One hundred days of torment

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

Veerappan, who abducted Rajkumar more than a hundred days ago, continues to hold the Kannada actor - and also two State governments - hostage. There is growing concern also about the brigand's still unfolding Tamil extremist and pro-LTTE links.

A HUNDRED days have passed since Muthuraj Puttaswamiah, known to his army of fans as Dr. Rajkumar, was kidnapped by the gang of Gopinatham Muzhukkam Veerappan. The story of Rajkumar's apparently endless captivity is starting to resemble one of the bizarr e plots favoured by the popular film industry of which he was a central part. Like all reel-life heroes, Rajkumar's torments at the hands of villainy, in this case real-life, are legion. The 73-year-old Kannada movie icon has been forced to survive on a spartan diet of sambar and rice, served without the customary curd and interspersed only occasionally by more exotic forest cuisine like venison. He must walk long distances each day through the dense Thalavadi forests in the Satyamangalam area, a nd at night he must sleep in an improvised tent, vulnerable to rain and swarms of mosquitoes.

Far away in Bangalore, Rajkumar's sons have sought to empathise with their father by refusing to shave their beards, and his family members spend much of their time in fervent prayer. But the reasons for Rajkumar's continued incarceration have nothing to do with any divine displeasure. Political confusion, personal ambition, opportunism and the plain recalcitrance of his kidnappers: all these have combined to undermine efforts to secure the actor's release. In his six-decade long career, Rajkumar typica lly played the innocent do-gooder, trapped in evil machinations set in play by forces beyond his control. During his more lonely nights in the Sathyamangalam forests, it must sometimes appear to him that distinctions between reel and real life have becom e alarmingly blurred. But this is no film; and Veerappan's growing relationship with chauvinist Tamil organisations, inside and outside the forests, gives considerable reason for concern.


JUST why is Rajkumar still being held by Veerappan? It is clear, at least in retrospect, that several important tactical errors were made by all the major players in the management of the hostage crisis. Rajkumar was kidnapped by an estimated 15 armed me n from his ancestral farmhouse at Doddagajanur late on the night of July 30. By the next morning, his wife Parvathamma reached Bangalore and delivered to Chief Minister S.M. Krishna an audio-cassette handed over by Veerappan. In his message, Veerappan as ked the Karnataka government to send an official envoy, to whom the gang's demands would then be presented. Rumour has it that the tape also contained specific ransom demands. Less than 24 hours later, Krishna was in Chennai, busily engaged in discussion s with his Tamil Nadu counterpart M. Karunanidhi. At the end of the discussions, both agreed to send R.R. Gopal, the editor of the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran, into the Sathyamangalam forests.

Gopal's choice as the official emissary has been the subject of more than a little media criticism. Critics claim that Gopal is a close friend of Veerappan, and therefore unfit to conduct negotiations with him. On the other hand, officials argue that no one other than Gopal had any leverage with Veerappan. The high profile magazine editor had first met Veerappan in April 1996, three years after Nakkheeran reporter P. Sivasubramaniam published the first-ever interviews with the forest brigand, acc ompanied by photographs. In 1997, Gopal's intervention was instrumental in securing the release of nine Karnataka forest guards who had been kidnapped to demand amnesty for the gang and its leader. On that occasion, Gopal had succeeded in bringing out th e hostages without conceding any of Veerappan's demands. Later that year, however, when Veerappan kidnapped a group of wildlife photographers and botanists, the Nakkheeran editor refused to intervene.


From the outset, however, Gopal's initiative was ill-fated. During his first visit to the Sathyamangalam forests to meet Veerappan, Gopal found himself confronted with a ridiculous list of conditions for Rajkumar's release. Veerappan handed over ten dema nds, again taped on a cassette. These spanned everything from the release of five members of the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF) held for terrorist activities, to the dropping of charges against another 121 undertrials, of whom all but 51 had already obtained bail, and compensation for the victims of the 1991 Cauvery riots in Karnataka. Other demands included the installation of a statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar in Bangalore, hikes in procurement pr ice of tea, and higher wages for estate workers. On top of it all, Veerappan added four more demands before Gopal left the forests. Veerappan had a political agenda, and not just cash, on his mind.

