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A tough bargain

Print edition : Sep 02, 2000 T+T-

The governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka concede even more ground to Veerappan - and continue to wait for Rajkumar.

THERE was a definitive forward movement during the course of the last fortnight in the efforts to secure the release of Kannada film actor Rajkumar who was abducted by forest brigand Veerappan on July 30, but in overall terms, it was as good a stand-off as any. The emissary of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, Nakkheeran Editor R.R. Gopal returned to Chennai on August 24 after a second meeting with Veerappan in the Thalavadi-Thalamalai forests near Sathyamangalam in Tamil Nadu, where the matinee idol was spirited away along with three others.

According to Gopal, the sticking points had narrowed down to two of Veerappan's 14 original demands. The video clips of Gopal's negotiations with Veerappan indicate that Veerappan is unrelenting on two demands - the unconditional release of 121 persons a rrested by the Karnataka Police under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), of whom 51 have been lodged in the Central Prison, Mysore for more than seven years (see box), and the payment of a compensation of Rs.10 lakhs each to the families of persons killed and the victims of rape by personnel of the Special Task Forces (STF) during their operations to catch him in 1991-92. Veerappan has also demanded that Rs.5 lakhs be paid to the victims of STF excesses.

Gopal told mediapersons in Chennai on August 25 that Veerappan considered these two demands to be of paramount importance. The video clips show the brigand, dressed in olive green fatigues and a monkey cap pulled over his scalp, in an uncompromising mood . Veerappan tersely dismisses Gopal's suggestion that the compensation would be paid as per the National Human Rights Commission's (NHRC) decision. "It will recommend a compensation of Rs.10,000 or Rs.5,000. I will not accept that. The rape victims and t he families of the murdered persons should be given Rs.10 lakhs each, and those affected otherwise should be paid Rs.5 lakhs each. After these amounts are distributed, come and meet me. I will not accept five paise less. This should be a lesson to future rulers," he says.

The vehemence is no less when he talks about the 121 TADA accused. Veerappan insists that no conditions should be attached to the release of the 51 prisoners and the 70 persons who have been enlarged on conditional bail. "Tear up all the papers related t o bail. Make a bonfire of their case bundles. Come and meet me after that," he says.

Veerappan admits that three "movements" are with him - his own group, the TNLA (Tamil Nadu Liberation Army) and the TNRT (Tamil Nadu Retrieval Troops). Gopal said he found evidence of the three groups working in unison: There were with Veerappan nine ext remists belonging to the two groups. They were armed with self-loading rifles and .303 and .404 muskets. Veerappan has become "a 100 per cent extremist now, after I met him in the first week of August," he said.

Gopal also met TNLA leader Maran alias Senguttavan and urged him not to be unreasonable as the government has conceded the demand for the release of five men belonging to the TNLA and the TNRT.

To repeated questions whether he carried any ransom money to Veerappan, Gopal said Veerappan did not ask for money. He told mediapersons: "I am a journalist. I went on your behalf. I did not take any money. Full stop."

"Our goal is Rajkumar's release. I have vaulted three-fourths of the well. I am confident that I can jump over the entire well," Gopal said..

TAMIL NADU Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and his Karnataka counterpart S.M. Krishna met in Chennai for two hours on August 25 to formulate their replies to the two demands after Gopal briefed them about his meetings with Veerappan and Rajkumar on August 22/23. Karunanidhi told reporters later that Veerappan had certain "doubts" about the earlier responses of the governments. On the demand for solatium, he said that the stay obtained on the hearing of the Justice Sadashiva Commission, which had been appo inted to inquire into the alleged atrocities by the STF, had been vacated. "After the Commission submitted its report, compensation will be paid to those affected as per its recommendations." In anticipation of the report and as a first step towards meet ing the bandit's demand, the two governments have set up a joint fund of Rs.10 crores, allocating Rs.5 crores each to expedite the disbursal of compensation.

Karunanidhi added a significant rider while responding to the demand for the unconditional release of five extremists belonging to the TNLA and the TNRT, who are in Tamil Nadu prisons after they were arrested under TADA and the National Security Act (NSA ). He said any step to release them would depend on Veerappan's acceptance of the two Governments' latest clarifications regarding the two 'main' demands.

