The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August  27, 2000
Lead Article

After killing 2000 elephants and murdering 119 people, this dreaded brigand is now

Holding the State to Ransom
By M.G.Devasahayam

A law unto himself

Veerappan strikes again

AT a time when l’affaire Rajkumar vs Veerappan is getting more and more complicated with cacophonies and cassettes floating all over the place, in comes a thunderbolt from Jayalalitha, the beleaguered former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, calling for the "deployment of commando forces to shoot down the abductor, Veerappan, and free the actor". Jayalalitha is fond of issuing statements and what she says normally is usually taken with several pinches of salt. But this reaction is quite weird. For, some days ago she had claimed that during her rule in Tamil Nadu, she had virtually eliminated Veerappan ‘s gang, reducing its number from 150 to three.

VeerappanIt is still a mystery as to why these three, which included Veerappan, were left untouched. The whole Veerappan episode and Jayalalitha's claim appears intriguing as well as confusing if one reads the narrative given to The Economic Times [August 8, 2000] by S.C.Burman, former Director General of Police, Karnataka: "The result of the combined operation of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu Special Task Forces [STF] and the Border Security Force [BSF] against the Veerappan gang, commencing in mid-1993 was commendable. By the end of 1995, the combined Task Force reduced the members of Veerappan’s gang from 150 to 5. About 40 gang members were eliminated. About 87 had been arrested and were in detention,facing trial. Veerappan was living the life of a fugitive, avoiding the police. He had lost his manpower and was living purely on the charity of local supporters". And to stress the point further Burman contended: "Since May 25, 1993, Veerappan has been living in the jungles of Tamil Nadu".


It is worthwhile to recall that Jayalalitha was Chief Minister of the state for full three years after this date and as per the admission of Walter Dawaram, former DGP of Tamil Nadu, he had come twice within the ‘viewing distance’ of the dreaded brigand during his assignment as head of the STF to nab Veerappan! For three years, despite having a competent STF with an ace-shooter cum commando- type Dawaram in charge and a crack BSF unit on call what prevented three or five bandits from being either arrested or shot down, as Jayalalitha is demanding now?

E.V.K.S.Elangovan, president of the state unit of the Congress, has publicly raised this poser and one can expect this question to linger on in the public mind for quite some time.

Be that as it may, the issue of deploying commando forces to flush out,capture or kill Veerappan needs an informed debate. Though the time may not be opportune now with the Kannada matinee idol a captive in the custody of the forest brigand, the debate nevertheless must commence in public interest.Not because Jayalalitha has raised the issue but, more importantly, to dispel the myth of the invincibility of Veerappan and the impregnability of the ‘thick and dense jungle’ which is his empire. Wittingly or unwittingly politicians, police and some persons in the media who are propounding and propagating this absurd myth are insulting and denigrating our security forces [the Army] which has one of the toughest commando forces in the world specially trained in jungle warfare. With a proper mandate, leadership and absolutely no meddling by politicians or policemen, a platoon [about 30 men] of these commandos can and will catch or kill Veerappan and his brigands within a matter of weeks, if not days. Juxtapose this with what we have achieved in over two decades ,after deploying thousands of policemen and spending over Rs 200 crore of the tax-payers’ money to nab Veerappan. We have only ended up in succumbing to his blatant blackmail !

The justification for deploying commando forces in public interest is provided in the narrative of Burman: "Veerappan and his gang have been known since 1965. Since 1984 the gang was committing diabolical murders of police and forest officials who tried to check the poaching for elephant tusks and cutting down of sandalwood trees. The gang killed about 2000 elephants. It looted tusks and sandalwood worth hundreds of crores of rupees. According to records, the gang has killed 118 persons, of whom 55 belong to Karnataka and 63 belong to Tamil Nadu. Among the killed are 31 police and 10 forest officers". I don’t think any further testimony is required to establish the public interest involved, serving which is the primary duty of governments.

