Rajiv Memorial @ Sriperumbudur

S Balakrishnan
A mother witnessing the assassination of her son would be an agonising experience. But it was just the statue of Indira Gandhi that was a mute witness to the happenings of the dark night of May 21, 1991 when a human bomb assassinated her son, Rajiv Gandhi, in Sriperumbudur. It might sound a bit spooky but Rajiv himself had unveiled his mother’s statue (while holding office as Prime Minister) on Nov. 12, 1988, a week before her 71 st birth anniversary, with his ‘kamal haath’ (lotus hands); he even garlanded Indira’s statue on the night of 21st May, as if paying his last tributes, before proceeding for the election meeting venue, a little distance away.
But before we visit the memorial, I am curious to know if Rajiv Gandhi was, by any chance, related to Mahatma Gandhi. But NO! His full name is actually Rajiv Ratna Ghandy; GHANDY, not Gandhi ! Rajiv’s father, a Parsi (Zoroastrian), was named Feroze Jehangir Ghandy; Feroze’s father was called Faredoon Jehangir Ghandy.
How and when this family adopted the surname ‘Gandhi’, and knowingly or unknowingly, are mysteries. Despite this it is famously but erroneously called the ‘Nehru-Gandhi’ family ! Well, you can’t just brush aside by quoting the famous saying ‘What is in a name?’ We must be grateful to Priyanka Gandhi for not having suffixed ‘Gandhi’ to her kids’ name. It is said that Feroze Ghandy, out of respect for Mahatma Gandhi, altered his surname to Gandhi, and it conveniently stuck!
Sriperumbudur is not far from Chennai where I have been living even earlier from 1991 when the incident happened. It is the typical case of ‘so near (just 40 kms), yet so far’. I was curious to visit Rajiv’s Memorial in Sriperumbudur but it was evading. Not that I am an ardent fan of Congress or of the so-called Nehru-Gandhi family. Though Sriperum-budur gained world-wide attention overnight on 21st May 1991, it is, since ages, a very sacred Vaishnavaite pilgrimage centre with the ‘Aadhi Kesava Perumal’ Vishnu temple gracing it. The town is situated on Chennai-Bengaluru NH 48. I was disappointed not to find any Bofors gun flanking the entrance of the Rajiv Ninaivakam (Memorial). Maybe I could get a Bofors keychain at the souvenir shop, I thought, but no such shop. Sigh! There is high security at the memorial by Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). Only if it had been ensured back then ! I could not help thinking. But Rajiv himself was to be blamed; on that fateful night, he left Vizag for Chennai without his personal security chief, it is said.
The CISF thoroughly frisked me and my bag (as if I were to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi) and forbade me from carrying grapes; peanut candies (you see, it was a hot afternoon and I am a senior citizen also). But no eatables inside, please, it is a memorial, a sacred place. Mercy, they allowed the water bottle and the mobile phone. On my return, when I collected back the forbidden items, I offered the grapes to the CISF men but they were too cautious to accept it. It only showed the lurking fear for LTTE – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam–who caused Rajiv’s death. Added to this is the fact I resembled Sivarasan, the master- mind of executing the assassination plot. Of course, he is dead long back. When about to be caught, he consumed the cyanide capsule that the Tigers usually have around their neck as a pendant. I remember people whispering behind my back in our office ‘Shastri Bhavan’ canteen that I looked like Sivarasan. I secretly enjoyed this; I would never become famous in life, let me at least enjoy this notoriousness, I chuckled.
The path that Rajiv Ghandy, sorry, Gandhi, walked on (towards the stage) for the last time is paved with granite stones. It ends at the spot where he was assassinated which is marked with his portrait sketched in stone, surrounded by seven high-rise granite columns standing as sentinels, each adorned with a brass/gold-plated symbol. They are said to be symbols of vital code of ethics (Do politicians have ethics?) – Dharma Chakra (indicating Religion), 3-tiered umbrella (Justice), six-faced star (Science), fire (Sacrifice), lotus (Peace), bunch of harvested corn (Progress), and Banyan tree (Truth).