Karunanidhi revealed this strategy, of tying up Veerappan's replies with the release of the extremists, when a reporter asked him if any extremists would accompany Gopal when he set out on his third mission. He said: "Gopal will go alone. The Tamil Nadu government has already agreed to the release of these five men. The Centre's consent has been obtained for the withdrawal of cases against them (since they were involved in bomb blasts against Central institutions such as Doordarshan installations and ra ilway tracks.) Depending on what Veerappan tells Gopal, we will take action on their release." On August 23, Karunanidhi told newspersons that "when the talks there reach a conclusive stage, these men will be released. The two are inter-linked".

THE five men detained under TADA are Muthukumar, Manikan-dan and Satyamurthy of the TNRT, and Ponnivalavan and 'radio' Venkatesan of the TNLA. The TNRT activists were arrested under the NSA for attacking a police station at Vellitiruppur near Erode on De cember 20/21, 1998, along with Veerappan and his deputy, Sethukuli Govindan. They have been lodged in the Tiruchi Central Prison. 'Radio' Venkatesan was arrested under TADA for his alleged role in the bomb blasts at Tiruvarur, Kudavasal and Mannargudi an d the attack on a police station at Kullanchavadi in November 1993. He is in the Central Prison in Chennai. Ponnivalavan, who was involved in an attack on the Andimadam police station on July 13, 1997, is in the Salem Central Prison.

The TNLA, a Marxist-Leninist group, also wants to "liberate" Tamil Nadu from the Indian Union. The TNRT is a loose cluster of men who merely want Tamil Nadu to secede from India. While the two groups' links with Veerappan became known after the attack on the Vellitiruppur police station, the nexus was confirmed when Veerappan listed the release of the extremists as one of his demands. Further confirmation of Veerappan's new association came when Gopal returned from the forests after his first visit on A ugust 1 with the picture of a hooded TNLA militant.

Gopal left for the forests a second time on August 16 with the governments' responses to 14 demands. He was accompanied again by Nakkheeran reporters P. Sivasubramanian, P. Subramanian and Balamurugan, and drivers Mohan and Venkatesan. During Gopa l's first trip, two men kept a low profile but played important roles. They were Additional Director-General of Police (Special Operations) A.X. Alexander and Nakkheeran Associate Editor A. Kamaraj.

Gopal described his journey through the Thalavadi-Thalamalai forests as tough. Thorny bushes posed a big problem. "We had to walk 5 km with our backs bent because of the overarching bushes," he said. Although Veerappan's hideout was only some 8 km from t he main road, the emissary was taken in a zig-zag route, which meant trekking 24 km.

Veerappan received Gopal a second time but sternly told him, "I will not allow you to go any further. Whatever you want to discuss with me, discuss here and turn back." But Gopal insisted that he would not return without meeting Rajkumar. "If you want to meet Rajkumar, you have to trek into the forests for four days. Are you prepared to walk?" the brigand asked Gopal. Gopal was eventually taken to Rajkumar, who was only some 400 metres away.

When the negotiations were about to begin, a group of cattle from a nearby village strayed in, followed by the cowherds. Quick as a fox, Veerappan directed Gopal and others to hide behind a tree. He then mimicked the trumpeting of an elephant and shook t he branches of a tree, as elephants would do. At this, the cattle and the cowherds fled. Veerappan, given to superstitions, would not start the negotiations because a tree lizard clucked. He put off the talks for the next day, Gopal said.

The video clips show Gopal waving the typewritten replies of the two governments, signed by their Home Secretaries, to Veerappan's 14 demands. The emissary tells the brigand that his demands have been conceded and the stay on the hearings by the Justice Sadashiva Commission had been vacated too. Veerappan is quick to retort: "Have the cases been withdrawn? What is the compensation given to those affected by the STF's atrocities?" He adds: "The Commission has held its sittings in two places. Let it firs t give the victims compensation before holding its sitting in the third place."

This makes Gopal ask: "Was the Justice Sadashiva Commission appointed after you asked for it? That it has been constituted is a big victory for you. If you don't accept it (the response), I shall leave."

The scene shifts, and Rajkumar is seen waiting to receive Gopal. The latter steps forward to touch Rajkumar's feet as a sign of respect. Rajkumar and the three other hostages are inside a tent. Gopal gives Rajkumar a bundle of medicines, biscuits, pictur es of deities sent by son Raghavendra Rajkumar, copies of Nakkheeran and an audio tape from Tamil film actor Rajnikant, which contains comforting words. Rajkumar appeals to Karunanidhi and Krishna to meet the demands of Veerappan. The scene shifts again, and Veerappan, Gopal and Rajkumar are seated in a row. In the background, it is raining. And the screening ends.