The Hindu’s chief photographer K. GOPINATHAN recalls the surreal operation to capture Sivarasan
It was August 19, 1991. As was routine, I reached my workplace early (at the time, I was with The Indian Express), and I began calling up officials in the fire and police departments for the day’s news, when I noticed something strange: I couldn’t get any of the top brass of the police officials on the line.
I teamed up with a photographer from an evening newspaper — we sensed something was up. We learned that most of the police officials had gone to a place near Kanakapura Road, and proceeded in that direction.
We noticed an ambulance speeding by and as we followed, it turned off into a dusty, bumpy path to arrive at Konanakunte. Many of the houses in the place had thatched roofs. Some houses were covered with asbestos sheets, a few were made of concrete, and others were under construction, with plenty of empty space between them. Cows, buffalos, sheep, fowl and firewood depots along the way gave us the feeling of being in a village, but one that was slowly urbanising.
Once we’d gone a little further, the scene changed completely. It was like something out of a movie: there were police everywhere, climbing on housetops for vantage positions, and they had surrounded a grey house. The buzz was that Sivarasan — who masterminded the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — Shubha and other LTTE operatives were holed up there. At the time, we played it cool, pretending to know what was going on lest the police boot us out. But in reality we didn’t know who or what the police were waiting for. They remained tight-lipped, and gave us the impression that it was unlikely that anyone would even be at home.
Amazingly, the atmosphere wasn’t tense at all; I sat on the compound wall of the house, chatting with a few underlings. The other photographer left for his office after noon, but I did not want to take any chances, and stayed behind. I was young, and eager to prove myself.
Time passed without food or action, and evening was approaching. By this time, the news had spread, and reporters and photographers from other newspapers joined in, spoiling my exclusive.
It was getting dark when we heard gunshots coming from the house. Soon, the police responded with echoing booms from their firearms.
In the dark, I could only see flashes when the bullets were fired. I hid behind a narrow stone slab opposite the house, just 300 ft away. More concerned with taking a great photograph than I was about my safety, I prayed that the gunmen would come within the range of my flash.
Another round of fire: this time, I could see the bullets and hear the ‘clang!!’ they made when they ricocheted off a stone near me. A few policemen who came to shoo me away were hit and shifted to an ambulance.
A colleague signalled to me from afar to join him. Eventually, we found a place in a house nearby from were we could keep watch. In the middle of the night I heard a gunshot, and we later learned that Sivarasan had shot himself, and the others had consumed cyanide.
In retrospect, I realised those trapped in the house could easily have picked us out one by one with their machine guns: police, local residents, presspersons and curious onlookers, all of whom had been milling around the house in broad daylight. Perhaps their thoughts were focused on escape rather than anything else.
Early in the morning, a Special Task Force (STF) team arrived via Nagpur, and forced its way into the house. Just as I was about to take a photograph of the operation, I felt a rough hand on the back of my neck, and I was hauled away from the spot by a policeman, despite begging to be allowed to remain. That man turned out to be Shankar Bidari.
In the end, the team only found dead bodies, which were laid out for us to photograph around 8.30 a.m. It took a 24-hour wait for me to get those pictures, and gone were my chances of getting the exclusive that I had so hoped for, but all said and done, it was the experience of a lifetime.