Tracing Rajiv’s final steps: How PTI reported on the assassination that changed India

This was the era of landlines and telegrams, and to break news was a tough task.
Tracing Rajiv’s final steps: How PTI reported on the assassination that changed India
Tracing Rajiv’s final steps: How PTI reported on the assassination that changed India
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On May 21, 1991, I was asked to cover Rajiv Gandhi’s press conference at the old Meenambakkam airport in Chennai which was scheduled for the evening. I was to also attend his public meeting later at Sriperumbudur, around 40 kms away from Chennai.

Those were the days of telegrams and trunk calls – no cellphones or laptops. I had several challenges, from filing my report on the press conference to tagging along with Rajiv on his convoy to reach Sriperumbudur. To file a report from Sriperumbudur at the PTI office in Chennai, I had to make a call from any available line.

The press conference was important as the Congress was predicted to return to power. Rajiv was on the verge of delaying his visit to Chennai, thanks to a technical snag in his flight at Vizag. He prepared to stay back for the night.

But soon enough, the pilot had solved the snag and the aircraft was ready to leave. Rajiv was reportedly very happy that he would be able to attend the Chennai event.

Rajiv’s final press conference

The press corps too were relieved to hear his visit was on track, even if delayed. Couple of hours later Rajiv breezed into the Meenambakkam old airport and greeted us, “Hi folks, sorry I am late. Sorry, I kept you waiting.” He was quite relaxed, calm and confident.

He talked about all issues under the sun - non-aligned countries, third world, arms race, Indian political issues, reservations, Ayodhya, Tamil Nadu and so on. He sounded Prime Ministerial.

Rajiv at the press conference. Former PTI reporter R Rangaraj in blue shirt, on the right

At the end of the press meet, Rajiv hurriedly walked out of the building towards his vehicle to leave for Sriperumbudur. Almost the entire press corps left for the city to file their reports, but I couldn’t. I had to join the convoy heading for Sriperumbudur.

On the way, he stopped at Porur junction where a few Congressmen wanted to garland him. I grabbed the opportunity to rush to a shop and use their landline phone to give the desk four or five paras on his press meet. As Rajiv concluded his brief speech, I disconnected the call and rushed to the convoy van. I barely made it.

The next halt was at Poonamallee, where again he got off the vehicle to make a brief speech. Again, I used a phone at a medical shop to give my desk more information on the press meet.

A big story that did not make it

There were a couple of things which Rajiv mentioned to me over a quick cup of tea before he jumped into his vehicle.

At the press meet, Rajiv mentioned that the Ram Mandir would be built with the consensus of all concerned. This itself would have been banner news for every newspaper in the country. So I asked him during our short chat, “You said Ram Mandir would be built. But you didn’t specify where?” He replied quickly, “Why, in Ayodhya of course. Isn’t that obvious?” he asked and laughed.

The blast which changed India forever

As the convoy entered Sriperumbudur junction, Rajiv was asked to garland the Indira Gandhi statue. Crackers were burst then, and the round of crackers continued as the convoy reached the public meeting venue – a forlorn piece of temple land. As Rajiv got down from the vehicle, and 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 there was a burst of fireworks, there was a big noise (presumed to be fireworks then), and those walking in front of us fell to the ground. There was a big wall of smoke and smell of burning flesh. My dress too carried pieces of flesh. Every single person who was walking ahead of me, fell to the ground, hit by the blast. Police vehicles with flashing red lights (it was presumed Rajiv was moved to safety), were leaving the venue and policemen were asking people to run away as there could be more blasts.

Only a few persons ventured towards the bodies. My first instinct was to look for Rajiv. Was he among the bodies? If not, was he injured, rushed to the city in an ambulance?

No. I was shocked to find him lying on the ground. Getting past the wall of smoke, and finding my way among the bodies, I found Rajiv Gandhi there. Clothes disheveled, glimpses of white skin, the brand of shoes which I noticed at the press meet. Rajiv was dead.

