The extremist link

Print edition : November 19, 2004

Veerappan and Sethukuli Govindan, pay homage to Tamilarasan, the founder of the TNLA, on his 12th death anniversary (September 1,2002) under the common flage of the TNLA and the TNRF. -

The first clear evidence of Veerappan's links with extremists was available following the abduction of Kannada actor Rajkumar. The brigand needed men to strengthen his gang, and the latter a sanctuary.

IN life and in death forest brigand Veerappan and Tamil ultra-leftist groups made a brief common cause. One of the three men killed along with was Sethumani. This established the nexus between Veerappan and the Tamil ultra-leftist group Tamizhar Viduthalai Iyakkam (TVI, or Tamils' Liberation Movement), led by Suba. Ilavarasan.

The video footage of the scene at the Dharmapuri District General Hospital, where the bodies were kept, was revealing. Somebody turned over the left arm of Sethumani, on which a "mango" and the letters "P.M.K." were found tattooed. The mango is the symbol of the PMK or the Pattali Makkal Katchi, a political party in Tamil Nadu led by Dr. S. Ramadoss. Sethumani was a member of the PMK before joining the TVI. Ilavarasan had earlier headed one of the factions of another ultra-leftist organisation, the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA). The TVI was the third extremist group, after the Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF) and the TNLA, to find refuge in the forests in the company of Veerappan. While the TNLA was led by Maran, one of the TNRF's leaders was Amudhan.

The Tamil Nadu STF had arrested Ilavarasan and his associate Saha alias Sahadevan, at Kolathur in Salem district on May 26, ending several months of search. The police claimed that they detained them when they were trying to sneak into the forests at a place called Adipalaru to join Veerappan. A pistol, some ammunition, plastic pipe bombs and hand grenades were recovered from them.

On October 20, when Ilavarasan was produced in a court at Jayamkondan in Perambalur district in connection with seven cases filed against him, the TVI leader termed as "reprehensible" the killing of Veerappan.

Although information was trickling in since 1997 that the TNRF and the TNLA were trying to establish contact with Veerappan, it was the brigand's abduction of Kannada film actor Rajkumar in July 2000 that gave a clear idea of the relationship - the release of seven TNRF men from prison was a condition for the actor's release. The nexus came to light when the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran's editor, R.R. Gopal, went to the forests in the Sathyamangalam-Thalavadi area in Tamil Nadu as the emissary of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments to negotiate the release of Rajkumar and three others. Gopal was accompanied by Nakkheeran reporter P. Sivasubramanian (who was the first reporter to interview Veerappan in the forests, in April 1993) and other colleagues.

The video footage brought by Gopal on his return to Chennai from his first trip in August 2000 showed a hooded TNLA cadre in the forest. Gopal had then said: "Veerappan has changed. There are other people with him now - not his old associates." When a reporter asked whether the TNLA was behind Veerappan, his reply was: "He has established himself as the captain. He spoke about Che Guevara. He said he would take a decision only after consulting the joint committee."

At one point Veerappan told Gopal: "I am fighting for the six crore people of Tamil Nadu." The reference was to the demands he had made for Rajkumar's release, which included making Tamil the medium of instruction up to ClassX, release of seven TNRF cadre, finding a solution to the labour problem in the Manjolai tea estate, and fixing the minimum wage for tea and coffee estate workers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu at Rs.150 a day.

Referring to Veerappan's demand that the Cauvery waters dispute be referred to the International Court of Justice, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had said: "Somebody has tutored Veerappan." The brigand's demands were clearly in tune with the ideology of the TNLA and the TNRF (Frontline, September 1, 2000).

It was a symbiotic relationship that existed between Veerappan on the one side, and the TNLA and the TNRF on the other. He needed them and they needed him. The TNRF and TNLA men were on the run and needed a sanctuary and Veerappan's guiding hand to survive. The brigand too needed men because his "mobile village" of more than 100 men and women had been reduced to about two or three under the STF onslaught. He needed men who could ensure a fresh supply of arms and ammunition, carry his "luggage", cook food, and carry his messages to government officials.

In an interview to the Tamil magazine Junior Vikatan, TNLA leader Maran's father said his son's first feelers to Veerappan were rejected. "`I myself am in a bad situation now, so I cannot protect you'," Singaram quoted Veerappan as having said. "Later, I heard that they had somehow joined hands," Singaram said (Frontline, November 24, 2000).

As the Rajkumar abduction drama degenerated into a war of attrition between Veerappan and the two State governments, a motely group of Tamil nationalists materialised as "ambassadors of humanitarianism" to enter the forests and work for the actor's release. Some of them were avowed champions of Tamil nationalism. They included P. Nedumaran, founder of the Tamil Nationalist Movement and an uncompromising supporter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); Kolathur "Mani", who once belonged to the Dravidar Kazhagam and organised training camps for LTTE cadre in his village of Kolathur near Mettur, when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister; A.P. Shanmugasundaram, president of the Karnataka Tamilar Peravai, who, according to the police, had links with the LTTE; Dr. Bhanu and Ramkumar, who had interests in quarrying; P. Kalyani, a sympathiser of the ultra-leftists People's War and organiser of the State unit of the Revolutionary Cultural Movement; and G. Sugumaran, an activist of the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), Pondicherry.

During the final lap of the Rajkumar hostage drama, the TNLA specificially asked that Nedumaran, Kalyani and Sugumaran be sent to negotiate the actor's release.

The TNRF was the first to forge links with Veerappan. Unlike the TNLA, the TNRF does not have any Marxist ideology. It is a Tamil nationalist, secessionist organisation wedded to establishing a Tamil State that would span Tamil Nadu and Eelam, which covers the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. It is a small outfit with about a dozen members, and about three of them were trained in the use of arms by the LTTE in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka.

Under relentless police pressure after the LTTE's assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the TNRF made overtures to Veerappan to let it pitch a camp with him. In 1998, the TNRF managed to establish contacts with Veerappan. Four of its members first went into the forests and stayed with him. They were Krishnamurthy, Muthukumar, Jayaprakash and Saravanan. After some months they returned to the towns to do "field work". Next, it was the turn of three other TNRF members, Manikandan, Sathiyamurthy and Muthukumar, to join Veerappan. They too returned for "field work". The police arrested all them in 1998 and 2000. (In 1998, the TNRF men attacked a police station at Vellithirupur in Erode district. Veerappan and his key associate, Sethukuli Govindan, also reportedly took part in the attack.)

In the meantime, the TNLA wangled themselves into the forests to make common cause with Veerappan. Six men started to live with him. They included the TNLA leader Maran alias Senguttuvan; Govindaraj alias Inian; Elumalai alias Andril; Amirthalingam alias Chezhiyan; Raju alias Selvam; and Ramesh alias Tamizh. These six men were with Veerappan when Gopal met the brigand to negotiate Rajkumar's release.

In January 2001, the TNLA parted company with Veerappan, and its men fanned out to various parts of the State. However, by June 2001 except Ramesh the police arrested all the TNLA men who had been with Veerappan. But Alappakkam Murugesan of the TNRF is still absconding.

It was then the turn of the TVI cadre to get into the forests. Ilavarasan's men were allegedly involved in Veerappan's abduction of former Karnataka Minister H. Nagappa in 2002.

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