The end of Veerappan

Print edition : November 19, 2004

The Special Task Force of Tamil Nadu guns down the forest brigand and his associates in a meticulously planned intelligence operation bringing to an end two decades of hunt.

RAVI SHARMA in Dharmapuri and Satyamangalam G. SATYAMURTY and V.S. PALANIAPPAN in Coimbatore

STF chief K. Vijay Kumar with his Karnataka counterpart Jyoti Prakash Mirji (left), Superintendent of Police N.K. Senthamaraikannan (third left), Saravanan (white shirt), who drove the `ambulance', and Vellaidurai (standing, second left) at a press briefing in Dharmapuri on October 19, a day after the killing of Veerappan.-K.ANANTHAN

THE Seventh Day Matriculation School in Padi in Tamil Nadu, around 12 km from Dharmapuri on the road to Papparapatti, was on the night of October 18 witness to the endgame of one of independent India's most wanted criminals - forest brigand Veerappan. On that fateful night, vehicular traffic on the road which links National Highway 7 (Bangalore to Dharmapuri) and the Palakkodu-Pennagaram road, came to a halt at around 10-30 p.m. What followed for the next 25 minutes is already the subject of folklore and conjecture.

Travelling on the road towards Dharmapuri in an ambulance, emblazoned with the words `SKS Hospital, Selam' and driven by a policeman in plainclothes, was Veerappan, his long-time lieutenant Sethukuli Govindan, and two others - Chandre Gowda, an outlaw who had been with Veerappan for a number of years, and Sethumani, an extremist belonging to the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army. They had descended from the Pikkili Hills and waited to be picked up from a maize field on the outskirts of Papparapatti (which is a small town, around 20 km west of Dharmapuri).

Also sitting in the vehicle next to driver Saravanan was Vellaidurai, a sub-inspector with the Tamil Nadu Police who had been recently recruited into the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force (STF), which had been searching for the Veerappan gang since its establishment in 1990. The ambulance was in fact a police vehicle that had been redone. It was also fitted with a remote surveillance camera, which was supposed to send pictures back to the STF about the movement of the gangsters from the fringes of the forest to the plain; but it malfunctioned. Operation Cocoon, led by the Additional Director-General of Police and Commander of the Tamil Nadu STF, K. Vijay Kumar, was entering its final phase.

A sugarcane-laden lorry, giving the impression that it was heading towards the sugar mill at nearby Palakkodu, was parked in the middle of the road, diagonally opposite the school. Known as a `seed box' in military/ambush parlance, the lorry was actually meant to block the path of the oncoming ambulance. A `mobile bunker' (another lorry) replete with sandbags and armed STF commandos, which was to be the main firing zone, was parked, again, diagonally opposite the school, at a 45 angle. Armed STF commandos were also positioned atop the school building. With the 20-foot-wide road well covered - mobile bunker to the north, seed box to the east and the school to the south - the `prey', as it drove in from the west, would be cocooned. A third vehicle was parked elsewhere with reinforcements.

Once in `the zone', the ambulance was intercepted. And even as the fugitives were asked over a megaphone to surrender, Saravanan and Vellaidurai melted away into the darkness. When the gang greeted the second call for surrender with gunfire, the STF opened fire on the ambulance. According to the STF, the four outlaws were shot dead in the gun battle that followed. While Veerappan was found dead, the others died on the way to hospital. Found in the ambulance were two AK-47s, a non-ballistic .12 bore Remington pump action gun, a self-loading rifle, two hand grenades and around Rs.3.5 lakhs in cash.

How did Veerappan die? Did he actually die in the gun battle? Or did he commit suicide, as some reports claim? Or did he ask his fellow bandits to shoot him, knowing there was no way out?

According to one of the doctors who performed the post-mortem on the bodies at the Dharmapuri General Hospital, Veerappan could not have committed suicide, but he could have been shot by his fellow bandits. In the doctor's estimate, the fatal bullet could have been shot from a distance of 10 to 15 feet. Veerappan is said to have suffered two puncture wounds to the head (most probably delivered by an AK-47). While one bullet had exited, the other was embedded. There were also around 10 superficial wounds in the trunk region. Sethukuli Govindan, from whose body seven bullets were recovered, had also suffered around 20 superficial wounds. While two bullets were recovered from the trunk region of Chandre Gowda's body, no bullets were recovered from Sethumani's body.

