In the background of the October 31 order of the Supreme Court reserving judgment on the appeals challenging the consent given by the Designated Court, Mysore, for the withdrawal of the TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) cases ag ainst some associates of forest brigand Veerappan, T.S. Subramanian and Praveen Swami met Nakkheeran R.R. Gopal in Chennai on November 3. Since Veerappan's abduction of Kannada film actor Rajkumar and three others on July 30, Gopal has made five trips to the bandit's den in the forests as an emissary of the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to negotiate the release of the hostages. Veerappan has been insisting on the release of the 121 TADA detainees in Mysore and the f ive Tamil extremists belonging to the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF) in exchange.
The hostage crisis was thus diceyly poised, when a controversy broke out when Tamil Nationalist Movement founder P. Nedumaran accompanied Gopal on his fifth mission in October. During the interview, Gopal's replies were in Tamil excepting some words and sentences in English. Excerpts.NAKKHEERAN
The Supreme Court has reserved its orders on the release of the TADA detainees in Mysore. If the apex court declines to release them and the five Tamil extremists, how will the hostage crisis end?
Why should we think negatively? Why can't we believe that they will release Rajkumar? Since the case of the 121 detainees is strong, let us believe that they will be released.
Supposing the Supreme Court does not permit the release of the 121 detainees, is any solution possible?
Our ultimate goal is to somehow obtain the release of Rajkumar. The Supreme Court has taken a tough stand. They (the Judges) are angry. They have raised so many questions. All this has been conveyed to Veerappan and they (Veerappan and the extremists) ar e also listening to radio news bulletins. Although the Supreme Court may talk like this, we told them, the final orders may be favourable to them. So we told them to release Rajkumar without delay.What was Veerappan's reaction?
We took P. Nedumaran, P. Kalyani and P. Sukumaran to convince him. We told them to release Rajkumar and not wait for the Supreme Court judgment which would take time. And it is taking time.
There were reports that Veerappan promised to release Rajkumar if Nedumaran was sent on the mission. Why did he go back on his word? Is he being manipulated by the TNLA and the TNRF?
From the very beginning, when I first met Veerappan on this mission, I said I noticed "a lot of changes" in him - in his approach, the way he spoke and so on. He always talks about his movement. He consults his comrades on every issue and then decides.
This hostage crisis should have ended during my third mission itself. On the fifth day of that visit, it was agreed that we (the governments) should hand over the five Tamil extremists and Veerappan in turn would release the four hostages (Rajkumar, S.A. Govindaraj, Nagappa and Nagesh). This was agreed upon on August 31. But there was a bolt from the blue on September 1. The radio news bulletin at 12.40 p.m. announced that the Supreme Court had indefinitely stayed the release of the TADA detainees in My sore. The mission was proceeding speedily when it hit a roadblock. A speedbreaker can be crossed, but here was a wall.
So I was sent for the fourth time to tell Veerappan that the problem had arisen from the stay granted by the Supreme Court and to convince him to release Rajkumar and others. I said my going without a "process" by the Supreme Court was a waste. But the t wo Chief Ministers wanted me to go. My work is only five per cent. Their work is 100 per cent.
The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister (M. Karunanidhi) also told the press, 'Gopal declined to go but I pushed him'. So I went for the fourth time. On the first day, negotiations were under way to release one person first and thereafter the others. I told them t o do it "ad hoc" because the attitude in the two States would change for the better. They said it could be considered the next morning. But that night, Nagappa escaped.
This was a very, very big setback. They took Nagappa's escape as an insult, a humiliation - that somebody could run away when talks were going on. So the negotiations had to be restarted from scratch. It required a big effort to see that it did not lead to other consequences, that Veerappan did not vent his anger on the other three hostages. The mood became "harsh". I had to quell all that.
Veerappan said Nagappa could not have escaped, that he must be hiding somewhere and that he could be brought back in the morning. Later on seeing his footprints they confirmed that he had escaped. They went after him, saying they would behead him if he w as found alive. Supposing he had been caught and was beheaded, imagine what would have happened to my mission. Nagappa was the man helping Rajkumar a lot.
Why did he escape then? He had volunteered to go with Rajkumar when the abduction took place.
He had been in the forests for 60 days. He could have suffered from depression. I am not blaming him.
