On the Veerappan trail

Print edition : July 21, 2001

The operations to catch Veerappan gain new vigour after the Jayalalithaa government takes charge in Tamil Nadu, but the forest brigand remains as elusive as ever.

DESPITE changes in structure, command and strategy, the special task forces (STFs) of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which began a new operation on June 20, are nowhere near catching forest brigand Veerappan, whom they have been pursuing for the last eight years. The top echelons of the STFs are still hopeful, but the commanders have set for themselves no timeframe to complete the task.

On the fringes of the Hasanur forest. Villagers hold the key to the success of the STF operations to nab Veerappan.-RAVI SHARMA

An important element of the new strategy is to have close interaction with the tribal people who inhabit the Thalamalai, Kadambur, Satyamangalam and Bargur forests and the people living in the peripheral villages, and give them a sense of security by ensuring the continued presence of troops and senior officers at the several camps that have been set up inside the jungles.

In order to give the force a new look, changes have been made right across the ranks - Walter I. Dawaram, the retired Director-General of Police (DGP), who headed the STF earlier, has been named Joint Chief of the STFs. Twenty-two police stations of Tamil Nadu that are located in the vicinity of areas known to be frequented by Veerappan have been brought under the direct control of the STF.

The intelligence network, which holds the key to finding Veerappan's whereabouts, is also being strengthened. A senior STF officer said: "What is needed is accurate intelligence and a small and dedicated team. Without information even a 10,000-strong police force will grope in the dark." It is with the intelligence aspect in mind that the STF has begun to win the confidence of the tribal people and the villagers. They are not just offered money, as in the past, but the authorities are trying to address their day-to-day problems, which mainly pertain to civic needs, appointment of teachers in schools, the issue of ration cards and permission to gather minor forest produce (MFP).

Since June 20 STF personnel have interacted "in a qualitatively improved manner with nearly 50,000 tribal people and villagers from 206 villages." Their problems have been categorised as immediate, short-term and long-term. Immediate problems are those that can be solved by the STF itself, short-term and long-term ones are those that would require the intervention of government departments such as Revenue, Forest, Electricity, Transport and Civil Supplies.

A senior STF officer said: "We cannot and do not want to usurp the role assigned to other government departments. Since we penetrate the jungles we will become the nodal agency, the point of contact for the people inhabiting them. We have already passed on their requirements to the respective District Collectors, who in turn have sent their teams to address the problems. No government can redress all their problems overnight. It is bound to take time."

When Frontline sought the reactions of the tribal people and villagers in the Thalamalai, Bargur and Kadambur forests about the STF's measures they appeared a little sceptical, having been for years harassed by the police; they nevertheless welcomed it. But whether they will provide information on Veerappan is to be seen. The villagers in fact said that they hardly had the time to think of Veerappan, preoccupied as they are with more pressing matters.

Madappan, a tribal person who was busy making wooden snares to trap jungle fowl near the Garikekandi bridge that spans the Palar river and connects Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, seemed to sum up the collective perception. He said: "The police want us to give information on Veerappan. How can we do this? The police are here today, gone tomorrow, Veerappan will always be here. Can the police protect us always?" But, according to a senior STF officer, this is the view that the STF is trying to correct. He said that "in a bid to give them confidence we are now ensuring a stronger and continuous police presence in the jungles. Further, to give the operations continuity, senior police officers will be stationed deep in the jungles until the operations are over." The STF hopes this strategy will pay off, at least in the long run, with people volunteering information.

The reasons that have prevented the STFs from catching the brigand are simple yet insurmountable. His excellent knowledge of the terrain, his Padayachi caste tag, the support (either out of fear or out of sympathy) of the residents of 200-odd villages (populated in sizable numbers by the Padayachi/Vanniyar community) on the periphery of the forests, support from the tribal people and from locally influential politicians, lack of long-term sustained and coordinated efforts by successive governments in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and in recent times support from members of extremist organisations such as the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army and the Tamil Nadu Retrieval Force, have all contributed to Veerappan's relative security. He has eluded the BSF, which was first deployed between 1993 and 1995 and then again in 2000, the Karnataka STF, which has been looking for him since 1993, and the Tamil Nadu STF, which has been deployed almost continuously since 1995.