Said the doctor: "All the four were in good physical shape. Veerappan appeared to be aged around 55, while Govindan was in his mid-thirties. Veerappan's left eye had a fully mature cataract. The reason why the left eye region had been forced in by two centimetres was the damage that the frontal region of the skull had suffered when it was hit by the bullet."

Death in all the four cases, according to the doctor, was caused by bullet injuries. The doctor also disclosed that the bullets were being sent for analysis at the Forensic Sciences Laboratory in Chennai. "By studying the bullets' fingerprints and comparing them with the guns that were used both by the gang and by the STF, ballistic experts will be able to tell us which bullet was fired from which gun. This could answer the question whether Veerappan was shot by the STF or by one of his own men." Commenting on the precise nature of the bullet in Veerappan's head, Vijay Kumar said that this could have happened because of the fact that the main firing zone was hardly two metres from the ambulance.

According to Vijay Kumar, three core teams of 22 commandos armed with .9 mm sub-machine guns (which have a range of 30 metres and are equipped with snub-nosed bullets), AK-47s (which have a rapid rate of fire) and shotguns had taken up positions at Padi. Also present at the shootout, besides Vijay Kumar, were Tamil Nadu STF officers Superintendents of Police N.K. Senthamaraikannan (who is credited with masterminding the intelligence aspects and coordinating the operation), K. Shanmugavelu and P. Chinnasamy, Deputy Superintendents of Police N. Thirunavukkarasu and Hussain, and Inspectors N. Rajarajan and Mohan Nawaz. The STF had blocked five entry points and were prepared to take on the gang even if Veerappan had insisted on taking a route other than the one towards Padi.

A question that has been raised is why did so few bullets (hardly a 100) hit the ambulance and the four bandits, despite the fact that 22 men had almost emptied their magazines (around 20 bullets in each) at the target. (One press of an AK-47's trigger spews out two or three bullets.) Explained Senthamaraikannan: "Yes, we fired over 300 bullets, but it was part of our strategy. After our first round of fire, there was a lull. A few of the officers whom we had summoned by mike once we knew that the van (ambulance) was indeed going to Padi joined us just prior to the second round of fire. Then there was a lull, but we were not sure whether Veerappan and his people were dead, or were regrouping to fire again. So in order to make them think that firing was still on, we had groups of our men stationed at different points around the van to fire in the air. While the firing in the air was going on, two officers opened the back door of the ambulance. No movement was found inside the van. During the operation 70 or 80 of our bullets must have hit the target. The rest were fired in the air."

Since commandos generally do not fire in the air during ambushes unless they are cocksure that the target has been eliminated, one can only speculate as to what would have happened if the gang had not been down and out and the STF commandos had run out of ammunition by shooting in the air.

There is also the question why the STF did not allow the bandits to exhaust their bullets and then tried to capture them alive. Said Vijay Kumar: "I would have liked to capture them alive, but when they opened fire I had to retaliate."

The bodies of Veerappan (in the foreground) and his associates, at the Dharmapuri General Hospital mortuary.-K. ANANTHAN

Although a number of similar questions have risen on what really happened during the Padi shootout, there is no doubt that the final chapter in the long-running saga of Veerappan, who carried a reward of Rs 5.5 crores on his head, was the culmination of at least 10 months of hectic preparations, including spot-on intelligence and meticulous planning by the Tamil Nadu STF (see box).

The chief role of the Karnataka STF appears to have been to ensure that the bandit and his gang did not have a free run through the Karnataka side of the forests. There was also a serious effort to cut out red-tapism and one-upmanship between the two STFs, something that had characterised anti-Veerappan operations in the past.

As an informed source pointed out, the Karnataka STF chief Inspector-General of Police Jyoti Prakash Mirji had placed his entire force and its weapons and contacts under the command of his senior STF officer across the State boundary, Vijay Kumar. Although the Karnataka STF was unaware of the final assault, it had provided two groups of commandos who would have come into the picture if Veerappan had insisted on the ambulance taking an alternate route.

