A bloody trail

Print edition : November 19, 2004

Nakkheeran R.R. Gopal, when he went into the forest to negotiate the release of Karnataka foresters, whom Veerappan had taken hostage. Sethukuli Govindan is standing. - COURTESY: NAKKHEERAN

Veerappan's life was one of plunder and bloodshed, and he was unremorseful to the end.

FOR almost 20 years Koose Munisamy Veerappan was the king of 6,000 of the18,000 square kilometres of dense mixed jungles, ravines, rivers and villages on the fringes of forests, stretching from Denkanikote, Anchetti and Hogenekal in Tamil Nadu's Dharmapuri district through the Malai Mahadeshwara (M.M.) Hills, the Biligiri Ranga (B.R.) Hills and Bandipur in Karnataka, right up to the Niligiri ranges in Tamil Nadu, and abutting slightly into the Palakkad Gap in the Vyalar forests, where a 50 km natural gap in the 960-km-long Western Ghats opens into Kerala. With complete mastery over the terrain, the forest brigand killed man and beast ruthlessly, evaded the law and eluded the dragnet spread by the Special Task Forces of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It was a life swathed in plunder and bloodshed, to the end.

Although no accurate record of the number of persons murdered by Veerappan is available, according to an estimate, he killed 140-odd persons. Forest Department personnel, policemen and STF personnel of both States constitute 44 of them. One victim was a Border Security Force jawan. He poached a few hundred elephants and looted 10,000 tonnes of sandalwood. His strategy was to lure, ambush and shoot, and sometimes play Macbeth by killing his guest. He ruthlessly gunned down anyone he perceived to be an informer. He had a bizarre way of checking the credibility of the suspect. Picking up a handful of pebbles, Veerappan would toss them, two at a time, at the feet of the idol of Mahadeshwara, which he worshipped. If he was left with one pebble the suspect was deemed guilty and beheaded; if he was left with no pebbles, the suspect got the benefit of the doubt.

Veerappan was one of the three sons (the others being Mathaiyan and Arjunan) of Munisamy and Punidhayamma. He was born in 1952 at Gopinatham, a small settlement in the midst of a closed forest in Kollegal taluk in Chamrajnagar district of Karnataka, bordering Dharmapuri district. Munisamy belonged to an agricultural family of Thampalli in Salem district of Tamil Nadu. The family relocated to Gopinatham after Thampalli and scores of adjoining villages were submerged by the Mettur dam.

Veerappan used to accompany his father whenever he went to hunt deer and wild fowl for meat, and soon became a good marksman. His initial claim to fame was when as a youngster he killed a tiger single-handedly in Gopinatham. By his own admission in one of the video footages shot by P. Sivasubramaniam, a reporter with the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran, at the age of 12 he killed an elephant, sawed off its tusks and sold them to Sevi Gounder, a local ivory trader. (He was arrested by the Karnataka forest guards near M.M. Hills, but he escaped.) A pleased Sevi Gounder gifted him with a firearm made in England. Thus began Veerappan's initiation into poaching.

As elephant tusks fetched handsome money, several gangs became active in the forests. These competed with one another to mow down hundreds of tuskers, forcing the Union government to curb the trade in ivory. This reportedly led to the retirement of Sevi Gounder from the trade.

In 1970 Veerappan left Gopinatham and the family's eight hectares of dryland to plunder the deciduous forests of the Western Ghats. The money from sandalwood smuggling was all too tempting for poachers who were able to get away because of their links with politicians both in Karnataka and in Tamil Nadu. Veerappan learnt very early in his criminal life that he could achieve anything with the right connections. He started looting sandalwood from the forests of Sathyamangalam, Thalaimalai and Bargur (in Tamil Nadu) and Thithimathi, Gundulpet, Kollegal and Bandipur (in Karnataka), sharing the booty with `friends' in the police and forest departments and among politicians. (In the 1980s he even campaigned for his politician friends during the elections.) Although the usual practice was for the politician-police nexus to annihilate the poacher before he grew too big, Veerappan turned out to be too wily. In 1972, the Tamil Nadu Police arrested him near Mettur, but the intervention of a legislator helped him secure bail. Veerappan's sustained elephant poaching also started around this time.

