The shockwaves of the explosion that killed Rajiv Gandhi twenty five years ago this day still reverberate today. Now film-maker AMR Ramesh, who is set to launch his movie on the assassination, brings back memories of that tragic day as he tells Bellie Thomas how he has himself been surrounded ever since by the events and people involved in the dastardly act and the investigations that followed.
On March 19, 2008, Priyanka Gandhi made an unusual trip down south. It was to the Vellore prison, to meet Nalini Sriharan, who by then had been lodged there for nearly 17 years for her role in the assassination of Priyanka’s father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Priyanka told the world that she had visited Nalini on a purely personal whim and asked that it be respected as her way "of coming to peace with the violence and loss I have experienced." Publicly, Priyanka even supported clemency for Nalini. In turn, Nalini, whose death sentence was commuted, said Priyanka's visit had "washed away my sins".
One man, however, finds it incredible that Priyanka acted on a personal whim. He did not believe it then, he does not believe it now. Film-maker AMR Ramesh points out that it was in the wake of that meeting that the Congress-led UPA government quietly stepped up its assistance to the Sri Lankan military in its offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), notably with the Indian Navy blowing up its supply ships. Within 14 months, the LTTE had been decimated, and its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead. Rajiv Gandhi -- assassinated on May 21, 1991. Prabhakaran, brutally killed on May 19, 2009. Priyanka, Ramesh says, had gone to Nalini because she, and perhaps the Nehru-Gandhi family, wanted one final confirmation that it was indeed Prabhakaran who had ordered the assassination of her father. And only Nalini could provide that confirmation -- she had been in on the plot for at least 20 days; Sivarasan, Subha and Dhanu, the human bomb that blew up Rajiv, had stayed at her house for over two weeks as they prepared for that dastardly act, and she had come to know, as she travelled with them on the bus to the election rally at Sriperumbdur, that it was indeed Rajiv Gandhi who was the target. Ramesh's new movie on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, Aaspota, due in cinemas next year, begins at that Vellore prison meeting.
A film-maker’s destiny
On the night of May 21, 1991, Ramesh, then a 20-year-old Diploma in Film Technology student at the Adyar Film Institute, was on a bike roaming the streets of Chennai with a friend when he heard rumours, at a little past 10.30 pm, that Rajiv Gandhi had been killed in a bomb blast at Sriperumbdur, 35 kilometres away.
"I and my friend Kamalnath were in the Nandanam area in Chennai when around 10.30 pm, rumours started that Rajiv Gandhi had been killed in a bomb blast. As the news spread, we could see the tension and panic among the locals, who were murmuring to each other," Ramesh recalls.
"Soon, crowds of other people began to pour into the streets and violence broke out in a few places. Vehicles were stopped, cars smashed, miscreants threw stones at buildings and windows. Somehow, we managed to escape unhurt, telling whoever stopped us that we were local Tamils, even though my Kawasaki bike bore a Karnataka registration plate."
But Ramesh did not go home to safety. Instead, "We went round the city, we wanted to understand the pulse of the city, how people would react. Doordarshan started to broadcast the news around 10.45-11 pm. We rode through Nandanam, K.K. Nagar, Vadapalani, Mandavelli, Poonamallee and so on. People poured into the streets throughout the night. Everyone was shocked, everyone was scared."
The two couldn't sleep that night. Ramesh wanted to see Rajiv's body. "We reached Government Hospital around 5 am. There were policemen all around. We had to show some kind of identity that would get us past the security. Luckily, just that year, Karnataka had introduced smart card driving licence and I had one. I flashed it saying I was from the press!"
They were waved through into the sterile zone and headed for the mortuary. "We were whispering about the security lapse when we came by a room where several bodies lay on the ground. And there were the remains of Rajiv Gandhi, too. In fact, a few days later, we learned that Sivarasan, the mastermind, too, had gained entry into the same place using the same trick!"
It was an unimaginable scene -- there were 10-12 bodies, and severed parts of bodies strewn around, there were shocked relatives and friends, wailing loudly. And there were the unclaimed bodies of the ‘human bomb’, Dhanu, and of Haribabu, the photographer who was also part of the plot but whose pictures came to form the primary evidence in the assassination case.
The CBI constituted a Special Investigation Team under D.R. Karthikeyan to investigate the assassination plot. Using pictures from Haribabu's camera, the SIT tracked, identified and nabbed several involved, but Sivarasan and Subha had escaped.
