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The STF's dilemma

Print edition : Oct 11, 2002 T+T-

The Karnataka Special Task Force involved in the search for Veerappan and his hostage Nagappa is in limbo even as the State government remains undecided on whether to hunt for the brigand or negotiate with him.

HAVING failed to locate Veerappan or his latest hostage, former Karnataka Minister H. Nagappa, even four weeks after his abduction, a weary Karnataka government appears to be unsure whether to pursue a "tough line'' and try to hunt down the brigand or meet Veerappan's demands. After talking tough, saying that there was no question of halting the operations against Veerappan, the government scaled down the search from September 11, evidently succumbing to pressure from Nagappa's family and supporters in the Janata Dal (United). Or that is what Chief Minister S.M. Krishna would have you believe.

According to Home Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, the combing operations in the forests are off but the search is still on. On the ground, personnel of the Karnataka Special Task Force (STF) are in limbo, not knowing whether to pursue their mission to its "very end" getting Veerappan "dead or alive'' or to bide their time as they were forced to do when the Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar was abducted by Veerappan in 2000.

In the opinion of Nagappa's family, Krishna has not kept his promise that the government would secure the former Minister's release through negotiations; they are against any STF operations to obtain his release for fear that in the process some harm will come to Nagappa. Unfortunately for Krishna, the intense search operations that the Karnataka STF launched soon after the abduction did not pay off. While acting on specific information on September 6 about the gang's movements at Kalmatturpatti (near Hoogyam on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border), all that it found were the dying embers of a campfire. Either the STF could not match Veerappan's speed and cunning, as has apparently been the case for over a decade, or the informant had simultaneously alerted the gang of the impending police action. STF sources claimed that Veerappan may have left his hideout at Kalmatturpatti, which is close to the allegedly Veerappan-friendly villages of Nallur, Penda and Meeniyam and north of his haunt in the Bargur forests, at least 10-12 hours before the STF personnel arrived.

With the continued failure of the STF's operations, negotiations seem to be the only option left with the Karnataka government to secure the release of Nagappa. But there is a question mark even on this option, with Veerappan indicating in a second audio cassette that he sent across, that he would negotiate only through Kolathur Mani, a sympathiser of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who is in jail in Karnataka on the charge of abetting Veerappan in his crimes, and the Tamilar Desiya Iyakkam leader P. Nedumaran, who has been jailed in Tamil Nadu under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Krishna has, on more than one occasion, ruled out enlarging Mani to allow him to go into the forests and Tamil Nadu has ruled out sending an emissary, leave alone releasing Nedumaran for the mission. The Karnataka government is still looking for "emissaries with credibility" to negotiate with the brigand.

When human rights activists P. Kalyani and G. Sugumaran volunteered to go into the forest it gave the government some hope. The two, along with Mani and Nedumaran, were among the emissaries who `negotiated' Rajkumar's release in 2001. But the duo wanted an assurance from the government that cases would not be foisted on them, as had been done, they alleged, in the case of Mani. They also wanted an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the alleged torture of Mani by the Karnataka STF. Meanwhile, Kharge said the emissaries would not be given any official status and added: "It is up to them; anybody can go into the forests.'' But in order for their visit to take place Veerappan has to agree to negotiate through them. The two, along with Mani and Nedumaran, have aired a message over All India Radio asking Veerappan to release Nagappa.

The Karnataka government has also sought the help of Right Livelihood Award winner and Karnataka Health Task Force chief Dr. H. Sudarshan to prevail over the Soliga tribals in nearby Biligere Rangana Hills for information on the gang. Since Sudarshan has worked with the tribal people for years, the government hopes that they will cooperate.

As for the STF, its misery seemed to have been compounded when almost the entire contingent (numbering 150) of the elite National Security Guards (NSG) departed just days after it arrived in the first week of September to take part in the hunt for Veerappan. The commandos were sent in to assist the STFs of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu after the two State governments sought the Centre's help. They were not intended to be part of the combing and search operations, but to act as an assault team and storm the bandit's hideout once it was located. Around 30 commandos have, however, stayed back and the others may return if the situation warrants it. Two Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopters, which were provided to assist the operations, have also left the operation area. According to informed sources, the NSG commandos were disappointed with the STF's level of intelligence on the brigand's whereabouts.

While the Karnataka government dithers over its course of action, the Tamil Nadu government seems sure about what is required. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has repeatedly emphasised, ever since the abduction, that no emissaries will be sent for negotiations and that Veerappan will be hunted down. According to sources, the Tamil Nadu STF has been combing the forests on its side of the border. The joint STFs chief Walter I. Dawaram is mostly on the Karnataka side, indicating the STF's thinking that Veerappan is still in the forests on the Karnataka side of the border.