After the reign of terror

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

Mourners on the way to Moolakkadu village near Mettur, where Veerappan is buried. - P. GOUTHAM

Mourners on the way to Moolakkadu village near Mettur, where Veerappan is buried. - P. GOUTHAM

IRONICALLY, it was not the slaying of Veerappan that the residents of villages such as Govindapadi and Chengapadi on the periphery of the forests that the brigand controlled celebrated. For them, it was a moment of joy because the death of Veerappan meant an end to the operations of the Special Task Force (STF) and the "constant harassment" at its hands.

"We shall now be left in peace to lead our lives. We can now go into the forests to collect firewood and berries, graze our cattle, or go about our daily lives without the fear of being picked up for questioning or being accused of abetting Veerappan's crimes," was the common refrain in these villages. It is equally ironic that no one shed tears for Veerappan in his native village of Gopinatham at the base of the Malai Mahadeshwara (M.M.) Hills on the Karnataka side of the inter-State border, not even members of the Padayachi Gounder community to which he belonged. They did not want the body to be cremated or buried in the village. They were happy that the cycle of Veerappan's crimes and subsequent police interrogation was finally over.

But there were a few voices of remorse in the villages, among the sizable number of onlookers at the Dharmapuri General Hospital where the brigand's body was kept, at Veerappan's widow Muthulakshmi's house and at his grave in Moolakkadu (15 km from Mettur). They mourned the death of a "man who had defied for over two decades the might of two State governments" and lamented that "he died a dog's death".

The death of Veerappan, though, did come as a surprise to almost all people (including most STF members and other police personnel) in the areas where the gang was active. Given Veerappan's larger-than-life image, reports about his death in the STF ambush were taken with a pinch of salt. The feeling is that the gang, especially Veerappan, given his suspicious nature, would never have agreed to get into a motor vehicle.

Expressing scepticism at the STF's version of the events, many of them said that the gang had "been caught elsewhere, tortured and killed", a view that was echoed by Muthulakshmi. An emotional Muthulakshmi told Frontline that her husband could never have been trapped by the police. "He would have probably committed suicide," she said.

Moolakkadu, a stone's throw from the river Cauvery, has been attracting a stream of visitors. While most of them are driven to it by curiosity, others are diehard supporters of the brigand. Said S. Palani from a nearby hamlet: "He may have looted, but then many politicians are doing the same. Only, Veerappan did it openly. To us he was a hero."

There are others who thought he was a tyrant from whom there was no escape. Said Ayyan Mahadappan from Govindapadi, 21 km from Mettur: "We had to surrender to him. It is not that we went to him. He accosted us in the forests or came to our villages and took us away. We were then used to load sandalwood on to lorries or to carry the gang's provisions. But the STF used to harass us saying that we were part of the gang." Similar tales were related by tribal people wandering in forests like Nallur, Hoogyam, Jallipalaya, Talakere and Oozhimalai.

For the residents of Gopinatham, some of whom even joined the STF personnel when they burst firecrackers and distributed sweets, Veerappan's death would hopefully put an end to the unwanted attention that the village had been receiving for 18 years, ever since the bandit killed Tamil Nadu forest officer Chidambaram. And though Veerappan and his immediate family had long deserted the village - the bandit's disused house is on the verge of collapse - the Karnataka STF had put Gopinatham under 24-hour surveillance. Any crime by the gang, irrespective of where it was committed brought more misery to the village. Nothing could move in and out of the village without being first checked by the STF. Even people carrying provisions from the Public Distribution System outlets were routinely asked questions.

The STF was always suspicious that the provisions were intended for the brigand and his gang. Further, there was an unofficial curfew clamped on the village. The continuous police presence and the fact that a number of villagers had been recruited by the STF to serve as police informers had created a rift in the once closed-knit community.

Veerappan was no friend of the village. He did not hand out bundles of money to its residents. He did use a few people to buy provisions, clothes and tarpaulins. But his tyranny - he nonchalantly eliminated people whom he suspected of being informers - hardly endeared him to the residents. Gopinatham residents still talk about how he hacked Kotti Naicker, one of them, because he travelled in a police jeep.

Caught in the crossfire, villagers, most of whom are small and medium landholders and are dependent on their paddy, cotton or turmeric crop, were not able to sell their produce to people from the surrounding hamlets. Now, with Veerappan gone, they hope that customers will once again return to buy their produce.

Further on from Gopinatham, people of hamlets such as Hannur, Ponnachi, Chengadi, Hoogyam, Meenyam and Martahalli hope that the Karnataka government will reopen the granite quarries that lie on the periphery of the forests now that the Veerappan menace is over. The quarries, which were closed 10 years ago in the wake of the Palar bridge blast on the border between the two States in which 22 policemen were killed, provided jobs to over 5,000 workers.

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