An unending chase

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

A DAY after the discovery of Nagappa's body, the Karnataka government doubled the reward for definite information on Veerappan to Rs.2 crores. It also decided to obtain logistic support from the defence forces and the Union Home Ministry. But will these steps serve any purpose?

There has been a reward on the outlaw for almost a decade and Central forces, be it the Border Security Force (BSF) or the elite National Security Guards (NSG), have come and gone. They could do little without specific information on the gang's location.

A battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) arrived on December 12 to assist the 2,000-odd men of the Special Task Forces (STFs) in the anti-Veerappan operations. But more than numbers, what is needed now is information on the whereabouts of the gang.

Veerappan gets information in plenty about the movements of the STF, besides essential supplies and even shelter, from the tribal and other people living in villages on the periphery of the forest. His knowledge of the forest - its ravines, waterholes, bird and animal calls - and his network of informers have ensured that he is always miles ahead, quite literally, of his pursuers.

Said an STF officer: "We know that the gang is getting support and that Veerappan has been regularly collecting rations. We have to locate the supply chain, not just the person who is the last link in it. Also, Veerappan does not require large quantities of provisions. Meat is available in the forest, and so are wild fruits.''

Additional Director-General of Police (Tamil Nadu STF) R. Nataraj said the help that Veerappan was getting from local politicians and other influential people was the main stumbling block. "If local people who knew where he was had helped us during the Nagappa abduction, we could have got him by now. Nagappa's notebook states that Ponnache Mahadevaswamy, a Janata Dal functionary from Karnataka, had visited them in the jungle."

Nataraj discounted the theory that people were helping Veerappan out of fear. "What happened to Ayyappan (from Chemmanthimalai in the Western Ghats), who called the police when the Veerappan gang came looking for rations? Nothing. Most of the tribal people who help him do it for the money that he gives. And Veerappan currently has a lot of it and in big denominations."

Officers in the STF felt that crucial to the operations was thermal imaging equipment, infra-red torches and access to space imaging facilities (to give longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates). Said Nataraj: "We need real-time pictures, not pictures that are a week old. Also a helicopter on standby, not for routine reconnaissance but to move men quickly. Outfits such as the NSG are only useful for the final spike once we know where the gang is."

AT the political level, the reactions of the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments to the menace have been knee-jerk at best. The two State governments have also had an on-off relationship on this issue. If the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu offered unstinted cooperation to the S.M. Krishna government in 2000 to secure film actor Rajkumar's release from Veerappan, in Nagappa's case cooperation was conspicuous by its absence. If Krishna airdashed to Chennai a couple of times to meet his counterpart at that time, M. Karunanidhi, soon after the actor's abduction, this time neither Krishna nor any of his senior Ministers went to Chennai to discuss Nagappa's release. By the time Karnataka Home Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge and Education Minister B.K. Chandrashekhar met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in Chennai on November 18, more than 80 days after the kidnapping.

The Tamil Nadu government took the stand that Nagappa's abduction was for Karnataka to tackle, but it was prepared to cooperate in the joint STF operations to catch Veerappan. A Tamil Nadu government press release, issued after the Ministers met Jayalalithaa, said: "The Chief Minister made it clear that the Tamil Nadu government is committed to nabbing Veerappan by adopting a definite strategy and firm action within its territory. At present, the joint operation has been discontinued only at the instance of Karnataka. Veerappan continues to be located in Karnataka territory. If Karnataka so desires, Tamil Nadu would be willing to reactivate the joint operations in Karnataka territory in order to capture Veerappan. Therefore, the Government of Tamil Nadu has no active role to play in this regard at this juncture. However, if a specific request is made by the Government of Karnataka suggesting the active involvement of the Government of Tamil Nadu in the capture of Veerappan, it will be given due consideration and all possible assistance rendered for the rescue of Mr. Nagappa."

The two governments seemed to be working at cross purposes. When the Karnataka government was looking for emissaries to meet Veerappan, Jayalalithaa declared that Tamil Nadu would not send any emissaries. If the Karnataka government put its STF operations on hold, Jayalalithaa said the Tamil Nadu STF would continue its operations in the State's forests to capture the brigand. When Veerappan asked for jailed Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam leader Kolathur Mani to be sent as the negotiator, and the Karnataka government took steps to see that Mani got bail in the cases registered against him, Tamil Nadu officials said Mani would be arrested if he entered Tamil Nadu. When there were indications that Prof. Kalyani, one of the negotiators during Rajkumar's kidnap, might be willing to go, dark hints were dropped in Tamil Nadu that a case against him might be revived.

Among the others who negotiated Rajkumar's release, cases had been registered against Nakkheeran Editor R.R. Gopal and the reporter of the magazine P. Sivasubramanian in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu after the Jayalalithaa government assumed power in May 2001, while Tamil Nationalist Movement founder P. Nedumaran had been arrested in Tamil Nadu under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

In November 2000, after Rajkumar was released, Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna announced in the State Legislature that "the government would take care that such incidents do not recur". Twenty months later Nagappa was kidnapped. On December 8 after the discovery of Nagappa's body, S.M. Krishna said: "We will go all out to flush out Veerappan."

Informed sources in the Karnataka government said that after Rajkumar's release Krishna posted to the STF police officers who were projected in the media as dynamic and efficient. "But all of them failed," said an informed source close to Krishna. "Recently an STF chief returned from the jungle in 10 days saying it was impossible to catch the brigand and the only solution was to make him surrender. He then asked to be posted outside the State. Another STF chief went after everybody but Veerappan and then sought a posting in a safe place, while a very senior officer took a group of journalists to the forest to show how close the STF had come to catching Veerappan. During his stay in the jungle, this officer travelled in a convoy of three vehicles fearing that the routes may have been booby-trapped by the gang."

ACCORDING to sources in the STF, besides the three hardcore members - Veerappan, Sethukuli Govindan and Chandre Gownder - six or seven others may have joined the gang. Veerappan is known to recruit local people as and when he needs manpower. Most of the activists of separatist Tamil outfits, who had been with the gang during the Rajkumar kidnap, have either left or been arrested by the Tamil Nadu police.

Bickering, one-upmanship and lack of coordination between the STFs of the two States, and frequent transfers and the posting of men in the STF as a punishment — all these have over the years made a farce of the operations. On December 12, after a field-level meeting between the top brass of the two STFs at the Mettur camp, it was decided that in the interest of better coordination and operational efficiency the two forces would now be called just the `STF'. There would also be more mobile camps (as opposed to static camps) in the jungles to ensure that the entire manpower of the STF remained in the jungles. Top police officers of the two States met in Chennai on December 14.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani recently called on both States to end the Veerappan menace. The Union government has agreed to lend support - logistic and manpower. But Krishna would like the Centre to take over the STF operations, lead from the front, get the support of the local police and then go after the gang. Krishna has written to the Prime Minister asking him to call a meeting of the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to draw up a plan for better coordination.

After the killing of Nagappa there appears to be a conscious effort to end the Veerappan menace. Said Mallikarjuna Kharge: "Our aim is to catch Veerappan dead or alive." And with Jayalalithaa showing a keenness to do the same, the two governments may not be lacking in resolve. But is resolve alone enough?

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