For the fifth mission, they asked that Nedumaran, Kalyani and Sukumaran be sent. All of us went because these people could pacify them. The fifth mission was like restarting the process. They said they would negotiate if all four of us came. All four of us together explained the extant situation in a "healthy" manner to them. We functioned like a team and spoke like a team.
A small happiness for us was that we could obtain the release of Govindaraj.
Were you upset by the failure of the third, fourth and fifth missions?
No, I am not upset at all. It is only taking time. The matter on hand is no simple, ordinary issue. There is a lot of difference between Veerappan abducting nine Karnataka forest personnel in 1997 and the kidnapping of Rajkumar now. For nearly two years, after these two (Tamil extremist) groups joined Veerappan, he had planned it in a very big way and abducted him....because of the Cauvery waters and other issues. So it is a big issue for the two governments. It was discussed at the international level. The efforts to obtain the release are going on all right. I am not upset.
There are rumours that you have handed over Rs.10 crores to Veerappan as ransom money.
This is a rumour that is being deliberately spread.
There are rumours that Rajkumar has been released and that he is in a hospital.
You know how absurd it is to say that Rajkumar is being kept in a hospital. How will you not know when he is in a hospital? There are people who do arm-chair writing. One report said that Rajkumar came out in a convoy of six cars. How can we go in six ca rs and not get exposed? If we are exposed, a block will be created somewhere. We have gone into the forests five times so far. Our whereabouts could not be found. That is the reason for the smooth running of the missions.
Was there any difference of opinion between you and Nedumaran?There was nothing like that.
Was there any difference between your approach and his approach?
Nothing. This is also a deliberate rumour. He is an elderly person whom I respect. Nedumaran is a respectable man. From the beginning, we have been saying that the ultimate goal of myself and Nedumaran is the release of Rajkumar. There is definitely no d ifference of opinion over this.
What will be the consequences of the TNLA and the TNRF teaming up with Veerappan? TNRF members like Mahesh and Ravichandran were trained by the LTTE.
Mahesh and Ravichandran are not inside the forest.
Yes, Ravichandran is in prison. How did the two groups link up with Veerappan? What are the consequences of their coming together?
How they reached Veerappan is a big question. I cannot talk about what the consequences would be. What we need is Rajkumar's release.
What do you think of former Special Task Force Commander Walter I. Dawaram's claim that he had reduced the strength of Veerappan's gang from 150 persons to five?
Why did Dawaram spare the lives of the five people? A former Chief Minister, who banks on his support, says that if she had continued in power for five more years, the police would have killed those five also. So there is only politics in this. We asked for the pictures of these 145 persons and their addresses. There is no reply till now.
It was during Dawaram's tenure that Veerappan became a hero. That is the (fundamental) matter. I mean that when AIADMK was in power and Dawaram was in charge (of the STF), Veerappan became a hero. This is all action and reaction. Veerappan knows the fore sts like the back of his hand. He knows every "nook and corner" of the 6,000 sq. km. forest. He knows where to hide.Was your mission a burden or an advantage?
It is not a burden. But depression sets in. When we are doing it so sincerely and when I see that politicians and very big journalists are deliberately planning to sabotage our mission, I get depressed. I ask only one thing of these people who talk and w rite big; have they suggested any alternative to our efforts? They will only find fault with us. Yet, the two Chief Ministers, especially Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, two or three officers here (Tamil Nadu), two or three officers there (Karnataka), friends like Rajnikant (film actor), all of them are cooperating with us on this issue.Is it an advantage in any way?
I don't think it is advantageous. As a journalist, I look upon it as an opportunity. No journalist in India has got an opportunity like this. Some people say even in the world. But this is an opportunity that is being chased by death. The entire Nakkh eeran team is doing it sincerely. I have never gone into the question of whether it is advantageous or disadvantageous because even today, we can have our meal only when the Nakkheeran issue comes out.
Have the two groups totally indoctrinated Veerappan?
It is not as if they have changed him. He has also changed himself. There is a lot of difference between the Veerappan I saw in 1997 and the Veerappan I am seeing today. He says that he belongs to a movement, that he is a militant and so on. This is a gr eat change.
You have said that Veerappan is the captain of the team.
Not like the captain of a team. He is the leader of the Veerappan group. There is the TNLA headed by Maran. Then there is the TNRF. It is not as if he is the captain of all the three groups.