Veerappan with official emissary R.R. Gopal and captive matinee idol RajkumarA few days ago appearing in a Sun TV discussion, Lakshmi Narayanan, a former Tamil Nadu DGP, had expressed confidence in the Tamil Nadu police force’s ability to nab Veerappan. Pointing to the proficiency of the Tamil Nadu police in jungle operations, he referred to the force’s involvement in anti-terrorist operations in Nagaland during the sixties. But ,unfortunately, much water has flown down the Brahmaputra and Cauvery rivers since then and the profile of the TN police now is much different from what it was in the sixties. The first half of the nineties saw specially- trained TN policemen doing personal security duties for their supremo. They had no time, training or inclination to undertake tough and risky operations in the jungle. Though the present DMK government disbanded this costly and wasteful force , it did not build any alternate force to undertake commando-type duties. In fact one came across the strange spectacle of Chennai City Police Commissioner doubling up as the chief of the STF to capture Veerappan!! It will take years and a high level of political and administrative will for the TN police to put together and prepare a force to take on the Veerappan brigade. For now the top brass of the TN police seem to be happy and content with holding press meetings and reporting the flow of cassettes and the movements of the ‘official negotiator,’ Nakkeeran Gopal!

Coming back to the commando issue, I have been a witness to the competence of Army commandos and their efficacy in jungle operations at the India-Burma-China border against Naga militants equipped with much more sophisticated weapons than the ones Veerappan ever had. These jungles were much bigger and more dense and dangerous than the forests that Veerappan is dominating now. This was in the late sixties, which were the initial years of the formation of commando units in the Indian Infantry. I was commanding a Company of the 17th Battalion, The Madras Regiment, which had been assigned the task of intercepting, ambushing and eliminating armed groups of Naga militants either going to China to get trained or returning after training with latest weapons. Since at that time the proficiency level of Indian Infantry in jungle warfare was limited, we did face initial difficulties and had to sacrifice some of our fine men and officers. Realising this the Army Headquarters moved fast and introduced commando and jungle warfare training as a major activity at Mhow Infantry School in Madhya Pradesh. The result was dramatic. As young officers returning from this training took charge of platoons, trained the men and led them into action, the hostile outfits were truly on the run. This resulted in the virtual decimation of the recalcitrant Naga underground terrorists and paved the way for the return of peace and normalcy to that troubled state.

A commando merges with the terrain in which he operates. He survives with whatever he gets from there. For instance, in the forests he can move about stealthily and fight without cooking food for several days. He has to manage and survive on the insects, reptiles, fruits and fluids that he can gather in the jungle. And we have the best of these men always ready for action.

Episodes like Bal Thackeray’s defiance of law in Maharashtra, state’s inability to stop the massacre of innocents in Kashmir; the Gujarat Government’s insensitivity to assaults on Christians in the state and the Central Government’s buckling to pressures from all and sundry [like the Kandahar disaster] and the state apparatus’ inability to bring big- time criminals and the corrupt to heel have undermined the credibility and capability of the Indian State. There are already voices expressing doubts as to whether the Indian State is withering away. A former Chief Minister like Jayalalitha herself has given credence to these apprehensions when she stated: "I am sure the people of our nation will share my feelings whether these two governments [Tamil Nadu and Karnataka] are really necessary at all as they have, individually and in combination, failed to establish the rule of law which is the hallmark of our country’s democratic process".

Yes, establishing the rule of law is the crux and essence of governance. Veerappan episode is the real test for the veteran Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu who has weathered many a storm and the suave leader from Karnataka who has a relatively limited experience as Chief Minister. It is between them to uphold the majesty of law or succumb to the expediency of politics. If they opt for the latter, it will be one more blow to the raison d’ętre of the ready tethering Indian State.

A law unto himself

THE kidnapping of Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar and three others by forest brigand Veerappan leaves the Karnataka government with little choice. Either agree to the demands, or face the consequences. The government chose the former for fear of a nasty backlash as Rajkumar’s fans are an aggressive lot. Their hero has to be released from the clutches of the bandit or they have threatened to take to the streets. That is one thing the administration wants to avoid as the first two days after the kidnap, the fans under the aegis of the Rajkumar’s fans association, went berserk and shut the city down for two days. Mobs pelted stones at vehicles and forced the closure of business establishments. This sample was enough for Chief Minister S.M. Krishna to rush to Chennai and agree to send journalist R.R. Gopal as negotiator into the forests to barter the release of Rajkumar.

Another fact that has tied the government down is that Veerappan is known for his ruthlessness. The fear that he would harm the superstar who has a large following here has made the government act with alacrity to the poachers demands.

The government is also hamstrung that it has to operate through the good offices of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi as Veerappan has kidnapped the thespian from his farm house in Gajanur in Tamil Nadu. Now the news that activists of a splinter group of the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army, a self-styled organisation fighting for Tamil pride, has joined hands with Veerappan has complicated matters.