Both State governments showed a remarkable willingness to play along with Veerappan. His demand for the release of the TNLA-TNRF prisoners, Krishna and Karunanidhi promised, "would be considered favourably". Little thought appeared to have been given to the serious political implications of such a concession. Even statues of Thiruvalluvar and Kannada poet Sarvajna would be installed in Bangalore and Chennai respectively in response to Veerappan's demand, the governments agreed. Both governments acted al most as if they were negotiating with a people's movement, not a forest criminal.

Gopal went back to the Sathyamangalam forests, to tell Veerappan his demands had been largely met. In fact, the State governments' pliant posture generated further problems. The TNLA-TNRF prisoners' advisers, sources told Frontline, saw the offici al responses to Veerappan's demands as a sign of weakness on the part of the government. Although all five of them were entitled to bail, and funds could have been secured with ease to pay the bail amounts, the TNLA-TNRF prisoners now insisted that all c harges against them be dropped.

WHEN Gopal went back to Veerappan for the third time towards the end of August, Rajkumar's release seemed imminent. Since both State governments were willing to meet Veerappan's demands, no real obstacle appeared to remain in the way of a settlement. On August 31, Gopal and Veerappan agreed that as soon as the five TNLA-TNRF prisoners were set free in the forest, Rajkumar and three other hostages taken along with him would be set free, followed by the second group of 121 prisoners. The exchange was sche duled for August 4. Fate, in the form of the Supreme Court, intervened the next morning. As Veerappan was listening to the 12-40 p.m. Tamil news bulletin on All India Radio, using a recently acquired digital radio, he heard of the Supreme Court orders pr ohibiting the release of 51 of the 121 persons jailed under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) who had failed to obtain bail. Veerappan, Gopal says, wanted to know what kalavarayatra thadai meant.


It was Tamil for 'indefinite stay': and meant that the agreement that had been hammered out was dead. Karunanidhi contributed his own mite to the subsequent confusion. At a press conference in Chennai, he let it be known that the Supreme Court orders app lied not only to the 51 prisoners held under TADA, but also the five TNLA-TNRF terrorists. In fact, the Supreme Court had said nothing about their fate, for public interest litigation about their future was only to be moved two days later. It is possible that the Chief Minister was influenced by hostility within the State police and the bureaucracy to handing over the terrorists, and did not want a potentially damaging confrontation with the judiciary. Krishna, for his part, was facing sustained critici sm within Karnataka for having conceded too much ground. The final blow came on September 5, when the Karnataka High Court stayed the proceedings of the Justice Sadashiva Commission of Inquiry, investigating alleged human rights violations by the police in the course of operations directed at Veerappan.

Nonetheless, Gopal launched a fourth mission to engage Veerappan in fresh dialogue. On September 28, Gopal suggested that Veerappan unilaterally release one hostage in response to public hostility in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The discussions were schedul ed to continue the next day, but were scuppered when Nagappa Maradagi, Rajkumar's long-time aide, escaped from custody. The escape infuriated Veerappan, who sent men out into the forest with instructions to behead the prisoner if he was caught. Gopal say s he thought it best to leave the forest at that point rather than deal with angry and hostile interlocutors. Although the Nakkheeran editor believes Veerappan would have accepted his unilateral release proposal, and that Nagappa's escape sabotage d a deal, the facts suggest otherwise. Given Veerappan's recalcitrance up to this point, it is probable he would have held out for a better offer.

There is at least some evidence that Veerappan's confidence in Gopal was, in any case, waning by this point. The brigand now demanded that politician P.Nedumaran, who heads the ethnic-chauvinist Tamil Desiya Iyakkam (Tamil Nationalist Movement), lead the negotiation process in the Sathyamangalam forests. Nedumaran, Veerappan said, should be accompanied by P. Kalyani, a one-time affiliate of the People's War Group, P. Sukumaran, president of the Pondicherry unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, and K. Balagopal, a Hyderabad-based civil rights activist. Balagopal refused a role in negotiations with Veerappan. The other three, however, seemed only too happy to pitch in. This group had strong Tamil nationalist affiliations, and Sukumaran had even served a year in jail on charges of involvement in the bombing of a television station in Kodaikanal. Gopal, travelling along with this group, again pressed for the release of the hostages, but to no avail.