The Tamil Nadu Special Task Force's headquarters at Korathur near Satyamangalam.-RAVI SHARMA

Other reasons have been the apparent lack of political will and the lack of coordination between the STF personnel of the two States. Further, there is a feeling that Karnataka (Tamil Nadu has also been guilty of this) is slack in its responses to emergencies. Successive governments in Karnataka, including the present one led by S.M. Krishna, have been obsessed with the view that Veerappan is a Tamilian who operates in Tamil Nadu and so the effort to catch him is primarily the business of the Tamil Nadu government. A former STF chief said: "Karnataka has been a weak link in the operations. It maintains that he is not in Karnataka without undertaking a thorough combing operation. The forests that Veerappan roams do not respect any State boundaries. Veerappan has crossed into Karnataka, as he did when he abducted Kannada film actor Rajkumar."

Veerappan's periodic acts of taking hostages, chiefly granite quarry owners, have also proved highly efficacious. They have not only brought him the much-needed respite when cornered by the police, but also a bounty with which he could buy himself friends. According to police sources, the Rajkumar kidnap episode last year netted him at least Rs.12 crores, the amount having been paid by the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments and the Rajkumar family. Most of this money, again if police sources are to be believed, has been stashed away by Veerappan with some politician-friends.

Given the STF's history of failures, it is hardly surprising that the changed strategy has been greeted with scepticism. Major changes began to be introduced with the June 1 decision of the Jayalalithaa government to revamp the Tamil Nadu STF. The changes were long overdue. During the last days of the previous dispensation in Tamil Nadu under M. Karunanidhi the Tamil Nadu STF was in limbo, with the then Joint Task Force Commander Inspector-General of Police (IGP) T. Radhakrishna, who was nursing a broken big toe for most part of his tenure, not actively participating in the operations. The morale among the troops was anything but high.

Nevertheless, Jayalalithaa's decision to appoint Dawaram to head the joint STF operation, and to bolster the Tamil Nadu STF with the services of IGP K. Vijaykumar, has not only indicated her strong support for the anti-Veerappan operations but boosted the morale of the forces. The changes also indicate that Jayalalithaa, during whose previous tenure most of the members of the Veerappan gang were wiped out, has been more enthusiastic in tracking down Veerappan than her political rivals. The Tamil Nadu STF feels it will now receive full political support to its operations.

THE breaking away of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party that has never supported the operations against Veerappan, from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-led alliance is an added bonus since there will be no opposition, however small, to Jayalalithaa's moves to strengthen the STF as it goes about its task. The Karnataka government in May appointed IGP Kempiah as its STF chief.

While Dawaram is known to act as tough as he talks (he was accused of committing human rights violations during his previous stint as STF chief), Vijaykumar, who was on deputation with the BSF, has had some experience with the STF. In 1993, when he was part of the Tamil Nadu police's Special Security Group, he trained personnel for the STF. Both officers believe in the 'hands-on theory', preferring to be in the jungles with the troops rather than work from the confines of an office.

Besides the 700-odd-strong Tamil Nadu STF, which has been bolstered by men from the Tamil Nadu Reserve Police and a commando unit, and a slightly smaller Karnataka STF corps, the operations against Veerappan have since last December acquired the services of nearly 700 men from the BSF's 117 Battalion. Seven companies of the 117 Battalion have been set up along the Palar and M.M. Hills on the Karnataka side and Satyamangalam, Varattupallam and Gundripallam on the Tamil Nadu side.

