And now, the hunt

Published : Nov 25, 2000 00:00 IST

With both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu announcing their resolve to step up the hunt for Veerappan, the scene of action seems set to shift to the forests.

THERE was much euphoria in government circles in Bangalore and Chennai after the release of Rajkumar, but what has been achieved is at best a Pyrrhic victory. The brigand still roams the forests - he even issued a signed statement along with his Tamil mi litant friends - while both the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments are as clueless as ever about his whereabouts and a strategy needed to catch him and his friends.

And worse, the image of the two governments has taken a severe beating with the Supreme Court issuing strong strictures during arguments by the two governments to free, as demanded by Veerappan, over 120 prisoners in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, many of the m detained under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). Said the Supreme Court: "What have you (State governments) done for the past eight years to apprehend the forest brigand? We make it clear it is the responsibility of the S tate to maintain law and order. If you cannot do it, then quit and make way for somebody else who can."

The Supreme Court adopted a tough posture, firmly shutting the judicial door on allowing the withdrawal of TADA charges. It said on November 7: "What causes us the gravest disquiet is that when, not so long back, as the record shows, his gang had been co nsiderably reduced, Veerappan was not pursued and apprehended and now, as the statements in the affidavit filed on behalf of Tamil Nadu shows, Veerappan is operating in the forest that has been his hideout for 10 years or more along with secessionist Tam il elements." The apex court added: "It seems certain to us that Veerappan will continue with his life of crime and it is very likely that those crimes will have anti-national objectives."

Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments have announced the launching of operations by their respective Special Task Forces (STFs) that were established to catch Veerappan. But certain questions are still being asked. For instance, was there a deal, whi ch has a bearing on any further action against Veerappan? Why were the governments not prompt in ordering the STFs back into the forests as they were in ordering them out of the forest on July 31 after Rajkumar was taken away? Why has Central help in the form of a commando operation not sought? (Commandos, according to Union Minister of State for Home I.D. Swami, were ready and in place.) And, should the STFs which have failed - whatever the reasons - to apprehend Veerappan, continue their work with bas ically the same composition and operational style as before?

Hot pursuit of the brigand once he released his prize catch was an option that the STFs had favoured (and discussed with their political bosses during the hostage crisis) since it would be an ideal opportunity to pin down the gang. But no instructions we re issued at that time to the STFs, which were in the dark about the release of the hostages. Even the Collector and the Superintendent of Police of Erode district were for hours unaware of the whereabouts of the released hostages. According to informed sources, as part of the 'deal' to secure the release of the hostages, Veerappan was assured that there "would be no police action".

Faced with sustained demands from both the public and the Opposition parties, the Karnataka government had by November 19 started announcing "plans" for STF action against Veerappan. On his part, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi announced the re- launch of STF operations on November 20. He came down heavily on any form of secessionist or extremist forces that tried to revive itself on an ostensible 'Tamils plank'. He said any action against Veerappan would be done in coordination with the Karnata ka Government. He added: "We will also take the Centre's advice and assistance in the operations." Karunanidhi said the Army's assistance would be sought "if necessary". He said the number of STF camps in the Sathyamangalam forest area will be increased, police contingents in the camps reinforced and more weapons provided to them. Four more senior police officials have been chosen to assist the Tamil Nadu STF operations.

Brushing aside Tamil Nationalist Movement leader P. Nedumaran's opposition to STF operations until STF personnel who had allegedly perpetrated atrocities against the tribal people were punished, Karunanidhi said that various leaders have been expressing their views and it was not possible to reply to every one of them. Nonetheless he made a distinction between the STF operations per se and the payment of compensation to the affected people as directed by the Sadasivam Commission.

KARNATAKA Home Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge said in Gulbarga that the STF would immediately resume operations in the M.M. Hills area. As if on cue, State Director-General of Police C. Dinakar disclosed that STF personnel had been moved to 17 base camps a nd that five platoons of the Karnataka State Reserve Police stationed at different places. A former STF Commander, however, asked: "If they have moved to their base camps why are they sitting still? It is time to move into the forests."

Commenting on the question of coordination between the STFs of the two States, Dinakar said that on the ground there was lack of coordination and bad blood between the two STFs. Said a Tamil Nadu STF officer: "They (Karnataka) are not sharing information or cooperating with us. There is no openness. For example, whenever we have requested for a joint interrogation of the released hostages (who are all in Bangalore) they only said ''wait.'"

The Karnataka STF Commandant, Deputy Inspector-General of Police Dr. Harshavardhan Raju, who usually camps in Mysore, had a meeting with Balachandran in Hassanur on November 17 but was soon summoned to Bangalore to aid the Home Department in preparing it s replies for the discussions on the Veerappan issue in the State legislature, now in session. For any effort to be worth its name, the two STFs will have to gather and pool information.

Significantly, on November 20, Raju came to Bannari and held talks with his Tamil Nadu counterpart, Inspector-General of Police N. Balachandran, to work out operational strategies.