FOR students of the handling of hostage crises, the Rajkumar kidnapping might one day form a textbook study of everything that ought not to be done while seeking to secure the freedom of prisoners. Most important, the prompt acquiescence of both governme nts to the demand to involve Nedumaran, whose political positions and support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are unacceptable to most mainstream politicians in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, broadcast official desperation. State weakness was made clear at each stage. Rumour has it that the Karnataka film industry and Rajkumar's family made over some Rs.16 crores to Veerappan through Gopal at the outset of the negotiation procedure. One Tamil magazine even alleged that Gopal himself benefited from these proceeds. The Nakkheeran editor laughs off the first of these allegations, and responds with anger to the second. Even if the rumours are untrue, however, they illustrate the basic failings of the crisis resolution process. The decisio n to involve Nedumaran signalled complete official desperation. It also introduced frictions within the negotiation team, and undermined what authority Gopal had.

Karunanidhi may just have seen no problem in flirting with ethnic-chauvinists like Nedumaran, but Krishna's endorsement of the politician infuriated his own Congress(I). Krishna's handling of the affair appears to have been driven by the fear of the cons equences of physical harm to Rajkumar. Vandalism and violence broke out in Bangalore soon after news of the kidnapping came, resulting in at least one death. Educational institutions around the city remained closed for a week, and the disruption caused t o business and industry is estimated to have cost upwards of Rs.116 crores. Nonetheless, many observers believe that fears of a massive ethnic pogrom in Bangalore in the event of Rajkumar being harmed are misplaced. After the first bout of violence, litt le anti-Tamil aggression is evident anywhere in Karnataka. Public interest in the entire affair also appears to be dwindling. In Tamil Nadu, where some politicians had sought to capitalise on Tamil chauvinist support for Veerappan, ordinary people have a lso shown a marked disinterest in the hostage crisis.

It is unclear, however, what options both governments will have should the Supreme Court refuse to allow a hostages-for-prisoners swap. Sources in the Tamil Nadu police say that a commando operation was ruled out not because of technical difficulties, bu t the prospect of harm to the hostages' lives. "Even in the most professionally managed commando operations," says one officer, "there is always the element of risk. In this case, it was considered unacceptable." But even if the State governments were un willing to risk Rajkumar's life, there was no reason for an unguided negotiation process, consisting essentially of accepting all that the kidnappers asked for. With the Supreme Court having put an end to this process, both Karunanidhi and Krishna appear to be distancing themselves from the hostage negotiations. For both Chief Ministers, events over the past 100 days have become something of an embarrassment, allowing damaging political attacks.

Larger issues will also need to be addressed along with the fate of Karnataka's most famous film star. There is little doubt that the obsequious posture adopted by the two States has done not a little to legitimise Veerappan and his newfound Tamil nation alist associates. This has happened in a larger context of overt support for chauvinist organisations like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in recent months, both from the Hindu Right and in a section of the Tamil-language press. Indeed, Veerappan an d the TNLA-TNRF have themselves been vested with fantastic, though largely imaginary, military prowess. Reports about the groups possessing assault rifles, and their tactical relationship with the LTTE, have graced the front pages of newspapers with dist urbing regularity. In fact, published photographs show that the Sathyamangalam group possesses nothing other than two 7.62 millimetre self-loading rifles, some 12-bore shotguns, and a single .303 Lee Enfield rifle.

The decision taken by Veerappan and his TNLA-TNRF allies to kidnap a high-profile public figure has, in this sense, paid off. For the last three years, neither the Tamil Nadu nor the Karnataka government had made any serious effort to engage the brigand and eliminate his armed presence in the forest. Should they fail to do so, the consequences will be felt not just in the forests, but through Tamil Nadu: and perhaps not in the very distant future. Veerappan and the TNLA-TNRF axis could emerge as a focal point for Tamil nationalist forces, propelling the growth of aggressive ethnic chauvinism. The LTTE, although it has had little to do with the drama in the forests, would without doubt benefit from such a climate. For the past several years, Veerappan's operations have been seen as something of a joke. Should their latest manifestation pass unchallenged, people in Tamil Nadu might be hard pressed to find anything comic about events that could follow.

With inputs from Ravi Sharma
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