Veerappan was ruthless with his rivals in the trade. He beheaded them and displayed their heads as trophies. One such rival was Thangavelu. On May 5, 1986, a "mediator" arranged a "forgive and forget" dinner for the two groups at Gopinatham. After the dinner, Veerappan shot dead Thangavelu and his brothers. That brought Veerappan under the ken of the law. His supremacy established, he unleashed a reign of terror, and it became impossible for the authorities to ignore him.

Sources in the STF, which built a dossier on Veerappan based on surrogate and secondary information, pointed out that between 1990 and1995, Veerappan's killings had no rationale. For instance, he shot dead even a 12-year-old boy at point-blank range even as he was pleading for mercy. He was one of the seven persons killed at Manjugammpatty in November 1993 in a horrible fashion. At Gethesal, apart from shooting dead five informants in one go, he ordered his men to sever their limbs as he "wanted to see blood flow". The anguished villagers closed down the Mariyamman temple as they felt the deity did not come to the rescue of their kin. The temple was reopened last fortnight.

Real trouble for Veerappan began when he fell out with the police and forest officials of the two States in sharing the spoils. Veerappan had forged a nexus with local politicians in the smuggling of sandalwood. By the mid-1980s, out of the control of his police and Forest Department minders, Veerappan had formed his own gang. A few politicians were still able to exercise a degree of influence, but even that was to evaporate, with Veerappan acquiring a redoubtable gang of desperadoes and enough arms - self-loading rifles and muzzle guns made by village blacksmiths - and ammunition. Whenever his activities brought him into collision with Forest Department personnel he did not hesitate to murder them. In December 1986 he was arrested in Bangalore and lodged at the Boodipadga government guest house in Chamrajnagar. He escaped and a subsequent government inquiry pointed to the involvement of the District Superintendent of Police in this. But the government of the day did nothing; the officer was promoted.

Although Veerappan killed four Karnataka forest guards in 1984 near Nagarhole and Bandipur, his sustained hostage-for-ransom abductions started in 1987. The Tamil Nadu government sat up when he killed V. Chidambaram, a forest officer of the Sathyamangalam range, on July 14, 1987. Not surprisingly, the majority of his hostages were police and forest personnel. Granite quarry owners of Kollegal taluk operating in the periphery of the forests were also kidnapped and made to pay huge ransoms. In December 1987 he picked up M. Duraiswamy, a forest guard, and A. Subramaniam, a watcher from the Forest Department, near the Sathyamangalam forests, and had them killed in a horrific manner - boiling them in a big vessel used for brewing arrack. More forest personnel were killed in the years that followed.

In order to catch Veerappan, the Tamil Nadu government set up the STF comprising specially trained police commandos in January 1990. Karnataka followed suit in April 1990. But Veerappan was unstoppable. In 1990, he shot dead four policemen near Hogenekal.

His beheading in November 1991 of Deputy Conservator of Forests P. Srinivas, who was drafted into the Karnataka STF, shocked the authorities. Srinivas was lured into a trap by Arjunan. More mayhem was to follow when in August 1992 Veerappan ambushed and shot dead Mysore District Superintendent of Police T. Harikrishna and four others from the police department, including Sub-Inspector Shakeel Ahmed, near Meenyam.

By then Veerappan had acquired landmines and explosives. He attacked the Ramapura (Karnataka) police station, killing six policemen. (In 1998 he attacked the Villitirupur (Tamil Nadu) police station and seized guns.) He detonated landmines on April 9, 1993, to blast two buses carrying STF commandos of the two States, forest watchers and police informers near the Palar bridge in Erode district. This attack claimed 22 lives.

