Old game, new pawns

Print edition : October 18, 1997

Veerappan strikes again. This time, will the rules of the game be different?

THE forest brigand Veerappan has belied Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel's hope, expressed only recently, that "he will never enter the borders of Karnataka again." Veerappan struck at the Bandipur reserve forest in Karnataka, part of a national park, near the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, on October 7 and 8 and escaped into the forest after taking six hostages - naturalists-cum-wildlife photographers Senani Hegde and S. Krupakara, Karnataka forest personnel Krishna, Raju and Anwar Pasha, and a scientist from the Indian Horticulture Institute, Dr. Satyabrata Maiti. Veerappan took 14 tourists and seven forest personnel hostage but set the rest free. A bus-load of tourists was held up at 'Hulikatte' (tiger land) on a safari route; then a back-up jeep of the Forest Department was targeted.

Veerappan and his gang had never before struck in the Bandipur forest area, although in November-December 1993 the Karnataka police engaged Veerappan in an encounter near the Sikkattipalam-Changadi Hills.

The latest incident clearly surprised the Karnataka Special Task Force (KSTF), charged to hunt down Veerappan. Harshavardhan Raju, KSTF Commander, said that where Veerappan struck this time was not part of his "territory." He said: "We did not anticipate his coming to Bandipur."

A former KSTF Commander said: "Veerappan was probably looking for foreigners or wanted to abduct a high-ranking police or forest official. He wants publicity and wants international attention." Sources told Frontline that three foreigner couples and a Judge - who had his own gun-toting bodyguard - left Bandipur only on the morning of the ambush.

Veerappan and a few of his associates in one of their hideouts, as photographed by the Nakkheeran team in August 1997.-COURTESY: NAKKHEERAN

Nakkheeran

The Superintendent of Police of Chamarajanagar district, A.M. Prasad, under whose jurisdiction the area comes, said: "It is a dare-devil act. The ambush has not been in the core area of the forest, but in a place which is part of the daily safari trail. We never expected it."

ACCORDING to sources, Veerappan and a gang of six probably came from hideouts in the Satymangalam forests and the Biligiri Rangana Hills and moved into the forests of Bandipur (230 km from Bangalore and along the Mysore-Udhagamandalam road) at least two weeks ahead of the ambush. Lying low after the release of eight abducted forest guards in August, Veerappan, according to KSTF sources, "chose the national park area since it was frequented by dignitaries and foreign tourists and October is a holiday season." Lack of KSTF activity after the July-August drama made it easy for the brigand to reach the park.

According to Prasad, the gang reached the farmhouse of Senani (who is a close relative of Jnanpith award winning Kannada writer Kuvempu) and Krupakar, situated on the fringes of the Bandipur park, around 11 p.m. on October 7. After taking the two hostage, they spent the rainy night in the farmhouse drinking tea, eating bananas and smoking bidis. (Bidi butts and banana peels were strewn all over the floor when the police visited the farmhouse the next morning.)

The photographers have been shooting for a film on wild dogs for the last six months. The gang manacled them after taking away three cameras, three cassette recorders, audio tapes (one was later used to record a message) a pair of binoculars and a torch.

Lying in wait the next morning, Veerappan ambushed the day's first wildlife safari (persons on the safari travel by bus through the forest area). V. Vinoba, one of the tourists in the bus, related to Frontline the sequence of events:

"We were 14 tourists and three forest personnel, including bus driver Sebastian. Some 4 km into the safari, as the bus was about to climb an embankment, there were boulders on the road.

S. Krupakara (with beard) and Senal Hegde, taken hostage by Veerappan.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

"Sebastian stopped the bus, and immediately four men with guns jumped out of the bushes and surrounded the bus. Veerappan and two others climbed in. No one moved. Veerappan asked us in Tamil to get down and questioned us. He wanted to know if there were any 'white-skinned' people around. Dr. Maiti said that he was a Central Government employee and he was asked to sit next to two other people who were chained and had not come with us (Senani and Krupakar). The three children in the party began to cry. Veerappan ordered that biscuits be given to them. The five women were scared and one couple from north India asked me who it was. When I said daku (dacoit), they fell quiet.

"At 11 a.m., Veerappan took Sebastian near a boulder and recorded a message. Most of the tourists were made to sit in the bus. I was allowed to stand outside, and one of Veerappan's assistants even asked me if I wanted a bidi. After recording the message he was about to let the bus leave, but one of his assistants said that he could hear a jeep coming. Veerappan ordered us to reman quiet."

