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Remembering the Funeral of Rajiv Gandhi

A journalist who covered Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral procession recalls the day.

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4 min read
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu on 21 May 1991.
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That time flies so swiftly is evident as more than two long decades have passed since the gory end of Rajiv Gandhi. It was on the fateful day on 21 May 1991, he was assassinated leaving millions of people across the length and breadth of India stunned and shocked.

As a young journalist working for a leading newspaper, I was among the few staffers who covered his heart-rendering funeral procession and finally the last rites on the banks of Yamuna river.

On the eve of his funeral when the whole nation was mourning the death of India's greatest hope, my Metro editor had called me into his chamber to inform that I have to cover the funeral procession and last rites of Rajiv Gandhi.

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Remembering the Funeral of Rajiv Gandhi
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/@RajivGandhi)

When he was giving me the instructions, even he was in tears. Naturally, it was a huge assignment.

I was to cover the funeral procession from ITO to Yamuna banks, where he was to be cremated amidst the chants of mantras.

Notwithstanding the extremely hot weather on the day of funeral, 24 May 1991, lakhs of people had occupied the vantage positions all along the procession route to have the last glimpse of their dear leader.

The funeral procession was to start from Teen Murti House and go via India Gate, Janpath and ITO in order to reach the final destination. Incidentally, the funeral processions of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Feroz Gandhi were also started from the Teen Murti house.

Remembering the Funeral of Rajiv Gandhi
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/@RajivGandhi)

While I had only heard of the massive funeral procession of Bapu, I had witnessed the funerals of Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.

I still believe that there were more people on streets during Rajiv Gandhi’s final journey compared to the funeral of his mother and brother.

People of all age groups were only chanting the slogan ‘Rajiv Gandhi Amar Rahe’ through the entire route.

People started weeping like children when the open air vehicle carrying the body of Rajiv passed before them. It had moved very slowly so that people could catch a glimpse of Rajiv Gandhi.

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Remembering the Funeral of Rajiv Gandhi
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/@RajivGandhi)

The procession was led by General Officer Commanding of Delhi area Major General SC Kashyap. Both Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi could be seen in a car immediately following the cortege. Many VIPs followed the cavalcade of the cars.

The funeral procession took close to four hours in reaching Vir Bhoomi from Teen Murti – a distance of just 11 km.

A sea of humanity was waiting for the mortal remains of Rajiv Gandhi near the banks of Yamuna. Vir Bhoomi is at a short distance from the memorials of his grandfather – Jawaharlal Nehru, mother – Indira Gandhi and his younger brother – Sanjay Gandhi.

The capital had shut down on that very day. Perhaps, even theatres halted screenings of any movie.

Remembering the Funeral of Rajiv Gandhi
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/@RajivGandhi)

It was an emotional moment when the vehicle carrying a flower decked Rajiv Gandhi's body reached Vir Bhoomi. Rahul Gandhi, then only a 20-year-old, ritually prepared his father's remains for cremation.

He scattered fruit, sandalwood dust, flowers and clarified butter on the funeral pyre with the help of priests from Kashi, his sister, Priyanka, their mother, Sonia, and a few family friends.

Friends also helped cover the pyre in fragrant sandalwood as visiting dignitaries – among them the then President Najibullah of Afghanistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation – and lakhs of Indians watched.
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Arafat was seen weeping like a child. Almost all the top Indian leaders were there at the cremation ground. Shortly after 5 pm, the young Rahul circled the pyre seven times and lit the flame.

After the final rites, one could see people all around. Right from Vir Bhoomi, I walked back to my office at KG Marg to file my story. Honestly, I was shedding tears of blood while writing that story.

(This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Rajiv Gandhi's death anniversary. It was originally published on 21 May 2017.)

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