The Veerappan game, again

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

Veerappan's latest action, the abduction of former Karnataka Minister Nagappa, underlines the weaknesses of the operations carried out to catch the forest brigand.

FOR the second time in two years, Veerappan has the S.M. Krishna-led Karnataka government over a barrel. The August 25 abduction by the forest brigand of former Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader H. Nagappa from Kamagere, 75 km from Mysore, has not only highlighted Veerappan's ability to plan and efficiently execute an operation, but shown in poor light the Karnataka Police's intelligence network and the security apparatus that was supposed to protect Nagappa. The situation looks familiar: An abduction, an audio cassette with a message with indications that more would follow, a demand for the deployment of negotiators sympathetic to Veerappan and the cessation of police action. It is yet another instance in the sordid saga of Veerappan, when the hunted once again turns the hunter.

The Karnataka government has been guilty of sleeping through the last 22 months after Kannada film actor Rajkumar was released by Veerappan in November 2000. The abduction of Nagappa makes a mockery of the claim of successive governments in Karnataka that Veerappan was not on the State's territory. Krishna has also to answer the question why he removed last June the chief of the Karnataka Special Task Force (STF) - specially constituted in 1993 to end the Veerappan menace - Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Kempaiah, who was doing a reasonably good job. During his nine-month tenure, he had built up a good rapport with the Tamil Nadu STF. Kempaiah was replaced by IGP M.K. Srivastava, who was shifted later. Subsequently, Deputy Inspector-General of Police (DIG) Dr. Rajiv Pratap Sharma was made the STF Commander. He was removed from the post days after Nagappa's abduction.

Krishna has also drawn flak for appointing, after the exit of Kempaiah, a retired Director-General and Inspector-General of Police (DG&IGP), T. Sreenivasulu, as Security Adviser to the State government on the operations to catch Veerappan. The moot point is what Sreenivasulu can contribute to his present job that he was not able to during his tenure as DG&IGP. According to observers, the last six years (except a couple of months in 2000 when Rajkumar was kidnapped) saw no concerted action from the Karnataka side to catch Veerappan. Asked an officer: "What prevented successive DGPs from reviewing the situation and ensuring that the STF remained a dynamic unit and that it put in a consistent effort to catch Veerappan?"

Stuck as it is on the horns of a dilemma - Veerappan's threat to behead Nagappa is worrying it, and at the same time it does not want to be seen as kow-towing to the brigand's demand - the Karnataka government has kept itself open to negotiations while simultaneously pursuing what it calls a "limited operation". It recalled several officers who had previously participated in anti-Veerappan operations and despatched them to the forests.

On September 7, at least 1,500 personnel of the STFs of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu launched a joint operation in the Dinahalli forest area apparently on the basis of information about the movement of the Veerappan gang. They began their search with the help of the local village protection force and were later joined by commandos of the National Security Guards flown in from Delhi. The gang was suspected to be hiding at Kalmatturpatti near Hoogyam on the Tamil Nadu border. The STF operation led to concern for Nagappa's safety by his family and supporters. They virtually laid siege to the Ramapura police station and relented only after the police top brass assured Nagappa's wife, Parimala Nagappa, that his safe return was their top priority.

But very little could be done to stop the rumours, among them that the bandit's hideout had been surrounded and that it was only a matter of time before he was caught. In fact, one view was that such rumours had been floated to deflect attention from the growing unrest among farmers on the Cauvery issue.

Even such a view could not take away from the fact that thus far the STFs of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have achieved little success in their hunt for Veerappan.

With the repercussions of the abduction being far less serious in Tamil Nadu than in Karnataka, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa took a tough stand on the issue. She gave a free hand to the Tamil Nadu STF, ruled out any role for emissaries or room for negotiations, and even stressed the need to end the Veerappan menace. Out of the four key men who negotiated with the brigand during the Rajkumar abduction - Tamil nationalist leader P. Nedumaran, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sympathiser Kolathur Mani, Editor of the Tamil weekly Nakkheeran R.R. Gopal and its reporter P. Sivasubramanian - three are in jail. While Nedumaran, arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) is in a Tamil Nadu jail, Mani and Sivasubramanian are in Karnataka jails for allegedly helping Veerappan. Gopal is on anticipatory bail. The second cassette from Veerappan, which arrived 12 days after the abduction, contained the brigand's demands that Nedumaran and Mani be sent as emissaries to negotiate with him and a reiteration of his earlier demand that the government suspend the operations to catch him.