Among the few who spotted him were AICC leader G K Moopanar, Jayanthi Natarajan and police officer R K Raghavan. They too realized Rajiv was dead. His body was lifted on to a makeshift stretcher, carried to an old, rickety police van and his final journey to GH in the city was made with two cops and G K Moopanar holding on to the long, torn stretcher as it threatened to slide out of the van every now and then.

Reporting on the blast

I desperately searched for the nearest telephone. Luckily, I found a petrol bunk with a phone. It was working. I called the office. The person who took the call for the first two reports – from Porur and Poonamallee, expected me to give the third part of the press conference report.

I had no time to waste, as I didn’t know how long I could use the phone. I told the desk hand, “Listen to me. I am dictating to you a sentence. Take it down immediately, rush to the editorial, transmit it as a flash (in those days the news agency had a system of Flash story, what we call Breaking News today), and the teleprinter in the office of a newspaper or AIR or Doordarshan Kendra would give out the sound of a bell. This was meant to alert the editorial in various newspaper offices that an important item was being put out.

I told him, “Issue my statement as a Flash, I will wait on the line, come back and take the rest of the story, issue it and then come and talk to me. Don’t say a word, all I want you to do is issue this one-line report, make sure it is gone on the teleprinter, and then come back to the phone.”

I knew 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.

Last picture of Rajiv Gandhi taken by LTTE's Haribabu (Image Courtesy: Kuppusamy Ragothaman Youtube) 

My first line was on the death of Rajiv Gandhi, the blast, on the number of people who could have died with him, and so on. The reporter on hearing of the assassination report, said, “What? Oh My God?”

I shot back to him in the tone of an army general speaking to a soldier, “What did I tell you? Just do what I say. Go to the editorial and transmit this Flash and come back to me, I will wait on the line.”

The reporter came back after a minute and I asked him if he had issued the news item. He said, yes, he had to do it himself as the sub-editor was too shocked at the news.

Then, I gave him another para, asked him to transmit the same and come back to the phone. Thus, in a couple of minutes, I had filed the story, and the agency’s report went all over the world.

Given the nature of the news, we were not worried about the traditional agency niceties of having to check with the News Editor first, or call Delhi and get the okay of the chief editor there. The reporter trusted me, and I backed myself as a reporter, having personally checked as to whether Rajiv was alive or dead, and having got the confirmation from the IG on the spot. 

Later, I was told the Delhi office of the agency was in a state of panic and shock, as calls came in from governmental agencies, international and national dailies and magazines about the veracity of the report. The agency’s top bosses right from the chief editor were extremely nervous and worried. The Government of India had not yet confirmed the death. What if the report was wrong?

Meanwhile, international television station and radio agencies were putting out the news reports quoting PTI from Chennai. In India, we had only Doordarshan on TV. Doordarshan and AIR, in any case, would not put out the report as the Union Government had not announced the death yet.

The disturbing aftermath

I rushed back to the city thanks to a lift offered by another reporter. All along the route, no vehicle was stopped. The city had gone to sleep, totally unaware of the blast. They came to know of the attack only from newspapers the next morning.

Later, we rushed to the Government General Hospital where the body was taken. G K Moopanar was there and he was aghast that doctors would not even receive the body. Calls were made to the Raj Bhavan, and Governor B N Singh arrived 20 minutes later. Only then did some police officers arrive at the GH, and doctors attended to the body, and did the post-mortem.

Two coffins were kept ready, one for Rajiv, and the other for Gupta, the personal security officer, who was also killed in the blast. But not all of us were sure it was for Gupta.

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.

Rajiv Gandhi seconds before he died  (Image Courtesy: Kuppusamy Ragothaman Youtube) 

A suspicious-looking vehicle kept following the vehicle all the way to the airport. Later, we were told that LTTE representatives were worried about the fate of Dhanu, the suicide bomber in the case, and were trying to find a way to retrieve her body. Their presumption was that the second coffin must have contained Dhanu’s body.

The General Manager and Delhi’s editorial bosses at the agency later told me that I should have been asked to provide a first-person story of that night’s developments, and that it would have been a worldwide hit. I am only doing it now, 27 years later for The News Minute. 

All Images: MAPS (MA  Parthasarathy)

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author. 

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