Veerappan has sent his demands through an audio tape, on behalf of the Tamil outfit. Among the demands are releasing the rightful share of the Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu, the unveiling of a statue of a Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar in Bangalore which is shrouded in controversy, the release of five TNLA associates, paying compensation to all those affected Tamils in the Cauvery riots in Bangalore and making Tamil the second language in Karnataka. Veerappan himself has made an additional three demands — release of all 51 TADA detenues, withdrawal of cases against them and himself. Though the last three demands are understandable, the five other demands are contentious and have provoked resentment in Karnataka.

The immediate concern of the Karnataka government is to prevent the situation from becoming a Tamil vs Kannadiga issue. The same Cauvery issue had led to riots in 1991 and thousands of Tamil-speaking persons had flee Bangalore after their dwellings were destroyed by mobs.

With the situation being very tricky and no hope of an early release even after 19 days of the kidnap, the fans are getting restive. They want the government to end the hostage crisis. The government on its part has agreed to all legitimate demands of Veerappan, but has tread carefully on the demands by Veerappan and his men. The Thiruvalluvar statue will be unveiled provided one of Sarvagna, a Kannada, poet is unveiled in Chennai, compensation has already been paid to those affected during Cauvery riots and the government has made it clear that Tamil cannot be made second official language as even the Tamil Nadu government is struggling to implement Tamil as a medium of instruction.

While the fans wait for their hero, S. M. Krishna hopes that the response of the two governments to the brigand’s demands is satisfactory and that the actor whom he referred to as ``Karnataka’s aasthi (property),’’ would be released unharmed.


Veerappan strikes again

BANGALORE:  Gajanur. 9 p.m. It’s raining heavily outside. There is little else to do but to have dinner and settle down. That is exactly what Kannada superstar Rajkumar and his family are doing. Suddenly there is a knock outside, and the door opens. In rush a dozen armed men including one with a handle bar moustache. They single out Rajkumar and three others, and take them hostage at gun point.

After a lull of more than two years, Veerappan and his men, a bunch of armed bandits who have been poaching elephants, felling sandalwood trees and killing informants and policemen at will for more than two decades, have struck back.

The actor had recently built a house and had planned the gruha pravesh on July 30. This gave an opportunity for the brigand who had obviously studied the target for weeks in advance before moving in for the kill that night.

That Rajkumar frequented his farmhouse in Tamil Nadu adjoining the Karnataka border was a well known fact. In fact, he was also warned not to venture into the poacher’s territory without a police escort. ``Veerappan cannot get anything from me. I can only offer him my dhoti and shirt,’’ the actor is supposed to have said.

But fate had other plans for him. It has now been more than three weeks since he was taken hostage. Bangalore’s educational institutions have just reopened after a two-week forced holiday. The fans of Rajkumar have threatened to storm the forests and free their hero.

Veerappan has evaded the joint special task force set up to nab him by the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka police nearly a decade ago. That he enjoys political clout goes without saying. He even wants to contest elections after he gets amnesty.

For the record he has killed 119 persons including 31 police personnel, poached 2,000 tuskers which reportedly fetched him Rs 12 crore. This apart, he has denuded the forests of sandalwood worth Rs 100 crore.

Ever since the cocky 10-year -old pointed a muzzle loader at a tusker in the virgin forests of Sathyamangalam, there has been no looking back. He has acquired a Robin Hood kind of image. The 55-year-old’s bristling handlebar moustache inspires awe as well as fear in equal measure. He has built his own network of informants which makes the police hard to catch him. Every time the task force lands up with egg on its face and ends up catching `informants’’. He is said to have come within sighting distance of the police at least on a dozen occasions. But as he knows the terrain like the back of his hand, he has always managed to vanish into the forests without a trace.

Veerappan’s tenacity and will to survive has surprised all. And he has become an anti-establishment rebel. Is he a Che Guevera in the make. There are a host of theories floating around ever since official emissary R.R. Gopal said Veerappan quoted the guerrilla who even to this day inspires many revolutionists.

This sudden transformation in Veerappan has worried the police, as until the other day he was only a decoit who poached just elephants and smuggled sandal wood trees.

There is a Rs 40 lakh reward on the Veerappan’s head. The Karnataka Government has been spending a staggering Rs 11 crore every year in trying to arrest him.

Veerapan, in the meanwhile has struck with impunity, kidnapping forest staff on many occasions, and holding hostage a scientist and two photographers. He released them unharmed but not before demanding a huge ransom. He has also played surrender dramas twice and appealed to the President to grant him amnesty. This time he seems set to bargain the best for himself.