A mission on hold

Published : Sep 16, 2000 00:00 IST

ON August 31, for Nakkheeran Editor R.R. Gopal, it appeared that securing the release of Rajkumar and others held hostage by Veerappan was only a matter of one week. However, the opportunity slipped through his fingers the next day, as he watched helplessly.


Emissary of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments in their dealings with Veerappan, Gopal had sewn up an agreement with the sandalwood smuggler and nine Tamil extremists with him in the Sathyamangalam-Thalavadi forests. The hostages' release, accordin g to it, was to be in exchange for the release of five extremists imprisoned in Tamil Nadu and 121 alleged associates of Veerappan detained in Karnataka, including 51 in Central Prison, Mysore. According to the "schedule" sent in an audio cassette to Tam il Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on September 2, Gopal had mentioned when and where the five extremists, belonging to the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF), should be sent. These persons were to reach th e forests September 4. Gopal was to return to Chennai with Rajkumar and S.A. Govindaraj, Nagesh and Nagappa, the other hostages, on September 5. Gopal said: "It was on August 31 evening, after this agreement was reached, that I felt genuinely happy after several weeks."

But then the Supreme Court intervened. Two directions of the court on a petition before it, and the Karnataka High Court's intervention on another issue, both of which had a bearing on the kidnappers' demands, came as two consecutive blows, according to Gopal. He said these orders led to the collapse of the agreement. Veerappan and the nine TNLA/TNRF cadres with him were firm that Rajkumar would be released only when the five TNLA/TNRT men and the 121 alleged associates of Veerappan were released. "They said they are not bothered about the Supreme Court orders... I decided that there was no use of my staying in the forests. So I left the forests on September 5 and reached Chennai the following day," Gopal said. He met Karunanidhi and flew to Bangalore the same evening with film actor Rajnikant. In Bangalore he met Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna.

While talking to Frontline about the collapse of the agreement with Veerappan, Gopal appeared hurt by the media campaign in Chennai and Bangalore that he had returned "empty-handed". He was sore that his efforts to get Rajkumar released, which inc luded three arduous treks into the forests, had not won due appreciation in the media. Gopal said that the two Chief Ministers had entrusted him with "a sensitive mission". In the audio cassette that Veerappan first gave Rajkumar's wife Parvathamma on Ju ly 30 (the day of the abduction), the brigand had not specifically asked the two State governments to send Gopal as an emissary: he only said that "an emissary" be sent to discuss his demands. Nor did Gopal ask the Chief Ministers that he be sent as the emissary. He said,"Both the governments chose me. It is 40 days since I accepted the mission. Ever since, I have been walking on the razor's edge. If I have stomached so much of humiliation, there is only one reason: to obtain Rajkumar's release and ensu re the safety of a couple of million Tamils living in Karnataka."

After the abduction, Gopal left for the forests for the third time on August 28. He was accompanied by Nakkheeran reporter/videographer/photographer P. Sivasubramanian, and reporters P. Subramanian and Balamurugan. The meeting with Veerappan did n ot come easily in the present episode, unlike earlier. Gopal had to wait at the fringes of the forest for several days. He said, "I had to talk to Veerappan and convince him. I also had to convince the nine TNLA/TNRT men. Besides, I had to persuade them to allow me to meet Rajkumar and comfort him. I did all this in the three missions."

GOPAL and his team entered the forests on August 30 night after being received by Veerappan's deputies Sethukuli Govindan and Chandran Gounder. Gopal met Veerappan on August 31. The latter reiterated his demands, which included, apart from the release of the detainees, payment of compensation of Rs.10 lakhs each to the women who were allegedly raped and the families of persons who were allegedly killed by the Special Task Force (STF) formed to catch him, and Rs.5 lakhs each to people who were affected o therwise. Gopal explained how the Tamil Nadu government had agreed to the unconditional release of the five men, and how the Karnataka government has agreed to release all the 121 persons on bail (71 of them had already obtained bail), and how the two go vernments had together set up a corpus of Rs.10 crores to provide compensation to those affected during STF operations in 1991-92.