Three months later, yet another shocking development brought Ramesh right back into the thick of the assassination saga. Police and commandos surrounded a house in Konankunte in Bengaluru where Sivarasan, Subha and five other LTTE cadre had holed up since August 6, 1991. Seeing that they had no chance of escape, on August 20 – on the birth anniversary of the man they had assassinated weeks earlier! – Subha and the five others bit on cyanide capsules and died, Sivarasan, the ‘one-eyed Jack’, shot himself dead. Ramesh realized that the house they had taken shelter in belonged to Jayaram Ranganath and his wife Mridula, a couple he had known for years and whom he knew to be LTTE sympathisers.
“I feel this is my destiny – that I am the one destined to make the movie on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination”, Ramesh says, “I have been surrounded by events and people involved in the whole saga ever since May 21, 1991. That I was destined to be in Chennai that night, that the assassins took shelter with a couple that I knew…”
In 1999, soon after Ranganath was released from jail, Ramesh made ‘Cyanide’, a movie about the last 20 days of Sivarasan. It took many more years of research before he was ready for Aaspota.
Dhanu was the suicide bomber who wore the belt bomb, an LTTE ‘speciality’. “For several hours, nobody knew that it was a suicide bomber that had blown up Rajiv. Investigators were looking all over the blast site to see where the bomb had been planted,” Ramesh recalls
Haribabu, a freelance photographer in Tamil Nadu, was also a part of the assassins’ group at the Sriperumbdur election rally. He had taken pictures of Rajiv Gandhi as he was talking to a young girl and her mother. “His tenth picture of the night was clicked with his hands raised above the crowd. Just then Dhanu bent down and pressed the button. The explosion shred Haribabu’s body, too, to pieces. His camera and the film roll inside survived, later found lying several yards away”.
The assassination plot
One day, Sivarasan told Chinna Santhan, an LTTE activist who had helped him carry out the massacre of 13 leaders of a rival Sri Lankan Tamil group, EPRLF, in June 1990, “Oru surave addikanum (a shark has to be killed”. “Ippo thane oru surave adichom (We’ve just killed a shark – a reference to K. Padmanabha of the EPRLF)” Chinna Santhan replied. “Idhu periya sura (this is a bigger shark)”, Sivarasan replied, without saying who he wanted to kill. Chinna Santhan assumed it was Varadharaja Perumal, chief minister of a Sri Lankan province who Prabhakaran suspected was colluding with the Lankan government against the LTTE.
Up till almost the last few days to May 21, 1991, “only three assassins knew who the target was – Sivarasan, Dhanu, and Subha, who was the back-up suicide bomber for Dhanu”, Ramesh says.
May 21, 1991
Sivarasan, Dhanu and Subha stayed at Nalini’s house for over two weeks as they plotted and prepared for their dastardly act. As D-Day approached, Dhanu fell ill. Subha offered to wear the belt bomb, but Dhanu insisted that she would finish the task assigned to her.
Like most Tigers that had heard that an assassination was being planned, Nalini, too, had assumed that the target was Varadaraja Perumal. It was only when they had boarded a government bus at Parry’s Corner to Sriperumbdur that she would begin suspecting otherwise. When she heard Subha telling Dhanu that the latter was about to make history, she knew – it was to be Rajiv Gandhi.
They reached Sriperumbdur at around 8 pm. They had dinner there, and immediately decided to go as close to the election rally stage as they could. Rajiv Gandhi’s arrival was already delayed, and they were not sure how much time they would have. Sivarasan instructed Nalini to go and sit with Dhanu and Subha in the gallery. He and Haribabu would enter the sterile zone, posing as a press team of reporter and photographer. A little past 10.20 pm, Dhanu bends down as if to touch Rajiv Gandhi’s feet and seek his blessings, simultaneously pressing a button on the belt she’s wearing under her dress. Boom!
Aaspota (The Blast)
“I have researched, interviewed, collected documentary evidences, etc., from every police and CBI officer involved in the investigations. I travelled to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago to research the story from the early stages of the assassination plot”, Ramesh says. Twenty-five years after the assassination, the movie will go on the floors on August 20, Rajiv’s birth anniversary, and Ramesh plans to release it in the cinemas on May 21, 2017, Rajiv’s death anniversary.
To be shot in three languages -- Aaspota (The Blast) in Kannada; Manidha Vedigundu in Tamil; and, Human Bomb in Hindi – the 150-minute movie tells the story of a 110-day drama that unfolds on May 1, 1991 – when a nine-member LTTE team from Sri Lanka lands on Indian soil at Kodiakarai in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam district -- and ends on August 20, 1991. It has 67 characters and will be shot in 87 locations.