My crooked mind, however, took them for Buddhism, Jainism, Zionism (Star of David in Israel’s National flag), Parsi (Zoroastrianism), Hinduism (not any political party’s symbol, I hope !), Communism (Congress’ comrade in politics), and Immortality. But there is a common error–the Banyan tree is mentioned as Bodhi Tree which is not correct. It was under Pipal tree that Gautama attained Buddhahood and not under Banyan tree. The pillars are circled by a vast green lawn which is continuously being watered and manicured, to my envy. White egrets were busy enjoying the cool environ and picking up their prey, unmindful of lovers who, in turn, were unmindful of the birds or other visitors.
What a sacred place for their secret meetings! This coolness had its effect on my volatile brain–Rajiv means Kamal /Lotus, maybe named so after his grandmother, Kamala Nehru. While Bofors was being investigated independently by many, it was alleged that the account code for depositing commission amount was Kamal.
Or is it the ‘handy’ work of an insider who foresaw the blossoming of BJP Lotus. Well, to each their own belief – crooked or straight ! I was actually interested in seeing the massive granite bass relief, resembling the famous Mahabalipuram bass relief. It is made up of a series of panels depicting Himalayas, Ganges, Nature’s Glory, India’s rich fauna & flora, scenes from agrarian rural India and the bustling urban India, industrialisation, modernisation, transport & communication, computerisation, Science & Technology, satellite communication, etc., some of which were Rajiv’s pet themes. This forms the vast backdrop for the pillars and the central plaque with Rajiv’s sketch.
Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister on 31st October 1984 when his mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her own body guards. In the Parliamentary elections held two months thereafter, he won a massive mandate of 401/508 seats. But he lost his reputation due to scandals (Bofors gun booming), thereby his party lost the next elections of 1989 to Janta Dal. Rajiv’s Cabinet colleague, VP Singh, was the next PM from December 2, 1989 to November 10, 1990, when Chandra Shekhar of Janta Dal (S) took over for a few more months when at last mid-term elections had to be announced. It was to win this election that Rajiv Gandhi was on a whirlwind campaigning tour throughout the Nation and had reached Chennai airport from Vizag, and then on to Sriperumbudur, on the night of 21st May, 1991. As he was moving through the cheering crowd, a woman garlanded him and then bent as if to touch his feet, and the next second … all was gone ! It was 10.20 pm. Dhanu, that was India’s first human bomb’s name, a female at that, had detonated her belt bomb. “Don’t worry. Relax”. These were Rajiv’s last words, uttered to Anusuya, the policewoman, who tried to prevent the eager people getting closer to Rajiv. His own 1984 prediction of being assassinated like his mother had come true. Rajiv Gandhi’s body was identified from his Lotto shoes and Gucci wrist watch, by Mrs Jayanthi Natarajan and GK Moopanar. The cremation took place in New Delhi’s Vir Bhumi on 24th May 1991. The LTTE killed Rajiv for sending an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987 to help Sri Lanka fight the Tigers.
It is inscribed there that as a young person, Rajiv Gandhi too had a dream, ‘a dream of an India that is strong, independent & self-reliant and in the front rank of Nations of the world in the service of mankind’. But where did he go wrong ? Many questions remain unanswered – why such a desolate place was chosen for such a late night meeting ? Why no other Congress bigwigs were killed ? Did the State political parties have any role ? So on and so forth. A Special Investigation Team led by Karthikeyan DG probed the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Much later, he accepted some failures, and a witness also made contradictory statements. There was a Commission headed by MC Jain that looked into the circumstances of and the conspiracies leading to Rajiv’s assassination.Of the accused, seven are still languishing in jail for having knowingly or unknowingly helped the main plotters.
Even Priyanka Gandhi had a secret jail meeting with Mrs Nalini, one of the Seven. The Tamil Nadu Assembly had passed a resolution for the release of the seven but with no end to their plight. The memorial is open from 6 am to 9 pm but fearing traffic jams I returned without enjoying (?) its night view. Rest room and drinking water facilities are provided but no eatables are allowed inside. Eateries are located a little distance across where the bazaar and bus terminus of Sriperumbudur Town are situated.
One of the lady gardeners was gracious to allow me take a plant with small yellow flowers from there for my balcony garden. ‘Oh, it grows like a weed; do take some with roots but be careful with the security’, she granted permission. But proving its allegiance to the soil wetted by Rajiv’s blood it withered away, defying to grow in a non-Congress/apolitical man’s garden.

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