ACCORDING to many people, the abduction of Nagappa was an event waiting to happen. His daughter Priyanka said her father had regularly received threatening letters, purportedly from Veerappan. But they stopped after the Rajkumar abduction. A report by Superinten-dent of Police (S.P.) Arakesh Kumar, who was on deputation to the Karnataka STF, had mentioned that Nagappa was one of the four persons who faced the threat of abduction by Veerappan. Sharma reiterated this point when he wrote to the S.Ps of Chamarajnagar and Mysore districts in July that the four persons "needed to be given adequate security" while they visited the two districts. Copies of the two letters were sent to the Chief Minister, State Home Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge, DG&IGP V.V. Bhaskar, ADGP (Intelligence) S.K. Banerjee and Home Secretary Adip Chowdary.

Chamarajnagar S.P. P. Harisekaran replied to Sharma's letter on August 12 and indicated that Y-category security (four armed guards at home and two during travel) was being provided to Nagappa and the three others. However, when Nagappa was kidnapped 13 days later, three of his four police guards were not present and the fourth failed to act.

However, a memo written by the State's DG&IGP in December 2000 to the then STF Commander stated that from that point of time the administrative control of the two districts would be with the STF chief. In other words, it was Sharma's responsibility to take the necessary action.

Ever since his release of Rajkumar, Veerappan has been lying low and, except for the January 2000 incident at Chemmanthimalai in the Western Ghats when the Tamil Nadu STF came within sighting distance of the poacher, has totally eluded his pursuers. As a senior police officer said, the Nagappa abduction was Veerappan's way of reminding the Karnataka government of the unfulfilled assurances that were given to him during the Rajkumar abduction.

Veerappan's reappearance also put at rest speculation that he was ill and was constantly on the run. Since the raid was conducted by a band of eight - only two long-loyal Veerappan aides, Sethukuli Govindan and Chandre Gowder, remain in the gang - efforts are on to establish the identities of the others. Were they local people who were bought over, or were they members of pro-LTTE groups such as the Tamil National Liberation Army and the Tamil National Retrieval Force? The two groups had successfully linked up with the Veerappan gang during the Rajkumar abduction.

What about the hunt to catch the bandit and the oft-repeated question, 'why can't he be caught'? To many people who have been searching for Veerappan, the operation is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. The STFs never receive information about the brigand's whereabouts in time because either the tribal people and residents of hamlets in the periphery of the forests are scared of the brigand or are not interested in helping the police. Police informants who, unlike in the past, are paid handsomely by the STFs, are few and hardly bring worthwhile information. With Veerappan prepared to part with lots of money, it is easy to guess whom the tribal people may tend to favour. For instance, Madanayaka, a tribal person who was caught near the hamlet of Kanchagalli by the STF three days after the Nagappa abduction, had in his possession currency notes of Rs.500. He had closely monitored the movements of Nagappa and passed on information to Veerappan.

THE two STFs, which have most of the equipment that they want, have cost the tax-payer crores of rupees (Jayalalithaa admitted that Tamil Nadu had spent Rs.17.61 crores on its STF since it was constituted). They currently have sufficient staff and continue to be the best bet to catch Veerappan. The Border Security Force's (BSF) two highly publicised but abortive campaigns in the forests only served to highlight this fact. The presence of commando forces drawn from the Centre and specially trained for jungle combat, as requested by both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, could help in the operations.

According to informed sources, Kempaiah, in tandem with Joint Task Force chief Walter I. Dawaram, tried hard to catch Veerappan - they did everything from gathering intelligence to combing the forests, and even planning an ambush. But they never got sight of their prey, though sources point out that Veerappan camped just 10 km away from Kempaiah's Malai Mahadeshwara Hills headquarters for quite a few months. In an attempt to pinpoint the whereabouts of the gang, Kempaiah was said to have concentrated on pinning down Veerappan's accomplices and tracing the money that had allegedly been paid to release Rajkumar. For his part, Veerappan has not directly confronted the security forces, his last encounter being in 1996 and his last killing in 1993.

According to police records, Veerappan has killed 138 people (including 32 policemen and 10 Forest Department personnel), slaughtered hundreds of elephants and looted tonnes of sandalwood. The Karnataka government has declared a reward of Rs.40 lakhs on his head.

Karnataka's DG&IGP Bhaskar, who is to retire on September 30, has jumped into the fray wearing fatigues and leading the anti-Veerappan operations from the front. However, 12 years ago, as the DIG (Southern Range) he had expressed his inability to lead a team to recover sandalwood looted by Veerappan. With Sharma now being relieved of his STF Commander post and Bhaskar's impending retirement, the government will soon have to look for replacements. Its moves will indicate as to how it views future STF operations.

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