The final act of the hostage drama provides further pointers to the political forces at play.
ONE baffling aspect of the Rajkumar hostage drama was the polychromatic cast that finally assembled in the Thalamalai-Thalavadi forests to persuade forest brigand Veerappan to release Rajkumar. Led by Tamil Nationalist Movement founder P. Nedumaran, it i ncluded other Tamil nationalists, a human rights activist, a person who was hitherto a Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.) office-bearer, a transport fleet operator, a journalist-turned-quarry operator, and a woman medical practitioner. A common thread among most o f them was their uncompromising support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a proscribed organisation that was responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. Be it Nedumaran, Kolathur Mani, P. Shanmugasun daram or G. Sugumaran, they are all Tamil nationalists to the core and wear their sympathy for the LTTE on their sleeves.
Billeted in the forest hideout with Veerappan are about nine men belonging to the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA), led by Maran, and the Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF), headed by Amudhan. Both are extremist Tamil nationalist groups wedded to "self-determination" for Tamil Nadu, a euphemism for secessionism. While the TNLA is Marxist-Leninist in its ideology, the TNRF has no such pretensions. A few TNRF men were trained by the LTTE in the northeastern region of Sri Lanka.
A police officer who had dealt with the TNLA cadres said: "Although the TNLA and the TNRF dictated terms on the abduction issue, I feel they have a liking for Nedumaran because of ideological affinity." He felt that there was "not much of an LTTE angle t o the release as the Tamil chauvinistic angle. Through Tamil chauvinism, the LTTE affiliation comes in. The TNLA-LTTE nexus is a fertile ground for militancy to breed."
Earlier, some observers were of the opinion that there was a Vanniyar angle to the release. Dr. S. Ramadoss, founder of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), essentially a vehicle of the Vanniyar community's aspirations, gave a letter to G. Sugumaran, a membe r of Nedumaran's team, to be handed over to Veerappan. Dr. Ramadoss reportedly told Veerappan in the letter that he should release Rajkumar to ensure the safety of Tamils living in Karnataka and that he (Dr. Ramadoss), in turn, would fight for the releas e of 51 persons detained under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, or TADA, by the Karnataka police in Mysore. Both Dr. Ramadoss and Veerappan are Vanniyars. However, an informed source in the top brass of the Tamil Nadu police rule d out any such caste connection.
If Nedumaran was the new hero, Nakkheeran Gopal was the "fallen hero". He was robbed of the limelight in the final act. Gopal, who had done the groundwork for Rajkumar's release, was eased out of the sixth and last mission that led to the release. Rajkumar himself dismissed Gopal's role in winning his freedom, and said: "Gopal came and went, and each time he came our hopes rose but we were not released." A top Tamil Nadu police officer commented: "You cannot belittle Gopal's role. When nobody kne w whether Rajkumar was alive or all right, he ventured into the forests, met Veerappan, and returned with photographs and video-films that showed Rajkumar was all right. That came as a great relief." Gopal's reaction to Rajkumar's remarks was dignified: "We did not do anything expecting rewards."
ALTHOUGH the script ended with Rajkumar being freed, several questions remain. Why did the actor retract his earlier remark that it was a manoeuvre that Dr. Bhanu played on Veerappan, asking him (Rajkumar) to feign serious illness to make Veerappan take pity on him, that led to his release? The denial came in a statement released at Nedumaran's press conference in Chennai on November 17. The statement added: "Dr. (Mrs) Bhanu came to treat me for chest pain. She asked me how I was keeping my condition to myself when I was in such a health. I replied that I had to pretend to be doing well in the present situation." Rajkumar emphatically denied "the distorted version of this (that was) being spread by the media" and claimed that he had never thought of wi nning his freedom through "such deceit".
Nedumaran disclosed that Veerappan had scaled up one of his demands: he now demanded the release of not five but seven TNLA/TNRF men detained in Tamil Nadu.
