Twenty one years ago today, Rajiv Gandhi was blown up. Iconic Photos looks back on how the night’s events unfolded.
He was a prince of Machiavellian proportions. There was no doubt about that. First scion and then head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that ruled India for 32 of previous 37 years, Rajiv Gandhi became India’s prime minister in 1984, following the assassination of his mother, Indira. A younger brother and Indira’s preferred heir, Sanjay, had met a tragic death earlier too, in a plane crash.
Rajiv Gandhi tried to modernize and deregulate the Nehruvian state, intervened in Maldives and Sri Lanka, and placed Punjab under martial law for “terrorism”. He was a skillful orator, a masterful charmer, and after his fall from grace in 1989 in the aftermath of a corruption scandal, a political spoiler and kingmaker.
In 1991, he was back on the campaign trail, after fracturing the coalition government — his second such attempt in as many years. On the night of May 21st in the southern town of Sriperumbudur, this dynamism was suddenly stopped by a woman who bent down to touch his feet (an expression of respect among Indians) and detonated herself. Rajiv Gandhi and at least 14 other people were killed.
The assassination was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed insurgency fighting for a separate state in Sri Lanka against whom Mr. Gandhi had previously intervened.
The above photos were taken by Haribabu, a 21-year-old local freelance photographer who died in the blast, but whose Chinese-made 35-mm camera was recovered. The last photo showed a harrowing red explosion. The photos were developed and sent to India’s most advanced military lab to be thoroughly examined. Haribabu was thought to have been paid $5 by the Tamil conspirators to document the assassination, and hence his first photo showed the bomber and her co-conspirator; the assassin was second from left, dressed in orange, and disguised behind glasses. The mastermind behind the attack, Sivarasan, posed as journalist on rightmost.
Subsequent three-month manhunt ended with a cornered Sivarsan and six others killing themselves on would have been Mr. Gandhi’s 47th birthday. As for the late lamented Rajiv, he would continue to haunt the Indian politics for many more years: in 1997, after the investigation on the assassination revealed that an Indian political party secretly supported LTTE, another coalition government fell.