A desperate alliance

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

Caste solidarity, pressure from cadres and a need to secure his own position have perhaps drawn Veerappan closer to forces of Tamil nationalism.

NOT so many years ago, any suggestion that the forest brigand and smuggler Veerappan would one day present a dramatic political and ideological challenge to the state itself would have attracted laughter. To most people Veerappan was, variously, a peasan t criminal pitted against the state, a murderous villain who survived on the incompetence of Indian policing, an alarming sign of the nexus between crime and politics - or even a cocktail party joke. In the hundred days since one of modern-day India's be st-known criminals pulled off his best known crime, all that has changed. The brigand-smuggler's association with Tamil chauvinist organisations, and his new political rhetoric, have transformed the significance of the phenomenon of Veerappan. Little in substantive terms, however, has become known about his new allies: their real ideology, their background and history, and their political and other agenda.

In some ways, the drama unfolding in the Sathyamangalam-Thalavadi forests began in the mid-1980s. Tamilarasan, a dropout from the Government Engineering College in Coimbatore, had a long history of Left activism in the South Arcot area. According to a fe ature on Tamil Nadu's revolutionaries, carried in the millennium issue of Nakkheeran, Tamilarasan worked to "put an end to the rift between Vanniyars and Dalits in 15 villages in the Jayamkondam-Ariyalur belt". He "made Vanniyars bring rice and dhal to Adi Dravida settlements, cook food there and eat it. Similarly, he took Adi Dravida peasants to Vanniyar settlements, made them cook food there, and eat it". These activities, Nakkheeran said, did much to put an end to tension between Dalits and the Vanniyar caste.


Tamilarasan, however, saw little future for himself in the organised Left. By the mid-1980s, he was firmly committed to a curious mix of Tamil nationalism and violent direct action. This was in part the consequence of his association with a Sri Lankan Ta mil, Nagarajan, who had been expelled from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a dispute with its supremo, V. Prabakaran. In 1985, they together formed the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA). The TNLA was committed to the belief that Ind ia was constituted of separate nations and races. It sought to bring about not only a revolution by peasants and workers in Tamil Nadu, but the separation of the State from the Indian Union. For similar ideological reasons, the TNLA also supported the LT TE's war in northern Sri Lanka.

By 1986, with an estimated 15 committed cadre and some 70 sympathisers in the area, the TNLA was in a position to begin acting on its ideology. On March 15 that year, the Rockfort Express plunged into the Marudaya near Ariyalur after the TNLA blew up a b ridge across the river, leading to the death of 25 train passengers. Shortly afterwards, TNLA terrorists attempted to blow up another bridge, this time across the Coleroon near Thiruvaiyaru, to protest against Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to the a rea. In December, the organisation robbed a branch of the Indian Overseas Bank at Ulkottai, in Tiruchi district. Many of these activities were funded by the revenues from a 100-acre cashew cooperative that Tamilarasan had set up on a plantation leased fr om the government. Interestingly, these revenues in later years led to furious disputes within the TNLA over the sharing of spoils.

Its founder, however, did not live to see the disintegration of his organisation, and the blood feuds that lay ahead. On September 1, 1987, Tamilarasan, along with his associates Jagannathan and Dharmalingam, robbed the State Bank of India branch at Ponp arappi, the TNLA chief's home town. During the course of the daylight robbery, the bank's manager was shot dead, causing an uproar in the small town. As Tamilarasan and his group attempted to escape, a mob began throwing stones at them. For reasons which are unknown, the group does not appear to have fired back at the mob. All three were stoned to death not far from the bank. For the next five years, the TNLA disappeared from South Arcot's political map. Although police officials monitoring the organisa tion believed that it had died a natural death, they could not have been farther from the truth.

DEIVASIGMANI, who inherited control of the TNLA, preferred to use the name Lenin. Clearly lacking the theoretical and tactical insight of the great Russian revolutionary whose name he took, Deivasigmani believed that armed struggle was the means through which the TNLA would be able to expand its base, and build the foundations for a revolution. In 1992, TNLA cadre attacked police stations at Puthur and Annamalai Nagar, both in South Arcot district, in search of weapons. Two further attacks followed in N ovember and December 1993, again in South Arcot district. Although the attacks were successful in terms of securing weapons, these did little to give the TNLA a real mass base. The war on the police soon fell apart. On March 29, 1994, as Deivasigmani was transporting explosives for a planned assault of the Muthandikuppam police station, he accidentally blew himself up.

