A flawed hunt

Print edition : November 11, 2000

In the absence of clearly evolved tactical procedures or operational protocols, the police forces of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been unable to launch a sustained programme to engage Veerappan.

TWO questions figure frequently in discussions on the Veerappan affair. If journalist R.R. Gopal is able to hop in and out of the Sathyamangalam forests and meet the brigand at will, how come the police seem clueless about his location? And why has Veera ppan not been caught, despite the seriousness of his crimes and the crores of rupees spent to locate him?

It is easy to answer the first question: Veerappan wants to meet Gopal and sends his men to escort the journalist to his hideouts. He does not, obviously, extend similar courtesies to the police. But the second question is infinitely more complex, and an answer to it is far more difficult to find.

Tamil Nadu's Walter I. Dawaram.-VINO JOHN

Official excuses by both the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka police for the failure to apprehend Veerappan would, if typed out, run into hundreds of pages. But it is clear that there has been a lack of political will to back the hunt. That, in turn, has meant t hat the police forces have not been able to launch the kind of sustained and creative operation needed to arrest or eliminate Veerappan. That has meant Veerappan, with the backing of villagers and tribal people and some politicians, as well as his superb knowledge of the forest terrain, has found it easy to get away with murder.

The two State governments have rarely seen reason to back a long-term programme to engage Veerappan. Both former Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel and current Home Minister Mallikarjun Kharge have said, at various points of time, that they did not care about Veerappan as long as he did not operate inside Karnataka. The M. Karunanidhi government in Tamil Nadu, for its part, more or less gave up the hunt for Veerappan since he committed no major crimes over the last three years. Put simply, the fact tha t he had murders to account for, and was instrumental in the destruction of forest resources, was not in itself considered serious enough to merit the commitment of time and resources.

Karnataka's Shankar Bidri the police officers who led the Special Task Forces of the two States respectively in the operations against Veerappan between 1983 and 1995.-G. SAHAYA MOORTHY

Why trouble trouble, both governments evidently believe, till trouble troubles you? The attitude has suited some politicians, at least some of whom have found both Veerappan's caste credentials and cash useful in order to pursue their own political agend as. Villagers too have good reason not to cooperate with the police. Since there has been no sustained official commitment to anti-Veerappan operations, the brigand poses a more real and credible threat than the state apparatus. Right from the Tamil Nadu government's Operation Vanamalai in 1989, to Operation Tusker and Operation Victor in 1999, officers have been shifted out mid-stream. Trained personnel and intelligence funds have both been thin on the ground.

The absence of clearly laid down tactical procedures and operational protocols is another problem. The current Tamil Nadu Special Task Force (STF) chief, M. Balachandran, and his Karnataka counterpart, Harshavardhan Raju, have for example favoured large cordon and search style combing operations, apparently premised on the assumption that Veerappan's group will at some point be engaged by chance. Such operations have rarely had success elsewhere. More important, the experiences of past STF chiefs have n ot informed institutional thinking. There has also been little effort to involve and equip the Forest Department in anti-Veerappan operations. Poorly armed and motivated forest guards see no reason to risk their lives to patrol the area with any seriousn ess of purpose.

Border Security Force personnel at the Malai Mahadeswara Hills in 1993. The BSF withdrew 11 months after it was deployed to nab Veerappan.-

Non-structured tactics and poor operational preparedness have cost lives. In April 1990, Karnataka police personnel were ambushed near Hogenekal during a patrol launched on receipt of information on Veerappan's presence. The brigand had positioned himsel f on an embankment waiting for the patrol to arrive. Four policemen were killed. The police personnel had clearly not been trained in counter-ambush procedures or precautions. Again, in August 1992, T. Harikrishna, Superintendent of Police, Karnataka STF , responded to information on Veerappan's whereabouts by driving to the location in a convoy of four cars. Unsurprisingly, the convoy, visible from miles away, was ambushed. Harikrishna and five other personnel were killed.