According to informed sources, in May STF personnel, in a bid to locate the whereabouts of the gang and to `penetrate' Veerappan's inner circle of friends, had paid a series of visits to prisons in Coimbatore, Bangalore, Kollegal (Chamrajnagar), Chennai, Salem and Cuddalore and had questioned a number of inmates, who were known to have contacts with the Veerappan gang. For example, in August officers from the Tamil Nadu STF's intelligence wing questioned a few persons jailed in Bangalore, owing allegiance to the Tamizhar Viduthalai Iyakkam (TVI). Arrested in November 2002 for possessing explosives, these men included Muthukumar, who is alleged to have spent considerable time with Veerappan during the Rajkumar abduction episode. According to Vijay Kumar, the reason why Muthukumar was allowed to stay in the forests with the gang was that another TVI extremist, Maran (who was arrested in 2003 by the Tamil Nadu Police), had given Veerappan Rs.2 lakhs.

The STF is also said to have questioned Veerappan's brother Mathaiyan, who is jailed in Coimbatore, and kept a close watch on Veerappan's wife Muthulakshmi, who was detained in a house in Coimbatore. A number of educated, young constables and sub-inspectors were also placed as undercover operatives in jails in Chennai and Coimbatore. Masquerading as petty criminals, these operatives were able to strike a chord with members of Tamil separatist organisations such as the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army and the Tamil Nadu Retrieval Force, and learnt how to make contact with conduits close to the Veerappan gang. Vijay Kumar denied that the STF had used Muslim extremists as conduits.

ACCORDING to Vijay Kumar, the key to Operation Cocoon lay in the use of the `cut-out' system of information gathering (where conduits/informers in the chain of intelligence gathering/information dissemination are aware of only the person they are in contact with and no one else in the chain).

"Having learnt from Veerappan's school that deception was the best weapon," the STF finally chose to go in for a strategy that "worked flawlessly". Armed with snippets of information, Vijay Kumar and Senthamaraikannan put into place a network of informers, attracting in the process a few of Veerappan's own conduits to their side.

These men were crucial to the success of Operation Cocoon. Between 25 and 30 local people and "fringe elements" (some of whom were Tamil extremists) were approached. While some showed an inclination to turn their backs on the brigand, others scoffed at the inducements. Some double-crossed the STF, and others ran away.

Finally four or five persons were enlisted. They became the mouth and ears of the STF. They infiltrated the gang and convinced Veerappan that they were `working' for him and had the wherewithal to provide "whatever he wanted".

Vijay Kumar, who worked under Walter I. Dawaram during the early stages of the hunt for Veerappan, took over as the chief of the joint command of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka STFs only in December last, beginning his third stint in the force. His first initiative then was to revive the "half-dormant assets" (informers) as he was certain that precise intelligence alone could help zero in on the gang.

Every piece of information was sifted and pursued meticulously. Information that had the probability of less than 100 per cent success was not followed up. It was finally decided to lure the brigand out of the forests by entering his den. The information garnered enabled the STF to `get into' the mind of the brigand, to study everything that he was up to.

Said Senthamaraikannan: "Unlike in the past we did not want to fight him (by combing and patrols) where he is strong. We started to think like him. It was a psychological battle. We learnt to flow with his thoughts. Whom did he suspect? When did he suspect them? After learning his method of thinking we were able to make him act according to our script."

Once the general location of the gang was identified as being in the vicinity of the Malai Mahadeshwara Hills, the STF decided to push it into the thinner forests towards the east in a task that took all of seven months but was well worth it. "Any hunt in the jungles had only a fraction of a chance and on nine out of 10 occasions it would be possible for the gang to give us the slip. Allowing him to continue in the jungles would definitely frustrate the mission," Vijay Kumar said.

The STF fortified its posts at Nallur, Hoogyam and Jallipalaya, right up to the river Cauvery, a distance of around 30 km, making life difficult for the gang. Said Vijay Kumar: "We were now holding his territory. Later we moved our men northwards into the Pennagaram forests right up to Natrampalayam. This once again gave the gang the space to move around."

The gang was shepherded towards the Dharmapuri, Pennagaram and Yemanur forests and the fringes of Papparapatti, places that were relatively unfamiliar to it. A few raids and patrols in pockets close to where the gang was hiding were conducted to give the impression that the STF was still not able to pinpoint the gang's location.

According to Vijay Kumar, this was the time that the STF learnt through informers of fissures in the gang and of Veerappan's eye ailment. But he was hesitant to come down to the plains for treatment, though the ailment was providing his lieutenant Govindan with a reason to try and take over the leadership of the gang. Said Vijay Kumar: "It was imperative that he have his eye checked if he was to regain control of the gang." There was also a conflict of interest between Veerappan and Chandre Gowda, who was keen to go and be with his aged and ailing parents. The bandit was also worried whether Sethumani would desert the gang after pocketing some of the money.