After this attack, Walter I. Dawaram, then Additional Director-General of Police (Law and Order), Tamil Nadu, who later led the STF, admitted that Veerappan had become the State's "no.1 law and order problem". "This is the first time that he has used landmines. Every time he strikes, his modus operandi is different... He is getting more and more sophisticated and invariably manages to lure people into his trap," he said. On another occasion, Dawaram said: "Veerappan is not just (a mere) bandit. He is able to analyse the psyche of the opponents thoroughly before launching an operation."

Sustained efforts by the STFs under Dawaram and Shankar Bidri led to the size of the Veerappan gang, which at one time had swelled to over 100, being reduced to under eight. The pressure forced him to make an offer of surrender in December 1994. Over the years he had made countless such offers, many of them were a ploy to escape while the governments dithered over what terms to offer him. And most of the surrender offers were followed by abduction. Veerappan had realised that abduction was an easy means to keep the cash flowing.

With each abduction, he made outrageous demands. The abductions were made so that he could talk to the government from a position of strength. First he wanted to surrender; then he insisted on general amnesty; and finally he sought complete pardon.

At the Sathyamangalam camp of the STF, after the success of Operation Cocoon.-K. ANANTHAN

The demands he made during those occasions included grant of Rs.1,000 crores to rehabilitate the families of members of his gang killed by the STF; withdrawal of all cases against him anywhere in India; the grant of a 100-year lease to quarry in the M.M. Hills; a comfortable place of detention ("I am used to walking 10 miles a day in the forests," he had said); regular meetings with his family members; regular supply of chicken, butter, fruits...; and filming of his life in all Indian languages.

In comparison, in the demands he made after the abduction of Kannada film actor Rajkumar in July 2000, he tried to project himself as a person who cared for the interests of Tamil Nadu in the Cauvery river water dispute with Karnataka and as a person who wanted to protect the Tamil language by insisting that Tamil should be the medium of instruction in schools, probably under the influence of ultra-left organisations whose members were holed up with him in the forests then. The surrender idea took a back seat during the Rajkumar abduction. Flush with money he got in exchange for the release of Rajkumar after four months, it is still unclear why he abducted the former Karnataka Minister H. Nagappa in August 2002. Nagappa was found dead in mysterious circumstances in December that year.

IT was around 1987 that he got married to Muthulakshmi, and a daughter was born to them in 1989. A second daughter was born in 1993. . A few days after the child was born, Veerappan and his "mobile village" of men and women came under pressure because of the STF's combing operations. Veerappan and his lieutenant Sethukuli Govindan managed to hand over the infant to a trusted friend. Muthulakshmi continued to live with Veerappan in the forests for a couple of months. In another combing operation, the men escaped and the STF secured Muthulakshmi and eight other women of the gang elsewhere. Muthulakshmi met Veerappan again in August 2000 when Rajkumar was abducted. It was then that Veerappan revealed to her where the second child was growing.

Contrary to media projection, Veerappan was never a Robin Hood. He was stingy; he parted with his ill-gotten money only when he really had to. He paid the people living on the fringes of the forests handsome wages for identifying mature sandalwood trees and cutting and smuggling them to destinations in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. He also gave food liberally to the people. He provided for his relatives and Muthulakshmi, amply though. Police sources said that Muthulakshmi owns two houses in Mettur and two earthmovers valued at Rs.6 lakhs each (which were being rented out to contractors in Mettur, Salem and Coimbatore). She also lends money on interest.

Veerappan truly belonged to the forests. He was a keen observer, though not a friend, of wildlife, and could perfectly imitate the trumpeting of elephants. If an "allkaatti" swallow flew, he knew human beings were moving about in the forest. A religious man, he performed surya namskar (worship of the sun) twice a day.

He enjoyed playing on a bamboo flute, which he had made himself, and dancing. He had "godowns" dug in the forest floor, where provisions wrapped in cellophane bags were buried. He had an uncanny knack of identifying these "godowns".

He believed in omens. While the tweeting of sparrows and the call of a lizard from a particular direction was a bad omen, chirping of a woodpecker from the west and east were good omens. It was one such omen that made Veerappan act hastily in shifting Nagappa, resulting in his panic killing, STF sources assert.

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