The end of two extremists

Print edition : April 25, 2003

The death by shooting of two Tamil extremists in Chennai during an `encounter' that occurred while one of them was being transported by the police, raises certain concerns and questions.

in Chennai

The bodies of Rajaram (foreground) and Saravanan at a Government Hospital in Chennai.-S. THANTHONI

THE killing of two Tamil extremists, Rajaram and Saravanan, in what was described as an encounter with the police during the course of an aborted bid by the latter and his friends to rescue the former, in the heart of Chennai city on a busy thoroughfare on March 25, has put the focus again on the lingering menace of Tamil extremism - and also questions concerning methods employed by the police to counter criminality.

Rajaram had started out as a leftist and pro-Dalit activist but involved himself in various crimes, including robberies, dacoities, bomb-making and blasts, murders, extortions, heists and car-lifting. The daylight bank robbery at Besant Nagar in Chennai on April 10, 2002, during which the cashier was stabbed to death, proved to be his nemesis.

Rajaram, who was 34 when he was killed, was attracted by Marxist ideology during his undergraduate days at the Bishop Heber College, Tiruchi. He later joined the leftist Tamil People's Liberation Army (TPLA) founded by Ponparappi Rajendran. The TPLA had separated itself from the Tamilaga National Liberation Organisation/Army (TNLA), which was originally founded by Tamilarasan. Rajaram was influenced by Nagarajan, a Sri Lankan Tamil and a leftist. The police killed Nagarajan in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, in 1993. The TNLA broke up and one of the factions was led by Maran. Rajaram came into contact with Maran, who was involved in forest brigand Veerappan's abduction of Kannada film actor Rajkumar on July 30, 2000. Rajaram fought for the cause of Dalits and was associated with the Dalit Panthers of India led by R. Tirumavalavan.

Saravanan was a member of the Tamil National Retrieval Troops (TNRT), which supported the Sri Lankan Tamils' struggle for a Tamil Eelam. He had undergone arms training in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. Saravanan later teamed up with Veerappan and attacked the police station at Vellitiruppur near Erode on December 20, 1998 and carted away nine muskets and a revolver.

The TPLA, apart from following Marxist-Leninist ideology, gave primacy to Tamil and wanted a ban on English medium education. It took to exploding "pipe-bombs" around Independence Day for several years. It was responsible for bomb blasts, including those at a Tamil newspaper office in Madurai; at the Annamalai Nagar police station, Chidambaram; at Kottaiyur, near Karaikudi; at the Russian Cultural Centre, Chennai where a school was being run for the children of American expatriates; and at the State Election Commission office at Vadapalani, Chennai on August 11, 1997. It exploded two "pipe-bombs" on August 16, 1996 in a bus belonging to the Seventh Day Adventist School, Vepery, Chennai, because the school reportedly insisted that its pupils should converse only in English. According to the police, Rajaram was behind these blasts. He once relieved a merchant of Rs.14 lakhs in Chennai.

The Besant Nagar bank robbery was a sensational one. An armed gang stormed the branch of the State Bank of India and threw country bombs. Cashier K. Viswanathan (56) was stabbed when he resisted. When a crowd gathered, the gang members fled in a car and on motorcycles. The Chennai police were determined to nab the culprits. They scanned various groups and interrogated about a thousand persons.

Joint Commissioner of Police (North), Chennai, J.K. Tripathy said: "We wanted to get to the bottom of the crime because we wanted to know whether a simple criminal gang had done it for gain or any extremist organisation was behind it. For, they will use the money to buy arms and recruit cadres."

The police found out that Rajaram, Saravanan and their group were behind it. They arrested Rajaram on December 20, 2002 in Chennai, and Manivannan, Velu, Kumar, Ravi and "Thaadi" Velu (bearded Velu) two days later. Four Sri Lankan Tamils - Dileep, Siva, Siddique and Babu involved in the robbery are yet to be detained. The police interrogated Rajaram and others and found out how they had planned and executed the robbery.

AROUND 6 p.m. on March 25, 2003, the 17th Metropolitan Magistrate, Saidapet, extended Rajaram's remand in connection with the seizure of some explosives at Vadapalani last December. Rajaram was driven out in a police van with nine police escorts armed with AK-47 assault rifles. Assistant Commissioner of Police A. Kaliyamurthy was in a jeep in front, Inspector C. Rajamani in another jeep behind, and Rajaram in the van in the middle. As the convoy came out of the court compound to take Rajaram back to the Central Prison, it ran into a traffic jam. Kaliyamurthy decided to take a detour. But the van carrying Rajaram had a flat tyre. Kaliyamurthy then took Rajaram into his jeep along with four escorts. Inspector Rajamani also got in. It was 7-10 p.m.

Kaliyamurthy said: "A `Qualis' overtook my vehicle and bullets flew. My jeep's windshield was shattered. I got out of my jeep The Inspector also got out. Rajaram, who was handcuffed in the back, jumped out. A constable jumped out with him. From the `Qualis', they fired at the constable but the shot hit Rajaram and he fell down. A bullet ricocheted off my jeep door and hit my left hand. I told the escorts with AK-47 rifles not to open fire because innocent members of the public will be killed. I pulled out my revolver and aimed at Saravanan... I did not know it was Saravanan. Inspector Rajamani opened fire. I watched as Saravanan was hit. He fell down with the weapon in his hand... Blood was oozing from my hand. Two escorts and Rajamani were injured. Everything was over in a couple of minutes."

According to Kaliyamurthy, the police jeep could not chase the `Qualis' because bullets had hit its tyre. So the ACP sent Rajaram and Saravanan in his jeep to the Royapettah hospital. But they died on the way. Doctors removed a bullet from the ACP's hand.

The police later recovered the `Qualis' with bullet marks from an isolated spot at Taramani, a suburb of the city.

K.P. Shanmugarajeswaran, Deputy Commissioner of Police (T. Nagar), said the chassis and engine numbers of the `Qualis' had been "chipped away".

However, advocates who had appeared for Rajaram in court alleged in interviews to the press that the police had arrested Saravanan 10 days earlier, that he would have been brought to the site, and that both were "murdered". They alleged that the police had the previous day asked push-cart vendors, including a fruit-juice seller doing business at the spot where the `encounter' took place to clear away. There was some speculation over why an ACP himself had escorted Rajaram, why the police had stated that they were not sure of Saravanan's identity at the time of the encounter, and why they appeared to be hedging on whether it was an attempt to rescue Rajaram or to murder him.

But top police officers asserted that it was a "genuine encounter". They also said that it was not unusual for senior police officers, including those at the level of ACPs, to accompany police teams that transport remand prisoners: they listed specific instances to support this fact. Chennai Police Commissioner K. Vijay Kumar said that the police had not arrested Saravanan and that as such there was no question of his having been in police custody when the shootout took place.

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