Sam Pitroda remembers May 21, 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated

Then someone knocked at the door. It was a KGB agent I knew, someone who maintained contact with political figures for the Soviets. ‘I’m here to make sure you’re okay,’ he said…

Sam Pitroda remembers May 21, 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated
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Sam Pitroda

On the night of 21 May 1991, Anu and I went to bed early. I had just fallen off to sleep when the phone rang. I picked it up, half asleep. It was Mayank Chhaya, a young journalist who had started writing a biography about me.

‘Have you heard, Sam? Rajiv Gandhi got bombed, blown up.’

‘What? What do you mean?’

‘That’s what I mean,’ he said. ‘Rajiv Gandhi is dead.’

I was in shock. I couldn’t process it. It was too immense.

The moment I hung up another call came in, this one from the election commissioner, T.N. Seshan.

‘Sam, why don’t you and Anu come to my house? A lot of people were killed, not just Rajiv. I have more security here. Come, stay with us.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I think I want to stay at home. I’d rather be at home. I don’t think anyone is going to hurt me. Besides, I’m sure people are going to want to get in touch with me.’

Then the floodgates opened. Calls began pouring in from other people Rajiv and I had worked with, from TV and radio stations and newspapers—from overseas as well as within India.

We only had bits and pieces of information to clutch at. It wasn’t clear what exactly had transpired, what was going on. Was this solely an attack on Rajiv? Was something far more pervasive in the works? The whereabouts of Suman Dubey, a close friend of both Rajiv and myself, were unknown, so someone asked if he was at my house. Suman’s wife was beside herself with worry.

A reporter from the New York Times told me, ‘No, Sam. Suman was there. But he’s okay. I saw him.’ Calls kept coming in. I was on the phone continuously. Nobody knew if the assassination was part of a plan, or if others would be targeted too. It was mayhem and confusion all around.

Then someone knocked at the door. It was a KGB agent I knew, someone who maintained contact with political figures for the Soviets. ‘I’m here to make sure you’re okay,’ he said. ‘I’ve been told to take care of you. If you want to go someplace, if you want to fly out, I’ll be able to arrange it.’

‘No, I don’t need anything,’ I said. ‘I’m okay. Nobody’s going to do anything to me. We have to see how this is going to unfold.’

I was surprised that somebody from the KGB would offer to protect me. If anybody other than Indians should have been protecting me, I’d have thought it would be the Americans. But no one from the embassy contacted me. I hadn’t thought about it until the KGB person showed up. I wasn’t a US citizen any longer, but my wife and children were, and Anu was living here with me. But they hadn’t been keeping track, or maybe they were and didn’t think that we were at risk.

The next day Anu and I went to Rajiv Gandhi’s house. His body was being flown to Delhi from Tamil Nadu where the assassination had occurred. By then we knew that a woman had triggered the bomb. Speculation was rife that it was someone from the Tamil Tigers outfit in Sri Lanka, where India had been involved in ending the civil war.

Anu and I waited for the body with a few others. Eventually, the remains arrived, carried in on a stretcher with a sheet on top. Under the sheet Rajiv’s body was laid all in pieces, blown to bits by the force of the explosion.


Anu and I sat together on one side of the stretcher, Sonia on the other side. No one spoke. We sat there in silence. I was thinking about the future of India and all the programmes we had launched to lead India into the 21st century. I was also thinking about the great loss to the country and the time it would take for everyone to recover from this tragedy. I was concerned about Priyanka, Rahul and Sonia, their futures, and the sacrifices they had made for the country. Time passed, feeling like an eternity. Then we stood up and went home.

A massive crowd was at the funeral, flowing rivers of people decked in white—the colour of mourning. Rajiv’s body was being carried on a flower-decked gun carriage, the tricolour flag of India draped over him. Overhead, a helicopter released clouds of orange blossoms to rain down on the assemblage below. Then the body was placed on the pyre and the logs set aflame. Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka were visible in white near the fire—an image that will remain etched in my heart and mind for eternity.

It seemed to me that the world was coming to an end. Rajiv was gone. Everything I had done was because of his political will and his support. Now he was gone and his support had disappeared with him, evaporated in an instant. My friend was no longer around. My confidence shrivelled up. My future looked bleak and uncertain. My hope and dreams for India were shaken. All the investments we had made in C-DOT, telecom, the Technology Missions and the many other initiatives may never materialize. Maybe India will fall behind by a decade. These were scary thoughts.

Then something else hit me. I was almost completely out of money. It hadn’t even dawned on me earlier, I hadn’t given it much thought—I was so excited by the possibility of doing more work in India, with Rajiv’s backing, that I just kept on with it. Until now, I had not paid much attention to my family, finances and future.

I realized I needed to do something, but what? I had no idea. I had two kids back in the US, Salil was applying to colleges, Rajal thinking about it already, and I was almost penniless. They were still children only yesterday,I thought. How did they grow up so fast? How could I have let this happen without thinking about it, without planning for it?

The irony of the situation was that almost everyone thought I was a millionaire, which I had been when we sold Wescom—but that was more than ten years ago now. For three years I had gone back and forth from Chicago to India every two weeks, on my own money. I had asked for and received a one-rupee-a-year salary for over ten years in India. The government had given me a house and a car, but I had taken care of the rest of my expenses and my family’s from my own personal funds, which were now all but finished.

And now, in India, with Rajiv gone, all I could see was darkness. I couldn’t imagine what would come next. All I knew was that to put my life in order I needed to be back home with my family in Chicago.

(Reproduced from the website Sampitroda.com)

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