrifically screaming as it were, in our Reporters room. Senior R. Rangaraj who had gone to cover the Sriperumbudur meeting was on the phone from the Poonamalle Police station blaring the incredible: ‘Rajiv Gandhi Killed’. I remember it must have been around 10-40 pm, when I took the message over the phone and gave the flash. My colleage and I alternated to take down Ranga’s words and send out the flashes. After a few takes I literally broke down. Started crying ! Then recouped my self and wrote a short piece on how Rajiv had been killed in the birth place of one of our holiest saint-philosophers Sri Ramanuja- Sri Perumbudur! By then our then Chief Reporter K S Venkatesan and our then Regional Manager, Bhaskar Menon had come rushing to office and were already in their chairs taking full command of the situation. Ranga himself managed to reach Chennai by midnight that night. This is just another remembarance.

  4. of great interest, particulalry to journalists.Hope my esteemd colleague will come out with more such stories on newsgathering then.I as a professional journalist feel i have been living in two worlds, the world, when in 1950 i donned the mantle of a journlist when i was in teens, was a stone age , in the jusxta position of the world i am living, still at the crease as a journlist.this world is a blog age.Those who started their career as journalist in 1950,60s or 70, could have hardly visualised that they would be witnesses to the totally transformed media world.I am grateful to the Almighty I have been witness to these two worlds and a partner in the process.

  5. Sir
    It is a very interesting story about a tragedy which we all thought would never occur with all the stepped up security measures that our government adopted immediately after the assasination of Indira Gandhi at the hand of her own body guards another event that seemed so unlikely.

  6. No doubt Rajiv’s assassination was most tragic but the point of the article is how the journalists at that time struggled to keep to the dead line unlike now when technology has helped them to report up the events as it unfolds.The example that comes to the mind is 26/11 when the enthusiasm of the journalists overcame their sense of judgment that in fact aided the terrorists in planning their move. Of course sometime fortunate circumstances aid as it happened this time

  7. ‘”a woman representing The New York Times. ”

    That would be Barbara Crossette, whose account we in the USA read at that time.

    – Porcupyn

  8. Dear GVK — I would like to get in touch with Pushpa Iyengar. Could you provide me her email id?

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