On the face of things, Lenin's reign at the apex of the TNLA had indeed seen an expansion of its authority. After his death, the organisation began holding impromptu courts to settle disputes between villagers. A fee was charged for this service, and the TNLA made a minor fortune in the process. Some of these funds were deployed to secure public support. Poor students' school fees were paid for, while libraries and night education camps were set up in some villages. Outright crime also funded these acti vities. After the TNLA robbed cash and jewellery from a cooperative bank at Vayalur, near Tiruchi, one member of the organisation, Natarajan, threatened to pass on information to the police if he was not given a third of the loot. He was eliminated short ly afterwards. Local businesses, for their part, were forced to pay protection money. Ramakrishnan, who ran a cement factory near Perambalur, was eliminated for his failure to do so at Pennadam, on June 3, 1996.

But Lenin's death was, in fact, to lead to the disintegration of the TNLA. Koovagam Ramasamy, elected president in Deivasigmani's place, and its working president, Ilavarasan, soon found themselves at odds with each other. Funds from the cashew plantatio ns, over which the TNLA acquired something of a monopoly by the simple expedient of intimidating competitors, were one source of friction. Ramasamy wished to use the cash to pay for welfare projects to win mass legitimacy. Ilavarasan thought these revenu es would be better spent on acquiring weapons. Matters came to a head over the auction of a 144-acre plantation at Vallam, during which the rival factions of Ramasamy and Ilavarasan distributed abusive pamphlets about each other. Through 1997, the Ramasa my-Ilavarasan feud claimed the lives of six TNLA cadre, notably that of Ramasamy himself, on June 8 that year. Ilavarasan was arrested less than two months later. Over a hundred of the TNLA's cadre were to be booked in the wake of this arrest, under the National Security Act and the Goondas Act.

In the midst of this war, no one paid much attention to Singaram Senguttavan, a young recruit who had joined the TNLA after Tamilarasan's death and began using the alias Maran. Perhaps they should have. On July 13, 1997, while their senior colleagues wer e busy exterminating each other, the Maran faction of the TNLA carried out a daring attack on a police station at Andimadam, near Jayamkondam. The TNLA-Maran stole bolt-action rifles, revolvers, 150 rounds of ammunition, and a VHF (very high frequency) r adio set. A string of robberies followed. Police reprisal for these actions was harsh. For almost three years, the TNLA-Maran was forced into retreat. No major actions were documented by the group until their contact with Veerappan was made, and the kidn apping of Rajkumar brought the organisation back on to the front pages of newspapers.

No one is entirely certain just how Maran first made contact with Veerappan, and to what end. In a recent interview to the Tamil magazine Junior Vikatan, Maran's father Singaram said his son's first overture to Veerappan had been rejected by the b rigand. "I myself am in a bad situation now," Singaram quoted Veerappan as having said, "So I cannot protect you. Later, I heard they had somehow joined hands." It is possible that Maran's group, under severe police pressure and with its cadre decimated, had chosen to shift out of the Tiruchi area in order to save the remnants of their organisation. Caste solidarity may have been one element in bringing about the alliance. The entire leadership of the TNLA, including Maran, belong to the Vanniyar commun ity, as does Veerappan. Another possibility is that Veerappan, himself under pressure for cadre and funds, may have welcomed the TNLA's personnel and their weapons to secure his own position.

THE proposition that the Veerappan-TNLA alliance was born of desperation is borne out by the case of the Tamil People's Liberation Army (TPLA). Set up by Ponparappi Rajendran, who broke away from the TNLA because of his opposition to the armed robbery wh ich claimed Tamilarasan's life, the organisation rapidly developed formidable expertise in the manufacture and use of crude pipe bombs. In August 1996, it blew up a bus belonging to the Seventh Day Adventist School at Vepery, Chennai, to protest against a decision by school authorities prohibiting the conversational use of Tamil on their premises. A year later, it set off explosions at the State Election Commission office and the Russian Cultural Centre. The TPLA's principal bomb-maker, Rajaram, was how ever eliminated by the police. Unable to find fresh recruits, and bereft of mass support, Rajendran has since set up an obscure overground political organisation.