"The negotiations came to an end the same evening (September 31). He said 'give me five men and I will give you four men in exchange'. The 121 persons were also to be released," Gopal said. "All the nine TNLA/TNRF cadres were present at the negotiations. Veerappan asked them, 'Is there anything more? Shall we close the matter?' Then he waved his hand and the negotiations concluded successfully. He asked Sivasubramanian to switch off the video cameras."

After this Gopal met Rajkumar and the three other hostages. Gopal sent a video cassette and an audio cassette to Chennai through two members of his team. The video cassette shows Rajkumar as saying that he was all right and asking the people of Karnataka to show restraint. He said there were fears that after his release, Tamilians in Karnataka would be harmed. This should not happen, Rajkumar said. He wanted the two governments to provide relief at the earliest to those affected by the anti-Tamil riots during the agitation over the Cauvery water issue in 1991 and those affected by the STF action.

In the audio cassette, Gopal gave the details of the agreement he had reached with Veerappan. Gopal mentioned where the five detainees should be sent on September 4. The next day, he said, he would return to Chennai with Rajkumar. Both the cassettes were received by Nakkheeran's Associate Editor A. Kamaraj and handed over to Karunanidhi. The video cassette was sent to Krishna.

In the night after the negotiations Gopal saw the nine TNLA/TNRF cadres writing banners with red ink. He said with them there were books on Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V.I. Lenin and Che Guevara. When Gopal asked them what they were doing, they replied that the next day (September 1) was the death anniversary of TNLA founder Tamilarasan and that they commemorated it as martyrs' day.

Gopal said that their slogans, including those extolling Tamil nationalism, echoed in the forests on September 1 morning. A red-and-yellow flag, with stars on the left and the picture of a man taming a bull in the middle, fluttered on an improvised flag pole. Pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Che Guevara, besides those of Arjunan (Veerappan's brother, who died while in custody) and Dharmapuri Ravindran (a Marxist-Leninist who died recently) were arranged on the floor. The nine men were dressed in the uniforms of the TNLA and the TNRF. "General" Veerappan was in combat fatigues and an Army cap. Sethukuli Govindan was also dressed similarly.

Maran spoke in Tamil for about 15 minutes on why the movement was started and where it was headed. Under the flag, the group took an oath that they would wage an armed struggle and fulfil the dream of Tamilarasan for the "liberation" of Tamil Nadu. They also swore that they would struggle for the formation of a casteless and classless socialist society in the State. After they took the red salute, Maran announced that "elder brother" ('Periannan') would speak. Thereupon Veerappan spoke about various "mo vements" and how "demons" (policemen) should be "slain". Maran then took Gopal and Rajkumar to the place where they took the red salute and lectured to them on the version of Marxism.

Gopal said that after this Veerappan listened to the Tamil news bulletin of All India Radio at 12-40 p.m., and came to him. "He asked us what the indefinite stay meant," Gopal recalled. Gopal had not listened to the news bulletin and was hence puzzled, b ut explained the meaning of the term. Gopal listened to the 2-15 p.m. Tamil bulletin, and knew about the Supreme Court order. It was as if thunderbolt had struck us," he said. Then on September 3 came the news about the public interest petition pleading that five TNLA/TNRF men should not be released. The Supreme Court told the Karnataka government on September 4 to complete the pleadings before pressing for an early hearing. There was more "bad news" on September 5, when the Karnataka High Court stayed the hearings of the Justice Sadashiva Commission of Inquiry, which is investigating allegations against the STF personnel.

Veerappan, his men and the TNLA/TNRF activists held consultations several times. Veerappan said: "Give me five men and the 121 persons in this hand and take back four from the other hand." According to Gopal, they said they were not bothered about the Su preme Court order because the two governments had promised them the release of all these persons. Gopal pointed out to them how it was not possible to go against the Supreme Court orders. But they ignored what he said. Gopal said he thought of alternativ e plans. However, after the Karnataka High Court order, he decided that "there is no use staying in the forests." He returned to Chennai on September 6.

For Gopal, now a picture of dejection, it was so close and yet so far.

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