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An Eyewitness Account Of What Happened Minutes Before Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination

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By Neena Gopal:

The Assasination

A commercial pilot before he entered politics, Rajiv Gandhi had flown his own plane from Visakhapatnam where he had addressed a rally earlier that evening for Congress candidate Uma Gajapathi Raju.

Sriperumbudur would have been called off in all likelihood had Rajiv Gandhi’s plane, which had developed technical problems in Visakhapatnam, not been fixed at the very last minute.

Hundreds of supporters lined the streets all the way to  Sriperumbudur on the bumpy, narrow road from Madras. Every time the car slowed and the crowd pushed forward, people would reach through the open window and pinch his cheek!

En route to Sriperumbudur and then again as we turned into the rally grounds, something struck me—security for the former prime minister, virtually non-existent after prime ministers V.P. Singh and Chandrashekhar had withdrawn his Z security, could open the door to an attack of some kind.

There was a sea of flags fluttering from the poles that ringed the rally venue and a podium at the far end. But unlike other poll rallies where there was a clear demarcation between the VIP area and the seating area for the audience, there was just open ground with a few hundred people milling about within the bamboo barricades, shouting slogans. The lighting was extremely poor. Most of the place was in darkness as the former prime minister’s car approached. Someone had clearly skimped on the arrangements when the venue of the rally was shifted from the local college to the temple grounds. And I said so.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see Rajiv Gandhi’s gentle smile that showed not the slightest irritation at the less than conducive arrangements at the rally venue. I can still hear his voice as he turned his head and half jokingly asked local member of Parliament Margatham Chandrashekhar who was sitting in the back seat of the car where I was, kneeling, wedged uncomfortably into the tiny space between the driver and Rajiv Gandhi, ‘Did you hear what Neena just said, Margatham? Why are there no lights? Why is it so dimly lit? There seem to be very few people. Where are your supporters? This doesn’t seem like an election rally at all . . .’ Half-joking or not, he wasn’t far off the mark.

The government’s inexplicable scrapping of Rajiv Gandhi’s security even though the Congress leader’s life was under threat had set Lutyens’ Delhi speculating on whether there was more to the move than met the eye, and had laid him wide open and vulnerable to attack.

Given the family’s recent history of deaths and assassinations, the removal of the Black Cats cover didn’t make sense. Rajiv Gandhi’s younger brother, Sanjay, had died under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash in 1980, with speculation rife that the two-seater aircraft had been sabotaged, while his mother, the indomitable Indira Gandhi had been gunned down in 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguards who had been reinstated against the explicit instructions of intelligence agencies.

As the car in which we were travelling hit yet another pothole, a group of slogan-shouting supporters tried to grab him through the open window. He was even lit up like a beacon, with a light fixture above the windscreen focused directly on him. There was little doubt that at one level, Rajiv Gandhi saw the mass hysteria wherever he went as a sign of his immense popularity, as a vindication that the people still loved him and that he remained his party’s main vote-catcher. But at some level, he was concerned. While nobody could have predicted that his life would be snuffed out just like that only minutes later, he had an almost prescient premonition of his own death.

Unsettled by the complete absence of security— no gunman would have been able to protect him, had someone lunged at him through the open window with a knife or taken a shot at him—I had asked him, pointedly, whether he felt his life was at risk, more so now that there was absolutely no security beyond the one token bodyguard, who was, incidentally, in another car.

Rajiv Gandhi responded with a counter-question: ‘Have you noticed how every time any South Asian leader of any import rises to a position of power or is about to achieve something for himself or his country, he is cut down, attacked, killed  .  .  . look at Mrs [Indira] Gandhi, Sheikh Mujib, look at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at Zia-ul Haq, Bandaranaike . . .’

Within minutes of making that bone-chilling prophetic statement that hinted there were dark forces at work and that he knew he was a target, Rajiv Gandhi himself would be gone.

Note: Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India from “The Assassination Of Rajiv Gandhi” by Neena Gopal.

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Image Source: The India Today Group/Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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