Initially the Karunanidhi government did not appear to be inclined to send the STF into the forests, even after Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna had announced in New Delhi on November 17 that he had "already given instructions to the (Karnataka) pol ice to start patrolling and intelligence gathering" and that STF operations were being re-launched. Explaining why Karnataka could not "decide any (specific) course of action," Kharge told Frontline on November 17: "We have to consult the Tamil Na du government and the Government of India before steps are taken. The STFs are still in their camps." When asked what should be done to catch Veerappan, he said: "He (Veerappan) is in their (Tamil Nadu) area. Their jurisdiction. He is their man. How can the Karnataka (police) go there to catch him?"

It was surmised that with the elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly due early next year, Karunanidhi may not find it to his or his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's advantage to launch operations against Veerappan. The question was: Is he worried that he would alienate the Vanniyar community, which is a major factor in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu and to which Veerappan belongs?

Ideally, STF personnel would have liked to know from which forests the hostages and the negotiators emerged, and then enter the area for operations. An STF officer said: "If the two governments were sincere they should have given us the go-ahead for a m assive attack."

More men, equipment and funds can be provided easily enough by committed governments. But better training, more coordination among the STFs, the local police and the forest departments of the two States, a suspension of human activity (such as tribal peo ple gathering minor forest produce) within the periphery of the forests and a strict vigil on poaching will be easier said than done.

At present the Tamil Nadu STF has around 190 men with as many as 50 vacancies. The situation with regard to the Karnataka STF is not much better; actually it is facing an acute shortage of men and officers. Harshavardhan Raju's repeated pleas to the Kris hna government have fallen on deaf ears. He is tipped for a Border Security Force (BSF) posting, and his tenure is expected to come to an end shortly. The Karnataka STF or the local police have not made a single arrest of Veerappan's gang members or thei r associates during 1999-2000. All the arrests have been made by their Tamil Nadu counterparts.

Before any operations can start, the STF would also like to interrogate the hostages, "if not Rajkumar at least Nagappa, Govindaraju and Nagesh", to know a little more about Veerappan's and his accomplices' thinking and plans. The Joint Commander of the STFs, Balachandran, is expected to lead a team of STF officers to Bangalore soon. But it is not certain that they will get the opportunity to talk to the trio. Nagappa, who escaped on September 28, has not been made accessible even to the Karnataka polic e. Repeated requests by the Joint Commander to Raju for access to Nagappa have failed.

The two governments' moves, rather the lack of them, smack of a repeat of what was done during past hostage crises - fret until the hostages were released and then forget Veerappan until he strikes again.

Informed sources said that Union Home Minister L.K. Advani was keen that the two STFs should launch an operation immediately to catch Veerappan and the extremist cadres holed up with him. He has been on record as saying that the Centre was prepared to pr ovide any help that the two States needed in this regard. The Union Home Ministry is worried about the implications of the secessionist TNLA and TNRF working in tandem with Veerappan.

The DMK government was already feeling the heat of the demand that Nedumaran made at a press conference after Rajkumar's release - that the STF should not enter the forests until compensation was paid to the victims of the alleged atrocities of the STF a nd action taken against the STF personnel who committed them. Nedumaran made it clear that it was not Veerappan's demand that the STF should not be despatched after him. "This is our demand. I explained this to the Chief Minister," he said.

Nedumaran complained that while the press highlighted only Veerappan's smuggling of ivory and sandalwood, it never exposed the support given to him by politicians and bureaucrats. He accused the press of "hiding the atrocities of the ruling class". Accor ding to him, the Veerappan issue was a by-product of the socio-economic problems of the area in question. Nedumaran argued that the people of the area had been badly affected by the activities of STF and Forest Department personnel. Only when a solution was found to their problems would the issue be resolved, he said. "Otherwise, many more Veerappans will rise."

Even the DMK's two allies, the MGR-ADMK and the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress (TRC), denounced Nedumaran's demand that the STF should not be asked to go into the forests. Bharatiya Janata Party (also a DMK ally) leader J.P. Mathur, said: "This is the right ti me to take action against Veerappan. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka should take joint action against him." S. Tirunavukkarasu, MGR-ADMK leader, said: "The STF operation cannot be given up... Violence and extremism would ruin a democratic society." If there wer e any specific instances of human rights violations by STF personnel, they should be investigated and the guilty punished. "But how can you blame the entire STF?" Tirunavukkarasu asked.

Vazhappadi K. Ramamurthi, TRC president, wanted Veerappan and the extremists to be flushed out of the forests "to save Tamil Nadu from slipping into the hands of the LTTE once again." Ramamurthi said he was sure that Karunanidhi would "regret" having sen t Nedumaran, an LTTE supporter, to the forests.

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha said that Karunanidhi should send the STF into the forests to capture Veerappan dead or alive. She said that there was no ground to believe that Vee rappan would stop abductions. Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) general secretary C. Gnanasekaran said if the State STF was not able to capture Veerappan, the Army should be given the task.

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