A Moment in Time

29 Jul

Capturing history in a millisecond

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Indo-Lanka Accord. It was an agreement signed under much tension, between the governments of Sri Lanka and India.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. Stakeholders in the agreement which include almost all the citizens of Sri Lanka are still unsure as to the successes and failures of the Indo- Lanka Accord. What it has achieved and what it hindered is still heavily in dispute but amidst all this miasma of confusion, one success story stands out. That of Sena Vidanagama, then staff photographer of the Daily News.

Whatever the accord did or did not achieve, it put Sri Lankan photojournalism on the international map.

Vidanagama was the one and only photographer to capture the assault on the Indian premier, Rajiv Gandhi the day after the signing, by a naval cadet on camera. He was at that time a little known photographer in the Lakehouse Group. The internal strife in Sri Lanka and India’s subsequent forcible intervention was international news at that time. As such Vidanagama was one of a large group of photojournalists covering the event. There were foreign photographers of international stature and repute in that group. Yet he alone took that one picture, now internationally famous, of that assault on Rajiv Gandhi as it was occurring. The attack was so sudden that all the other photojournalists had been caught by surprise and missed the opportunity.

Eventually it was Vidanangama’s picture that made it not only to the Daily News (though it almost didn’t get exposure even there, read on), but also to several other publications both locally and internationally. He who had been struggling for years to be recognized as a photojournalist made that name overnight.

As an interview with the now retired veteran bears out though, it was not a matter of luck but more of dedication and focus despite adverse circumstances. He had been rather annoyed that day as the raised dais on Janadhipathi Mawatha to which the photojournalists had been relegated to cover the event of Gandhi’s departure, had very limited options for him to move around and find a vantage spot. The movie cameramen and international photographers had taken up all the best possible spots at the front of the dais and he being a little known photographer then, had to be content to snap pictures from behind them.

Most of the cameramen had only expected to take routine shots of a VIP departure. They had finished clicking Rajiv Gandhi, J.R Jayawardene and their entourage emerging from President’s House. After many ceremonial photo opportunities, there was a lull as Jayawardene and the others moved to another pavilion while Rajiv inspected the Guard of Honour , escorted by the  Sri Lankan Navy Commander on his right and by his security officers from behind. As he began moving down the Guard of Honour too, several photos were clicked. The photographers, thinking that the photo opportunities of that particular ceremony had been exhausted had brought down their arms for a rest by the time Gandhi was halfway down the inspection.

Vidanagama, an experienced news photographer had become conditioned to being always on the look-out for untoward happenings that he might need to click at a moment’s notice. Even he might have relaxed at this juncture though if not for his editor Manik de Silva’s words of advice that morning, ringing in his ears.

“He told me to be on the look-out as the situation was such that ‘anything could happen.’ The SLFP and JVP had organized protests against the accord and the whole nation was under a state of tension.
And so, even though it was supposed to be just a ceremonial procession for a departing VIP, I was on alert to catch anything at all out of the ordinary.

I too had finished clicking Rajiv Gandhi inspecting the Guard of Honour but kept watching him as he moved down the line of sailors. I acted reflexively when I saw one of the men move from the orderly line of sailors that Gandhi was inspecting. I really had no time to understand or process what was happening. I simply raised my camera and clicked.

At the back of my mind, I had a vague notion that the sailor was fainting but after all, even that was news. I had no idea at that point that I was clicking an assault. It all happened very fast. The sailor had raised his rifle butt and brought it down as Gandhi passed by. Two things saved Gandhi. His own quick reflexes which made him duck his head and turn sharply as well as the navy commander acting quickly to pull back Vijitha Rohana, the assailant. The combined action made the rifle butt strike only the back of Gandhi’s shoulder instead of his head. The rifle slid out of Rohana’s hand after striking Gandhi. Gandhi’s lead security officer immediately pounced forward and punched Rohana on the stomach. It was mayhem all of a sudden but it was all over within a few minutes.  The other sailors and the security team immediately surrounded Roahana, berating him and then whisked him away. If I had had a camera with today’s technology, I could have taken all these shots but I had to crank my Asahi Pentax before each new shot, to focus properly and thus lost out on quite a few. In those days you couldn’t click pictures one after the other like you can now.”

Despite that, he managed to get some shots of the immediate aftermath. One of them shows a very young Rohana – he was only 22 at the time – being aggressively pushed back against a post, his collar bunched up in an angry fellow sailor’s fist.

There are also shots of Rajiv Gandhi displaying serene aplomb after the incident, calmly taking part in the rest of the ceremony before taking his leave.

“The media in a frenzy rushed to J.R to query what had happened,” recalls Vidanagama. “He had been in another pavilion at the time, he really couldn’t have known what was happening. He immediately soothed everyone, saying that it was just a mishap and the sailor had suffered heatstroke and fallen down. Rajiv Gandhi standing next to him, remained with a passive face, and said nothing.

The reporter covering the event with me was Amal Jayasinghe. He had been covering the event from the ground as only the photojournalists were up on the six foot high dais. After the melee was over, he called up at me to ask if I had gotten the crucial shot and jumped up and down in joy when I confirmed I had.

The event had begun at 9.00 am and it was now around 10.30. The proceedings had wound down, so we decided to get back to office to develop the pictures, in time for the provincial edition. More importantly, we wanted to see what kind of pictures I had. Even I wasn’t certain at that point.

News had gotten around already that I might have been the one to click that one crucial picture. Fearing that it might be confiscated by the CID, I removed the film roll, shoved it down my right sock and then ran all the way back to Lakehouse with Amal.

Even as we were waiting for the lab technicians to process the prints, calls started coming in from other newspaper editors and international agencies on whether it was true that we had the picture of the assault – and if so whether they could have it too.

Since J. R Jayawardena had told the media that it was just a sailor suffering heat stroke, all the editors were on tenterhooks to see if the photos would prove otherwise.  As soon as the film was processed, we developed it into two sets of 8 x 10 prints – one each for our Sinahala and English daily papers and ran to Manik de Silva’s office with it.

He happened to be on the phone and in the middle of an argument as I walked in. The person at the other end was the then Chairman of Lakehouse,  Ranapala Bodinagoda. He also happened to be J.R Jayawardena’s right hand man. He and my editor were having an argument on whether the incident that morning was an assault or the unfortunate result of a heatstroke.  Bodinagoda was insisting that it was simply a heatstroke and that was how the newspaper should carry it. In the middle of this conversation, I handed over the photos to my editor, who responded, “Well I now have the photos in my hand which proves it was an assault.”

The Chairman immediately came over to the Editor’s office and confiscated the photos, saying “we can’t publish these without J.R Jayawardena’s permission.” He took them away to the premier’s residence in Ward Place, to show him. For a while it looked as if my pictures might not see the light of day and I was very upset. Apart from having captured some unique photos which no-one else had, it was also a story of both national and international interest.

In any case, the BBC and other international agencies reported it on the evening news as an assault and thus it was perceived as useless to go on denying it any longer. Moreover, the movie cameras of not only Rupavahini but also Doordarshan had captured the incident clearly. So, though we had long missed the provincial edition, we were given permission late at night to use the photographs for the city edition. The published pictures brought widespread appreciation both locally as well as internationally.”

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