Is he a poacher, smuggler, Robin Hood, plain thug, or a Tamil politician-in-the-making? Will the real Veerappan please emerge out of the jungle?
It has been a distinguished story of crime for Veerappan since1955, when he first killed a tusker at the age of 10, and was recognised for his talent by another poacher, Se Vair Gounder, who recruited him as an understudy. Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, a resident of Gopinatham village in Tamil Nadu, has been unleashing his reign of terror since 1984. He has murdered 158 people and over 2000 elephants, netting him over INR 1000 million (USD 22 million).
But the kidnapping of Rajkumar, the Kannada matinee idol, has added a totally new dimension to this poacher´s life. Someone might make a blockbuster out of this one of these days—a Tamil villain kidnaps a Kannada hero and all hell breaks loose between Tamilians and Kannadigas. Indeed, the violence that erupted after the sensational incident threatened to remind Bangaloreans of the Cauvery riots over water sharing in 1991. Fortuitously, the violence didn´t assume alarming proportions for the minority Tamils in Karnataka, although the last has not been heard yet.
Perhaps, one reason is that Rajkumar is as dear to the Tamils residing in Karnataka as to the Kannadigas themselves. The rallies taken out by several Tamil organisations in Bangalore and elsewhere in the city seeking the release of their hero, seems to indicate the measure of affection. But the tale got its twist when the government emissary, Gopal, quoted Veerappan as saying that he is fighting for 60 million Tamils
It is now beyond doubt that the brigand has a nexus with two ultra-Left Tamil extremist groups, the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF). The four demands that Veerappan made besides the earlier 10, seem to indicate that these external forces are pushing him. Some of these demands include Tamil being made the medium of instruction up to the tenth standard in Tamil Nadu schools, and that the five TNLA men who are in prison in Tamil Nadu be released. While there is talk that the outlaw is merely expressing his social concerns, the other side is that he is being manipulated by the TNLA and the TNRA.
According to Gopal, who has been making forays into the jungle to meet Veerappan and Rajkumar, Veerappan was in total control of the gang, and there were nine other armed extremists with him. Gopal, who has made a name for himself as one of the few outsiders who have been able to meet the larger-than-life figure, says Veerappan is no longer the same person. First, unlike before, he refused to meet Gopal, and said that abductors never allowed anybody to meet those whom they had abducted.
Veerappan´s choice for the latest abduction was, if anything, canny: a superstar who has acted in about 200 films, with a cult following of millions. The abductor knew that the move would bring the state machineries of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu down to its knees, given the popularity of the captive and the political importance of the man.
The abduction itself had all the cautious trappings of a Veerappan operation. He was aware that Rajkumar did not have police protection while visiting his native village, and it was a new moon night. It was on another new moon that Veerappan had abducted the then Tamil Nadu deputy superintendent of police V. Chidambaranathan and two others in December 1993, nine Karnataka Forest Department personnel in July 1997 and six men in October 1997.
Over the course of these kidnappings, Veerappan has, among other things, shown a willingness to surrender, demanded amnesty, or pardon for all the crimes committed in a gory career. This is how Walter I. Dawaram, former Tamil Nadu director-general of police, who was in the forefront in the hunt for Veerappan, recalls of the first kidnap: “Before his first abduction on 3 December 31994, he offered to sur render and sent a cassette to me. He wanted me to come for final talks. Then he ran away.”
When he abducted the DGP, his outrageous demands included INR 10000 million (USD 2.2 billion) to rehabilitate the families of his gang members killed by the police, grant of a 100-year lease to quarry blue metal in the Malai Mahadeshwara Hills near Mysore, withdrawal of all cases against him anywhere in India, and action against all erring officials. And after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam headed by Karunanidhi returned to power in Tamil Nadu in May 1996, Veerappan renewed his offer of surrender, but the government ignored it. He made a similar offer to the Karnataka government, which too was ignored.
He followed this up with the abduction of nine Karnataka Forest Department employees in July 1997. The demand then was that he should be slapped only a two-year sentence, and that too without having to stand trial, with the assurance that he would be provided proper facilities in the jail. He also wanted the state to compensate the deaths of his associates at the hands of the police, by granting the bereaved families INR 5 million (USD .11 million) each. Further, he renewed his offer of surrender, but insisted on amnesty. Gopal went twice into the forests and obtained the release of all the men. But Veerappan went back on the surrender offer.
The fourth abduction took place on 7 October 1997. The victims were: naturalists-cum-wildlife photographers Senani Hegde and S. Krupakar; a scientist from the Indian Horticulture Institute, Dr. Satyabrata Maiti, and three Karnataka Forest Department employees. This time around, Veerappan sought pardon, and agreed to be in jail for two years.
A topic of great interest is whether Veerappan is now being manipulated by the TNLA and the TNRF to meet their own agenda. The police believe that it is impossible that Veerappan would have made the latest demands on his own. Mediator Gopal insists that someone was manipulating him, and it was true! that extremists were with him. “There were nine extremists with him”,Gopal said. “But Veerappan demonstrated that he and only he alone was the leader” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K. Karunanidhi is also convinced: “Somebody is tutoring him”, he told a press gathering.
Earlier, in October 1999, the arrest of one Sarvanamurthy in Talavadi forests in October 1999, had revealed Veerappan´s connection with extremists. Sarvanamurthy was carrying 15 pairs of olive green uniforms and country-made weapon, to be delivered to Veerappan. During interrogation, he reportedly confessed that he had been trained by one of the splinter groups of the TNRT, and had later spent a month with Veerappan´s gang. He also mentioned the names of a few others who had been sent by the TNRT/ TNLA to ´assist´ Veerappan.
But Veerappan´s apparent Tamil nationalistic talk or his political ambitions does not come as anything new. Not so long ago, Nakeeran had carried the brigand´s outpourings against the alleged atrocities committed by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) against the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the alleged looting of Tamils´ properties in Karnataka during riots over the issue of Cauvery waters.
But to completely buy the theory that Veerappan is a Tamil saviour flies in the face of his record—he has killed more Tamils than Kannadigas. The police think that Veerappan is too uninformed on worldly matters, and say that he is not even aware that communities other than Tamils and Kannadigas live in India. “A person who has demanded INR 10000 million obviously has no idea of money, and one can imagine what his intellectual levels are”,says a police official. But the follies of underestimating the man are there for all to see.
— Deepak Kumar Kacholia is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad.