The Veerappan phenomenon

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

The STF commandos at the Chennai celebration on October 30. - R. RAGU

The STF commandos at the Chennai celebration on October 30. - R. RAGU

The outsmarting of Veerappan proves that honest and focussed leadership is available within the Indian Police. Any politically inspired move to demotivate such personnel should be resisted.

NOW that the curtain has come down on celebrations, it is perhaps time to indulge in some introspection over what awaits us in the post-Veerappan era. Pardon me if I sound like a historian talking nostalgically of a golden era that has passed by. The bandit has been so much discussed - some of our scholars, for sheer want of romantic subjects, are known to glorify infamous characters that are best ignored and forgotten - that our grandchildren are quite likely to believe that here was a hero who was unjustly dealt with by the state. There are already many myths around Veerappan. A few more will be added in the years to come, just to make the folklore further attractive. The question that ought to bother us is whether Veerappan was just a freak or an aberration that can be ignored. Or, is his life to be dissected so as to explore how best to prevent more of his ilk from rising and disturbing an already fragile rural peace?

I salute the brave men of the Tamil Nadu police who fearlessly fought the criminal and brought him down. In these days when most of the references to the police are uncomplimentary, occasional achievements like these are heartening and engender hopes that the Indian Police cannot yet be written off, as some would suggest. I do not also agree with those who have taken exception to the generous rewards bestowed by government on men of the Special Task Force. This is perhaps the most effective way to motivate those public servants who work long hours under extremely trying circumstances for years together. On an average, the Indian Police loses annually a thousand of its members in action. Comparisons may be odious. The Indian Army loses a smaller number, except of course in times of war. The point is that the police face no less a risk than our armed forces.

The Veerappan operation is a tribute to the ability of the STF chief K. Vijayakumar to weld a team and get the best out of them. He has gone about his task professionally without any fanfare and this has paid dividends. We should not at the same time forget that his predecessors had also contributed substantially towards evolving the field strategy and maintaining enormous pressure on the bandit. None of them can be faulted for not having tried sufficiently hard. Possibly luck eluded them.

The outsmarting of Veerappan proves that honest and focussed leadership is available within the Indian police and this has to be put to good use. I would like to hasten to add that men like Vijayakumar are disappointingly only a few in number in each State. The community should, therefore, nurse them with care so that any politically inspired moves to demotivate them should be resisted.

I see this happening in Mumbai under the bold leadership of former Director-General of Police (DGP) Julius Ribeiro who has not hesitated to call a spade a spade. He has hit out not merely against corrupt and meddling politicians, but has lambasted equally dishonest officers receiving political patronage. Unfortunately, Ribeiro's campaign has not received the publicity it deserves. He, however, goes on gallantly, unmindful of the number of enemies he has picked up on what certainly is a craggy route.

CHIEF MINISTER Jayalalithaa deserves praise for her decisive backing of the operation against Veerappan. I wonder whether bereft of such an obvious political will, the STF could have succeeded. I am equally happy that political differences have been put aside, and Vijayakumar and his men have been hailed by most political parties. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief himself has been appreciative of the STF. This is what I have been pleading for for ages. Policemen need wholehearted cooperation from the entire political spectrum if they are to maintain law and order. Threatening policemen who are enforcing law and obstructing them from what they ought to do under the law are a favourite pastime of ward-level politicians. Unless the latter are pulled up by their high command, very few policemen will dare to act against an offender, especially if the latter belongs to a ruling party.

This brings me to the widespread impression that the police took more than a decade to neutralise Veerappan only because he was receiving political patronage. I understand that the Karnataka government desires to probe into this. I look upon this as a futile exercise that would only waste precious public money. Like many Commissions of Inquiry it should also be coming out with an incomprehensible report with sweeping generalisations.

I would at the same time be surprised if anyone asserts that Veerappan was not a beneficiary of political patronage. It is very likely that he had access to small-time politicians on either side of the border and had been "taking care" of them. The issue, however, is whether this link had affected the operation to capture him. I am not willing to buy the argument that if this nexus had not been there, Veerappan would have been caught earlier. The difficult terrain and the complicity of some segments of the local population had undoubtedly helped him to evade arrest for a decade. An imaginatively devised operation that circumvented these two factors seems to have now brought in the ultimate success.

I do not also agree that we will not see anyone like Veerappan in the future. In our times, those who flout the law and reap quick worldly success have unfortunately been role models for misguided youth. If criminals are portrayed in drama and poetry and discussed by the media in admiration, the lure of emulating them becomes all the greater. There is always the economic factor - poverty and lack of employment - to aggravate the situation.

I do not discount more Veerappans emerging in Tamil Nadu, a State that incidentally offers a fertile soil in the form of a movie world that romanticises dubious public figures. Uttar Pradesh Governor T.V. Rajeswar referred to the hold of the Tamil cinema in a recent convocation address at the Madurai-Kamaraj University. I am sure his remarks have raised a few hackles. A former policeman that he is, he could not have been more forthright and blunt. I, therefore, believe that the Tamil Nadu Police will have to brace itself to meet similar future challenges.

Vijayakumar has gone on record to say that intelligence played a crucial role in trapping Veerappan. I am delighted at this, because `intelligence' in the Indian police context has always stood for snooping on political figures and finding out what politician A or B was doing to embarrass the ruling party. The role of crime intelligence had been underestimated for decades. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in many countries, especially the United Kingdom, where there is a National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) that takes care of collecting intelligence and sharing it among police forces. Criminal Investigation Departments (CIDs) in India have their focus on investigation once a matter is unearthed. Very rarely have they assigned an intelligence role to their operatives that could bring to light the underworld's preparations to commit heinous offences such as trafficking in women and children, dealing in drugs and contract killings. I hope wide publicity to the Veerappan episode from the point of the efficacy of intelligence would help change perceptions and assign to this aspect of work the priority it deserves.

THE STF's success highlights the utility of creating specialist units within the police. As currently organised, the police as an outfit have failed to come up to public expectations, especially at the police station level. A closed mind coupled with legal and administrative constraints partially explains the police inability to innovate on the structural front. Problems such as those posed by Veerappan and his tribe require a break from the past so that the style of extraordinary police leaders is not cramped and they are allowed to pursue targets relentlessly. There is, therefore, a case for continued experiments like the STF.

There are, however, two dangers here. Perpetuating an STF robs the regular police of a desire to exert themselves. Secondly, a standing body tends to become arrogant and corrupt and therefore sloppy. It is necessary to create such units as and when an occasion demands it and disband it the moment the task is fulfilled. I know that there is already a demand that Vijayakumar's team should continue, particularly to ferret out all the money that Veerappan had obtained as ransom and hidden. I wonder whether the STF is equipped to handle this task. I would rather assign it to the CID whose investigative skills could come in handy.

A significant lesson learnt from all this is that inter-State crime demands close collaboration between States. Except for occasional moments of tension and distrust, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka Police did work hand in hand to hunt down Veerappan. This was good as far as it went. Whether such a rapport will be seen in more sensitive areas is a moot question.

There is a case here for a federal arrangement that will ensure coordination between States. The Ministry of Home Affairs does a little of this already. I still visualise a formal arrangement whereby Directors-General of Police of States meet once in six months, with the seniormost DGP presiding over the meeting, where inter-State policing matters can be discussed and problems sorted out.

At present, the major forum available is the Intelligence Bureau-convened annual meeting, which suffers from a huge and diffused agenda and a consequent lack of focus. I envisage an arrangement like the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in the U.K., which is funded by the Home Office and has its own permanent secretariat. A body like this has many advantages, including the fact that it enables police chiefs to get to know one another and provide mutual assistance in crisis situations.

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