As Nedumaran took over the leadership of the missions, the Tamil Nadu police were left clueless about what was going on. Nedumaran charted his own way. During the first four missions, which were led by Gopal, the top brass of the two States' police were informed of the developments. While Additional Director-General of Police (Special Operations) A.X. Alexander and Nakkheeran Associate Editor A. Kamaraj played coordinating roles in the background for the Tamil Nadu government, K.R. Srinivas, Insp ector-General of Police, Karnataka, was positioned in Chennai.
Once Nedumaran took charge of the fifth and sixth missions, the matter slipped out of the hands of the police. A police officer said: "The entire operation was done by Nedumaran. Handling him was difficult. He did not play by any rules."
Baffling were the roles played by Kolathur Mani, P. Shanmugasundaram and R. Ramkumar, who materialised in the forests during the final mission.
Until some time ago, Kolathur Mani was one of the State-level organising secretaries of the D.K. led by K. Veeramani. According to Nedumaran, Kolathur Mani was an "influential man" in the Mettur area where he worked to provide relief for the atrocities a llegedly committed by the Special Task Force (STF) that hunted for Veerappan. What Nedumaran did not reveal was that Mani had organised training camps for LTTE cadres in his village of Kolathur near Mettur when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. Mani was an accused in the case relating to the escape of 43 LTTE cadres from Tipu Mahal inside Vellore Fort on August 15, 1995 after digging a 153-foot-long tunnel. He was acquitted.
The final report of the Jain Commission that inquired into Rajiv Gandhi's assassination described Kolathur Mani's conduct as "extremely dubious". It said "he knew the whereabouts of Sivarajan, Subha and Nehru (all accused in the assassination case) in ea rly August 1991 when the SIT (Special Investigation Team of the Central Bureau of Investigation) spoke to him. He concealed the information from them all along." The report added that Kolathur Mani was "actively instrumental" in "getting these accused tr ansported clandestinely from Bangalore to Chennai".
Shanmugasundaram is president of Karnataka Tamilar Peravai. A native of Pidariyur, near Chennimalai, Tamil Nadu, he is based in Bangalore, operating a transport fleet. According to the police, he had links with the LTTE and knew Sivarajan, who mastermin ded the assassination. A police officer wondered how Shanmugasundaram got back into the reckoning after "hardcore" LTTE supporters had shunned him because he had allegedly "exposed" several LTTE men to the CBI.
Dr. Bhanu is a native of Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Her parents moved to Madurai and then to Bangalore. She studied in Malaysia. She holds a degree in medicine. Her father has interests in granite business in Karnataka and has links with Kolathur Mani. It was Shanmugasu-ndaram who persuaded her to enter the forests to treat Rajkumar.
Ramkumar is a son of the former Director-General of Police, Karnataka, R. Ramalingam. His role in the release is puzzling. He was a reporter with a Tamil daily, Dinachudar, in Bangalore. He too has interests in the quarrying business. Bhanu and Ra mkumar know each other.
Fifty-three-year-old Kalyani taught physics in government colleges in Tamil Nadu before he took voluntary retirement. He was a sympathiser of the People's War Group, a Marxist-Leninist organisation, and was an organiser for the Tamil Nadu unit of the Rev olutionary Cultural Movement. He started the People's Education Movement with others who had left the PWG. Kalyani has been working for the welfare of Dalits and tribals. He is a supporter of Maniarasan's Tamil Desiya Podhuvudamai Katchi (Tamil National Communist Party), which led to his interest in Tamil nationalism.
Speaking to Frontline, Kalyani angrily denied that there was a "Vanniyar angle" to the release. "We care only for human rights. Where is the question of our belonging to any community?" he asked. He pointed out that he was not a Vanniyar but a The var.
Kalyani said: "There was no deal with Veerappan. They were firm on their demands. We told them that only certain demands could be conceded and if they continued to lay down more demands, fresh problems would arise."