Clearly, Maran had no intention of meeting Rajendran's fate, as a virtually unknown figure on the farthest margins of mainstream politics. With the last of his cadre, he made a retreat to the Satyamangalam-Thalavadi forests to bide his time. It is also c lear, in retrospect, that Veerappan was desperately searching for allies. After the kidnapping of a group of six wildlife photographers and botanists from the Bandipur wildlife sanctuary on October 7, 1997, the smuggler had been unable to carry out any m ajor action. Three years down the line, he too was facing the very real prospect of the death of his organisation. The relationship he forged with Tamil ultra-nationalist organisations would give him not only access to cadre and weapons, but also a langu age with which he could appear on the national political stage. Veerappan would reinvent himself as a representative of Tamil nationalist sentiment.

By 1998, it is now clear, Veerappan's alliance with the Tamil nationalist fringe organisation was firmly in place. That December, Sathyamurthy, Manikandan and Muthukumar took part in an attack on a police station at Vellitiruppur, near Erode. Veerappan a nd his deputy Sethukuli Govindan are also known to have participated in this assault. Sathyamurthy, Manikandan and Muthukumar, whose release has been demanded in return for Rajkumar's life, were all members of the Tamil Nationalist Retrieval Force (TNRF) . No information is available on which members of the TNRF are now with Veerappan, but officials estimate that only two or three members of the organisation are in the forests. What is clear, however, is that this small group has had a not inconsiderable impact on Veerappan's ideological stances, in however crude a manner, and in shaping his agenda.

Relatively little is known about the TNRF's history and origins. Observers say that the organisation, initially made up of some 30 cadre, predominantly from the Vanniyar community, was set up in the late-1980s. A Tamil nationalist response to events in S ri Lanka, the TNRF professed commitment to the creation of a greater Tamil homeland, incorporating Tamil Nadu and the Tamil-majority areas of Sri Lanka. Unlike the TNLA, however, it had no Marxist pretensions. A flirtation with the LTTE followed, and at least three TNRF members are known to have been trained in the terrorist organisation's camps in Sri Lanka. One of those three, P. Ravichandran, is serving life sentence for his role in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Most of the TNRF's cadre were arrested in the crackdown which followed the 1991 assassination, and the organisation disintegrated under pressure. It was unable to execute any action, political or armed, for seven years following Rajiv Gandhi's killing.

WHAT implications will the release of the TNLA and TNRF cadre have - in the unlikely event that it comes? It is evident from their history that neither organisation has been able to command anything resembling mass support at any point during their exist ence. Nor, despite the media hype about their activities, has their ability to attract recruits for an armed struggle been significant. In some senses, they have existed as caste armies, not political organisations. Despite the TNLA's stated commitment t o the cause of Dalit-Vanniyar unity, not one of its leaders was from any caste other than the Vanniyar caste. The TNRF's cadre too was almost exclusively Vanniyar. Veerappan, for his part, has not recruited any Dalit to his gang's ranks. Key TNLA and TNR F members, ranging from Maran to Ravichandran, were from relatively affluent backgrounds, not the ranks of the rural poor whom they sought to represent.

Nonetheless, it is also evident that these Tamil extremist organisations have gained not a little from the Rajkumar adventure. Their claims, variously, to speak for the rural poor or for Tamil nationalist sentiment have gained unprecedented media access. At least a section of politicians, sadly, have connived to give these claims respectability and legitimacy. It is possible that the Rajkumar affair will end with Veerappan and his Tamil nationalist allies being humiliated, having been unable to secure a ny of their key demands. It is also clear that, other than a tiny section of the middle class intelligentsia, there is no popular support in Tamil Nadu for the fantasies of the TNLA and the TNRF. At the same time, India's most violent chauvinist movement s have been born of political flirtations of the kinds seen during the Rajkumar affair. Had the Supreme Court not intervened in officially-sanctioned efforts to meet Veerappan's demands, the consequences could well have proved calamitous.

As and when Rajkumar is released, the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka will have the choice of meaningful action against his kidnappers, or of retreat into an unspoken compromise with them. The course of action they then take will have far larger consequences than the fate of a single former film star.

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