What made Veerappan trust the conduits? Said Senthamaraikannan: "Veerappan was desperate for three things - to get his eye operated upon, to recruit trained manpower and to buy weapons. He wanted to regroup and was planning to kidnap either a prominent religious leader [Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt chief Jayendra Saraswati said in Kozhikode, Kerala, on October 30 that the STF got information that his name had figured in Veerappan's list] or a Karnataka Minister. Our conduits, after being briefed by us, were able to convince him that the eye ailment was a very minor one and that a doctor would treat him in a farmhouse. [STF sources indicated that the farmhouse was on the outskirts of Kollimalai, around 10 km from Papparapatti.] We also offered him other things. But what else we offered is a secret."

At the scene of the shoot-out at Padi, near Dharmapuri.-

There have been unsubstantiated rumours that he was heading towards a safehouse or was being offered a safe passage to Sri Lanka - Veerappan had a fascination for the LTTE and its leader V. Prabakaran - but these have been denied by the STF. There has also been speculation that either he was captured or he surrendered and that he was detained for two days at a location near Mallayanor, about 15 km from Papparapatti and close to the Pikkili Hills.

Sources in the STF said that one of the reasons why Veerrappan chose to take all his confidants with him was that he was sure that he would get away: "It was Veerappan who persuaded, the others to come for a ride. He was also very suspicious. He thought that if any of them got caught in his absence, his location would be compromised."

IN a separate reaction, Vijay Kumar said "the main credit" for the operation went to Senthamaraikannan. "The coordination between Senthamaraikannan and me was excellent and he did a perfect job," he said. The killing of the brigand was "basically an intelligence operation" which was "aided by finding the right people for the job and executing the job with anticipation and contingency plans", he added. Asked whether the STF had used two men of Suba. Ilavarasan's ultra-leftist group, the TVI, to infiltrate the gang and whether they had stayed with Veerappan for several weeks, Vijay Kumar said they were speculative details on which he did not want to comment.

Contrary to reports in the media, sources in the STF say Vellaidurai did not infiltrate the Veerappan gang and stay with it in the forests for three weeks. He went inside the forests two or three times in July "to make contact" with Veerappan but did not succeed, the source said. Thereafter, Vellaidurai met Veerappan and his men only on the day they were killed by the STF.

Senthamaraikannan said: "Vellaidurai's role was purely to pick up the gang from a predetermined spot. We removed the man who was supposed to drive the vehicle (as per Veerappan's plans) and supplanted Vellaidurai. We chose him because of his build, shaven head... He gave the impression of being a Tamil extremist. Also, since he had newly joined the STF, he would not react emotionally when he saw Veerappan. Vellaidurai was the last point of contact for the mission. Veerappan had also been told that the man who was coming to meet him would be armed, so Vellaidurai faced no difficulties."

THERE is little doubt that the political stakes have always been higher in Karnataka than in Tamil Nadu when it came to the Veerappan imbroglio. Whether it was by accident or otherwise, all of Veerappan's high-profile hostages were residents of Karnataka. The biggest catch was film actor Rajkumar, in 2000, and next came former Karnataka Minister H. Nagappa, in 2002. On both occasions, the S.M. Krishna government was rattled by the Opposition and the media. In the words of Krishna, it was "one of the low points of his tenure as Chief Minister". He told Frontline after the brigand's death that Veerappan had given him "so much trouble" and that "the abduction crises were a nightmare".

Other governments were also hauled over the coals, most notably that of J.H. Patel, after the brigand kidnapped six persons from the Bandipur National Park in 1997. The kidnapping of Rajkumar and Nagappa and the latter's death are still shrouded in controversies, the first because of the huge ransom (Rs.20 crores) that was allegedly paid, and the second because Nagappa was found dead in the forest.

The Karnataka government's joy - despite the fact that its STF, on whom the State had spent Rs.20 crores, had only a marginal role in the denouement - was therefore understandable. It was also always suspected, but never proved that Veerappan had received ample support from `friends' in the political class. Given this and the persistent media probing on the hows and whys of the Veerappan saga, Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh on October 19 ordered an inquiry into the political and financial support that was accorded to the brigand.

The government is yet to decide on the nature of the probe. An immensely pleased Dharam Singh also announced that all 900 personnel of the Karnataka STF would get a residential site in their respective hometowns.