Kalyani said the team assured Veerappan that follow-up action would be taken on the legal steps initiated for the release of the TADA detainees and the five cadres. Kalyani claimed that the members of the team were able to convince them that they were a ll full-time human rights activists.
Sugumaran is the secretary of the Pondicherry unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties. He has a strong Tamil nationalist background.
The DMK government headed by M. Karunanidhi attracted strong criticism when Nedumaran took part in the fifth mission, along with Gopal. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha objected to the Government sending as its emissary a "secessionist" and an LTTE supporter who had exhorted the people of the State to register themselves as Tamil nationals and not as Indian citizens in the coming Census. S.R. Balasubramaniam of the Tamil Maanila Co ngress (TMC) described the choice of Nedumaran as "dangerous and irresponsible".
N. Sankaraiah, secretary of the Tamil Nadu State Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), accused the DMK government of allowing Tamil separatism to take root in the State.
In the Assembly on November 7, Leader of the Opposition S. Balakrishnan described Nedumaran as an "anti-national force" and suggested that he be "blocked" from entering the forests and "arrested".
A soft-spoken Nedumaran reacted furiously. He declined to go into the forests to negotiate with Veerappan. "Balakrishnan has made a totally false allegation against me in the Assembly. I, therefore, appeal to the Chief Minister to send my good friend and patriot Balakrishnan to the forests to make efforts for Rajkumar's release," Nedumaran said caustically. He alleged that political leaders, without giving a thought to the safety of Tamils living in Karnataka and Kannadigas in Tamil Nadu, ridiculed his efforts so that they could make political capital out of riots engineered by linguistic chauvinists.
This position of Nedumaran led to a flood of requests to reconsider the decision. Rajkumar's sons Shiv Rajkumar and Raghavendra Rajkumar visited Nedumaran's residence. Another visitor was Dr. Ramadoss. Defence Minister George Fernandes also spoke to him. While film actor Rajnikant phoned Nedumaran, Kannada film actor Ambareesh and the president of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce K.C.N. Chandrasekar, met Nedumaran.
In the Assembly, Karunanidhi defended his decision to send Nedumaran.
On November 11 night, Nedumaran, with Kalyani and Sugumaran, left for the forests. Nedumaran said that he was going "not as an emissary of the government but as an ambassador of humanitarianism". There were no indications of Gopal leaving separately. Gop al took the line that he was the "designated emissary of the two governments" (implying that the negotiations cannot take place without him) and that he was waiting for a "signal" from Veerappan.
On November 14 morning, Nedumaran, Kalyani and Sugumaran, later joined by Shanmugasundaram, met Veerappan in the forests along with Kolathur Mani and Dr. Bhanu. Veerappan released Rajkumar and his nephew Nagesh the same day around 5 p.m. Nedumaran, Rajku mar and others stayed in a farm house at Muzhiyanur near Andhiyur that night.
Gopal left Chennai on November 14 morning and learnt to his disappointment the next morning that Rajkumar had already been freed. Reliable sources said the signal to Gopal was deliberately delayed so that he would not be present when Rajkumar was set fre e.
Informed sources alleged that the Karnataka Government kept the Tamil Nadu government in the dark about the trip by Kolathur Mani, Dr. Bhanu and Ramkumar. The Tamil Nadu government came to know about it and hit back in its own way. In the State Assembly, Karunanidhi attacked the previous J.H. Patel government in Karnataka for not honouring its assurance to release 119 TADA detainees in Mysore, as demanded by Veerappan when he set free nine Karnataka Forest Department employees he had abducted in July 19 97. Gopal had played a key role in their release. Karunanidhi said that despite his writing several letters to Patel, nothing had happened. Patel said the 119 TADA detainees would be released only when Veerappan surrendered, Karunanidhi said.
P.G.R. Sindhia, Home Minister in the Patel government, joined issue with Karunanidhi. Sindhia said Patel had kept his promise, set up a committee to review the cases of TADA detainees, and 75 of them were enlarged on bail. The other 51 could not be relea sed.