In the last seven months, the BSF, along with the STF, has combed the forests located within Tamil Nadu and about 70 per cent of the forests on the Karnataka side. However, many officers have questioned the need for the BSF's presence. Its deployment after the release of Rajkumar in December was more of a political necessity, with the Centre forced to accede to the requests of the two States to intervene in the matter.

Those in the know are cynical about the BSF's usefulness in the context. Dawaram said: "It (the deployment of the BSF) is all nonsense, a stunt. There is no need for a big army to catch Veerappan. I don't understand what the BSF can do. They don't even know the language." The BSF personnel too are not happy about the whole affair. An officer said: "We are a trained fighting force. Here nothing is happening. Why is the Central government using us to catch a poacher? It is a waste of time and money."

But having been airlifted to and deployed in Veerappan country, the BSF unit finds itself in a no-win situation. It has no mandate to operate independently, and any decision to withdraw from the operation would attract ridicule. Meanwhile, the brigand who held the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to ransom with the sensational abduction of Rajkumar, has been spotted just once since he fled his hideout in December. That was in February, when the intense operations almost paid off when an intelligence gathering party of the Tamil Nadu STF accidentally came within sighting distance of the poacher and his gang at Chemmanthimalai (in the Western Ghats), northwest of the Kerala border town of Walayar.

But the poacher fled into the thick Walayar forests after a brief exchange of fire with the skeletal STF party. He left behind among other things haversacks containing bundles of soiled currency notes amounting to Rs 2.92 lakhs, a camera, three cellular telephones and a solar battery charger, an antenna, a walkie-talkie, medicines (including those for treating blood pressure, asthma and some common ailments), a diary, clothes, a mariner's compass and dry rations.

Sustained patrolling by the STF after the February sighting, of the national highway and the rail lines that lead from Coimbatore into Kerala and the heavily forested area on either side of the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, from the Velliangiri Hills in Tamil Nadu and right up to the Walayar and Malampuzha forests of Kerala terminating at the Palakkad Gap, did not pay dividends. By all indications Veerappan, after lying low and living off the land as is his wont, was able to sneak back into the Tamil Nadu forests and then move to more familiar haunts.

Over the past decade Veerappan has been active in forests that stretch from Denkanikote and Anchetti in Tamil Nadu's Dharmapuri district to the Palakkad Gap and from Hogenekal in the east through M.M. Hills, Bandipur and Biligiri Ranga (B.R.) Hills in Karnataka, right up to the Nilgiri ranges in the west. The area, which encompasses around 18,500 sq km, is thick with vegetation and numerous ravines, river systems, peaks and valleys.

Besides the Chemmanthi- malai incident there have been a couple of other close calls. In November 1998, Veerappan was sighted "face to face at a distance of 150 metres" by the Karnataka STF, but he slipped away. In January 1999, a suspected hideout of Veerappan at Needipuram in the Kolathur reserve forests close to the Mettur dam was raided, but the brigand, who is equipped among other things with night vision binoculars, sensed the movement of STF personnel and slipped away.

According to police sources, there is a strong possibility that currently the brigand is in a safehouse protected by 'friends'. The police are trying to ascertain who these friends are. Naturally some of those who visited Veerappan in a bid to persuade him to release Rajkumar are suspected to be playing a role. Chief among them are Kolathur Mani, who hails from Kolathur in Tamil Nadu's Salem district and is a known supporter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the Tamil nationalist leader P. Nedumaran.

This line of thinking prompted the 'Q' branch of the Tamil Nadu Police to arrest Mani. Mani, who has made no bones about his opposition to the STF action has been advocating amnesty to the brigand. He is also ready to negotiate with the brigand on the two governments' behalf. The first information report against Mani accuses him of being aware of the whereabouts of Veerappan and also providing the poacher with logistical support. Mani's associates deny these charges.

But there is no doubt that Veerappan has powerful friends. Whether they will give him up in the face of sustained STF action will have to be to seen.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor