Sri Lanka only got its first photograph in 1982 of the man who would go on to terrorise the island-nation for nearly three decades. LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran had made sure there were no photographs left behind at his home in Valvettithurai in Northern Sri Lanka when the police came calling. The lone picture the police were left with was a photograph taken for a school examination when Prabhakaran was 15.
It was May 19, 1982. Madras was then the hub of Tamil militant groups. â€śThe city was divided into four geographical areas for the four leading Tamil groups,â€ť says Rangaraj R, a veteran journalist. LTTE, PLOTE, EPRLF and TELO operated out of Madras, getting funds, training and even meeting the press occasionally for Eelam propaganda. Despite their common goal of forging a separate Tamil Eelam, Rangaraj notes, there was an unwritten code of not â€śtrespassing into the otherâ€™s territory in Madras.â€ť
When Prabhakaran, whose territory had been Adyar, came face-to-face with his rival Uma Maheswaran at Pondy Bazaar that Wednesday afternoon, their past was bound to catch up with them. Uma Maheswaran alias Mukundan had founded the militant outfit PLOTE in 1980 after a bitter fallout with Prabhakaran.
Uma Maheswaran, Founder, PLOTE (Image Courtesy: YouTube/ Kovilkulam Vavuniya)
Journalist MR Narayan Swamy details what happened that fateful day in May at Pondy Bazaar in Madras in his book, â€śInside an Elusive Mind: Prabhakaranâ€ť:
â€śOn May 19, Uma and Kannan were about to board a motorcycle outside a restaurant at Pondy Bazar in Madras when the latter saw Pirabaharan (Prabhakaran) and one of his old hands, Raghavan.
Both Uma and Pirabaharan whipped out their revolvers almost at the same time, but it was the more agile Tiger chief who fired first. Pirabaharan let go at least six rounds. Uma, however, managed to get away. Kannan was not as lucky; he suffered five wounds and was bleeding when he was arrested.
Pirabaharan and Raghavan also tried to flee, but ran into a crowd and were caught by policemen who had rushed to the scene. Uma was tracked down near a railway station six days later and overpowered, but not before he had fired at the policemen who pinned him down.â€ť
At the time, neither Prabhakaran nor Uma Maheswaran had become key figures in the separatist movement but were, nonetheless, wanted criminals in Sri Lanka. While Sri Lanka wanted the two men extradited to Colombo, leaders in LTTE and PLOTE lobbied hard with politicians in Tamil Nadu including Chief Minister MGR to release Prabhakaran and Uma Maheswaran on bail. LTTE leaders Kittu and Pulendran even threatened to jump from Madrasâ€™ LIC building if their supremo was not released.
They were granted conditional bail on August 6, 1982. The court also packed the two militants off to different parts of Tamil Nadu. While Prabhakaran was sent to Madurai, Uma Maheswaran was asked to stay on in Madras, reports Asian Tribune.
Rangaraj says that in Tamil Nadu, the daylight shootout at Pondy Bazaar was seen as nothing more than â€śa stray incidentâ€ť between rival groups. But for Sri Lanka, Prabhakaranâ€™s photograph, taken in custody, provided its armed forces with the first visual representation of its soon-to-be most dreaded terrorist.
Fourteen months after the shootout in Madras, the LTTE and its chief catapulted into public attention following its ambush, in Jaffna, of a 15-man patrol of the Sri Lankan Army, killing 13.