It is interesting that the only time proper coordination took place and received political backing, the results were quick in coming. The STF team of Tamil Nadu's Walter I. Dawaram and Karnataka's Shankar Bidri succeeded between in 1983 and 1994, in redu cing Veerappan's cadre from over a hundred to just five. In fact, experts say, there are no exceptional technical problems in the hunt for Veerappan. Each time the forest brigand purchases candles, matches or raincoats, clues become available on his wher eabouts. The gang is thinly armed. And if Veerappan possesses forest operation skills, so do thousands of Indian police and paramilitary personnel who are trained to operate in similar terrain in the northeastern region or Jammu and Kashmir.

At an STF camp.-RAVI SHARMA

At least some observers believe that the only solution lies in recruiting Army commandos, as well as using high-tech equipment like motion sensors and airborne heat-seeking and radar devices. None of this, however, seems to be the outcome of any consider ed thought on the resources actually needed. It is worth remembering the experience of the Border Security Force (BSF), pumped into the forests in 1993 as a result of similar panic. The BSF, without local knowledge or the necessary tactical skills, spent a year beating around the bush, lost one soldier, and made an unceremonious withdrawal 11 months after its deployment. Army commandos, similarly, are neither trained for what is essentially a police operation, nor meant for such deployment.

In a signal 1999 essay, "Terrorism, Institutional Collapse and Emergency Response Protocols", Punjab's former Director-General of Police, K.P.S. Gill, pointed to a nation-wide malaise in dealing with crisis like kidnapping. "Fire-fighting responses to cu rrent crises," he noted, "tend to cancel each other out and often, in fact, prove counterproductive. To take a parallel, if one were to create a large number of random and unstructured defences on a battlefield, with no clear idea of the emerging pattern of engagement, of the imperatives of the terrain, of the relative strength of forces, and of the defined objectives of battle, we would find that these defences eventually become a hindrance to our own manoeuvres, rather than a shield against enemy atta ck. This is precisely the case that has arisen out of the innumerable, ad hoc, entirely unstructured and often contradictory actions and policy initiatives."

Significantly, the confusion and chaos that have characterised official management of the latest crisis show that security institutions have learned none of the lessons of the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 from Kathmandu in 1998. Among the m ajor problems that had been pointed to then were clear protocols and guidelines to officials to deal with emergencies. Officials were thus left, in Gill's words, "trying to reinvent the wheel, with no guidelines, no reference to a historical context, and no structured system of emergency response." The National Security Guards, meant to provide an armed response to a hijack crisis, took a full three hours and 23 minutes after the first information of the hijack had been received to show up at Amritsar a irport. And when negotiations began, no properly trained hostage negotiators and psychologists were involved.

Many countries have well-designed procedures to deal with emergency situations brought about by terrorism and organised crime. The United States counter-terrorism policy, for example, lays down four principles, two of which are clearly relevant in India. No concessions are to be extended or deals made with terrorists and they must be brought to justice for their crimes. Another essential feature of the U.S. counter-terrorism response is the degree of institutional consensus that prevails. The U.S. judic iary has ordinarily handed out maximum sentences, and even waived substantive provisions of law to punish what is designated as terrorist crime. Indian States, by contrast, have no protocols or procedures to deal with emergencies. Desperate and flawed ef forts, like those involving Gopal, therefore become central components of official responses.

If the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments are indeed serious about dealing with Veerappan, the path they need to take is none too difficult to imagine. The STFs responsible for the task need to be properly equipped and trained in jungle tactics. The wo rk of intelligence gathering needs professional handling and proper funding. Most important, the organisation will need political support, and individual officers will have to be given the time they need to execute their task. No Army involvement or high -tech equipment is needed for these tasks, for the police forces in both States have a mass of technical resources and skills. But if experience is any guide, both governments are likely to forget Veerappan the minute his high-profile hostage is freed. W ith Veerappan now affiliated with ethnic-chauvinist terrorist groups, the price of such negligence will be higher than either State can afford.

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