The roll of film that told a tale
Chennai, Feb. 19: In the summer of 1991, pictures did speak more than a thousand words.
A roll of colour film transformed itself into the loudest whistle-blower India had seen till then, helping identify the suspects in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.
The roll — a rarity in the current digital age — also played havoc with many families, including that of Arun Sundaram.
The photographs that featured the surviving members of the LTTE hit squad were taken by a photographer who used to work at the studio of Arun’s father, “Subha” Sundaram.
Subha was the name of the studio which got prefixed to its owner’s name — an unfortunate coincidence as one of the suspects who was tracked down with the help of the photographs was also named Subha. She was found dead in Bangalore later.
The photographer was Hari Babu, who lost his life in the blast that killed Rajiv Gandhi.
The CBI received an anonymous tip-off that Hari Babu used to work at a studio of “Subha” Sundaram that was frequented by one Baby Subramaniam, a known LTTE operative. A raid at Hari Babu’s house revealed a wedding album of one Packiyanthan. The album had Baby Subramaniam’s picture.
Sundaram was arrested after the investigators concluded that prodded by Baby Subramaniam, he had asked another photographer to try and retrieve Hari Babu’s camera, which the police had already seized. This was after photographs of a dead Hari Babu with his camera around his shoulder were published in the local media.
Sundaram was listed as an accused, convicted and sentenced to death by an anti-terror court. But he was acquitted in May 1999.
“Till the Supreme Court acquitted him, it was a nerve-racking one year as our film studio business collapsed and my mother suffered a nervous breakdown,” Arun said today.
The LTTE hit squad had not accounted for the roll of colour film.
Hari Babu, the young freelance photographer, had accompanied the assassination team of Dhanu (the human bomb), Sivarasan (her one-eyed handler), Subha (a female LTTE operative sent to help Dhanu) and Nalini.
Although the CBI claimed Hari Babu was in the know, others have wondered whether he would have ventured so close to click Rajiv had he been aware that Dhanu was about to detonate a bomb.
Hari Babu had clicked just 10 frames with his low-priced Chinon camera. The film roll survived the explosion and helped the police account for everyone in the 10 frames, dead or alive.
They were unable to account for only three persons — Sivarasan, Subha and Nalini. The investigators then started looking for the three.
A clue came from a senior journalist who had spoken to Hari Babu an hour before the meeting had started. The freelance photographer had then pointed to Sivarasan, telling the journalist that he was covering the meeting for him.
The journalist identified Sivarasan as the man pointed out by Hari Babu. A Congress worker had also seen Hari Babu arriving with a sandalwood garland, which Dhanu used as a pretext to approach Rajiv.
Another clue came from an LTTE operative caught near Srikali, a coastal town. The operative was found in possession of the office address of an adhesive company in Chennai with the name Nalini scribbled next to it.
“Every small bit of information was pieced together and we narrowed it down to Nalini, her brother Packiyanthan and their mother Padma. These three along with Murugan were the first to be arrested. Nalini broke down under interrogation and slowly narrated the contours of the plot. As other key accused started to talk, especially Santhan and Murugan, the entire plot was exposed,” recalled K. Raghothaman, the investigating officer of the special CBI team probing the assassination.
A few years after his acquittal, “Subha” Sundaram passed away.
The son has picked up from where his father had left off. Arun now works as a cameraman with a news channel, chronicling events in an India that has changed since the summer of 1991.
The writer was an eyewitness to the assassination and had also deposed as a witness for the prosecution