It was after 11 a.m. that a jeep with four forest personnel was sent by the park staff who suspected that the vehicle must have had a break-down.

Vinoba said: "Veerappan and his six men ran down and surrounded the jeep which had stopped some distance away. He separated the permanent forest employees and the daily workers. One of the men (Mujeeb) said that he was a daily worker. At 12 noon, Veerappan asked him and another man to go and bring senior forest officers. He was told to return in 30 minutes." Mujeeb, according to reports, was asked to tell the officials that he had sighted a dead tiger in the forest.

According to Vinoba, when the jeep did not come back after 90 minutes, Veerappan allowed the tourists to leave. Maiti had to stay back.

Vinoba, who is a driver with a car rental company in Bangalore, said that Veerappan and his men wore rubber slippers and military-style uniforms. They had stuffed something - possibly cash - into their shirts, had two self-loading rifles and carried their belongings in cloth bundles. Veerappan's voice was hardly audible.

Dr. Satyabrata Maiti, taken hostage-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

It was only around 12-30 p.m. that Mujeeb informed Deputy Conservator of Forests S.N. Rajagopal of the kidnapping. Apparently, none of the forest officials was willing to go into the forest.

The news was meanwhile conveyed to KSTF Commander Raju. It has been alleged that no attempt was made to lay siege to the area or to attack the gang. Additional forces from the two Karnataka State Armed Reserve Police platoons that were stationed 60 km away were not summoned. Karnataka Minister of State for Home Roshan Baig said that Raju's handling of the situation would be investigated.

In his latest message addressed to the Chief Ministers, recorded on cassette and sent through driver Sebastian, Veerappan threatened to kill the six hostages if the KSTF was sent to rescue them. "I will kill the hostages and the police," he declared.

Veerappan did not make any new demands but reiterated his demand for amnesty as a precondition for surrender. He said in the message: "When I kidnapped the forest personnel last time, both the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments failed to grant my request for general amnesty. Now I have highly-placed government officials in my custody. You grant me general amnesty and secure their release." Veerappan said that he felt cheated by the two Chief Ministers since they had failed to fulfill the promises made through R.R. Gopal (Editor of the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran, who was Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's emissary) even though he had released the men he had abducted in July. "Even Karunanidhi has not kept his word," Veerappan added.

Veerappan declared that he has "nothing to lose" and that he was ready to die if his bid to force the governments to concede his demands failed. "I am ready to die. But you will be responsible for the death of these six persons. So take a judicious decision and secure their release. Send Gopal or anybody else for negotiations. This is the final game. I am not ready to release the hostages even if it costs me my life."

The two State governments meanwhile stuck to their August 19 joint offer. The offer was to protect Veerappan's and his associates' lives in the event of his surrender. They would be kept in a special camp in Tamil Nadu for a minimum period as legally stipulated. The courts would be approached to allow Karnataka to transfer all Veerappan-related cases to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka would not requisition Veerappan's presence in Karnataka.

V. Vinoba, released by Veerappan.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE October ambush has come close on the heels of the much-publicised release in Chennai in August of eight Karnataka forest personnel whom Veerappan abducted and held captive for 45 days. Veerappan had then put forward a list of conditions for their release and his own surrender, chief among them being that the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu provide him amnesty and a sizeable amount in cash. Although both the States refused to give him amnesty, Veerappan, after lengthy discussions with Gopal, released the hostages.

This time, Veerappan has also called on Karnataka to release his relatives who have been booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, TADA, and are in the Mysore jail.

Minister Baig told Frontline: "We cannot have these hostage dramas and Gopal's intervention over and over again. We are now preparing for any eventuality." He added: "The understanding after the last hostage drama was that Veerappan would not be seen in Karnataka again."

A high-level meeting between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu officials was convened in Chennai on October 12 to formulate a plan to defuse the crisis. The latest crisis marks a change in Karnataka's attitude to the problem. It has approached the Union Government, while last time it had turned to Tamil Nadu. Karnataka has sought Central assistance in the form of paramilitary aid and a possible operation involving the Central forces and the police forces of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, to end the 15-year-old menace.

A Karnataka Minister told Frontline that though Chief Minister Karunanidhi has refused to entertain Veerapan's amnesty demand. "Tamil Nadu has given him a kind of Robin Hood image and are using his community credentials for political gains. Veerappan has been able to escape to Tamil Nadu with ease. There should be a concentrated effort from them as well to nab Veerappan."

The Chief Ministers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu reportedly spoke to Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta. Chief Minister Patel spoke to I.K. Gujral when the Prime Minister was away in Cairo.

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