Desperate in Bangalore

Print edition : October 28, 2000

WITH the hostage drama continuing interminably, the family members of Rajkumar and also the people, and Government of Karnataka are at their wits end. With Veerappan and his Tamil militant associates having boxed themselves into a corner - insisting that Karnataka first drop the charges under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) filed against 51 of Veerappan's alleged associates before the actor can be released - and the Supreme Court not being inclined to allow this, there is very little that Chief Minister S.M. Krishna and his think tank can do.

S.A. Govindaraj (second from right), who was released by Veerappan on the night of October 16, with Rajkumar's wife Parvathamma and sons Puneet, Shiv Rajkumar and Raghavendra in Bangalore on October 17.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Home Minister Mallikarjun Kharge summed up the helplessness of the government: "We have left everything to the Tamil Nadu government. We have been told by the Tamil Nadu government that the emissaries will go again on a sixth mission shortly. We do not k now when." Kharge was unsure whether an emissary of the Karnataka government will join the mission. He said that "it was up to M. Karunanidhi". Also, he did not know on what grounds the emissaries would negotiate with Veerappan for the release of the hos tages. In view of the opposition from Rajkumar's family, the government has ruled out a commando operation.

Rajkumar's family sent its 18th message to the actor through All India Radio. His wife Parvathamma, who has recovered from a mild heart attack, asked Rajkumar to "be brave and calm" and said, in reply to the actor's plea that he be freed, that the family was doing everything it could on the matter. Two of Rajkumar's sons, who are themselves film artists, have, like the rest of the Kannada film industry, stopped work. The family is now planning to meet Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Negotiations with the brigand, carried out initially through Nakkheeran Editor R.R. Gopal and later through an expanded four-man team of emissaries, which included Gopal but was headed by P. Nedumaran, are the only way out of the crisis, according to both Krishna and leaders of the majority of Opposition parties. However, the choice of Nedumaran, given his pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bias, and Kalyani and Sukumaran, who are known to be Tamil nationalist sympathisers, as emissaries came in for criticism, ironically from the president of Krishna's own Congress(I) party, Sonia Gandhi. On October 18, Sonia Gandhi, who was in Raichur in northern Karnataka, voiced concern over persons with alleged LTTE links being sent to negotiate. Sh e said that the Karnataka government was not a party to the choice of the emissaries. Sonia Gandhi said: "I know those who are mediating with Veerappan have connections with the LTTE. I discussed this with Chief Minister S.M. Krishna and it is clear the choice was made by the Tamil Nadu government."

Krishna, who completed 12 months in office on October 11 with a cloud hanging over his head, has been cagey about answering questions over the choice of Nedumaran. A Krishna aide said: "With the kind of pressure he is facing, all that Krishna wants is th e safe release of Rajkumar. And he has been totally dependent on Karunanidhi for this. Whoever is chosen by Karunanidhi has to be accepted by Karnataka. It was hardly surprising that he nodded in agreement to Nedumaran and the other two being sent as emi ssaries."

Krishna, who rebutted a report that he had said that the Centre was also involved in the choice of Nedumaran, later telephoned his Tamil Nadu counterpart to deny having said that Nedumaran was Tamil Nadu's choice. After Karunanidhi told reporters in Chen nai that Krishna had approved Nedumaran's choice, Krishna was forced to issue a statement, which was faxed to Karunanidhi.

Indicating Karnataka's total dependence on the Tamil Nadu government to secure the release of Rajkumar, the statement said: "In our anxiety to ensure the early and safe return of Mr Rajkumar and other hostages we considered it prudent not to come in the way of any initiative taken by the Tamil Nadu government in this regard."

Krishna, who found it prudent to end the controversy quickly, has had less trouble with Opposition party leaders, who after another all-party meeting said that they were still in favour of continuing with negotiations with Veerappan. The meeting was also in favour of the government waiting for the final judgment of the Supreme Court and refraining from a commando action. However, Nedumaran's presence in the negotiating team is an embarrassment for the Krishna government, which made it clear that it was not inclined to meet Nedumaran or the other two emissaries. Krishna had met Gopal after his earlier missions. Former Home Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader P.G.R. Sindhia summed up what most Opposition leaders feel: "We want Rajkumar back, that is why we are keeping quiet. Let the crisis get over. Then we can take up the Nedumaran issue."

Said the BJP's floor leader in the Legislative Council, D.H. Shankaramurthy: "Whatever stand the government takes we will support it whether we like it or not." The Opposition has, however, warned that its cooperation would not be indefinite. According t o Jagdish Shettar of the BJP, Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, the Opposition did not make any suggestion since its view was not sought.

Krishna, who has been criticised for neglecting the State's administration, has asked Kharge to handle the hostage crisis.

The suggestion of Leader of the Legislative Council K.H. Srinivasa that the Union government be persuaded to issue an Ordinance removing certain clauses of the TADA Act (to enable the early release of Veerappan's alleged associates, detained under the Ac t) has reportedly found favour with Krishna. He has directed the State's Advocate-General and Law Secretary to look into the matter before a formal request is made to Union Home Minister L.K. Advani. The government is also thinking of writing to the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court requesting him to set up special courts for the speedy disposal of TADA cases. But Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister D.B. Chandre Gowda ruled out the possibility of the government considering other legal options to free the TADA detainees as long as the case was pending in the Supreme Court.

But not all Opposition leaders have been publicly supportive of Krishna. Former Karnataka Minister and senior Janata Dal (Secular) leader H. Nage Gowda, who has been forthright in his criticism of the Krishna government's handling of the issue, told Fron tline that "the Opposition had failed to see beyond its own interests". Terming the Karnataka government's reaction as "an ugly demonstration of concern" for Rajkumar, he said that Krishna should "pressure Karunanidhi to get Rajkumar since he was kidnapp ed in Tamil Nadu" or seek Central help for a commando operation? "Why should an elected government listen to the family members of Rajkumar and refrain from a commando operation. This cannot be allowed to go on forever." Nage Gowda also wanted the Karuna nidhi and Krishna governments to be dismissed and President's Rule imposed in both States.

While rumours and unconfirmed reports about the release of Rajkumar circulated in Bangalore, the only comforting piece of news for the government was the release of Rajkumar's son-in-law S.A. Govindaraj on October 16. Another hostage, assistant film dire ctor Nagappa Maradagi, "escaped" from Veerappan's custody on September 28. Govindaraj, who was released on account of ill-health, said that the Veerappan gang had shifted the hostages 35 times since the kidnap. He said that Veerappan was unlikely to free Rajkumar until the TADA detainees were freed. According to Govindaraj, Nagappa's escape was a setback to the negotiations. Govindaraj was taken to hospital for a routine check-up after he returned from the forests. Nagappa has not made a public appearan ce since he was produced before journalists on September 29. According to Govindaraj, Veerappan housed them in small tents pitched under trees.

The Kannada Film Industry Action Committee me met the four emissaries in Chennai on October 21 and urged them to undertake another mission to secure the release of the actor. According to Rajkumar's son Puneet, Nedumaran had indicated that he would secur e the release of Rajkumar during his next mission. Puneet said that Nedumaran had told him that he (Nedumaran) had gone to the forests at "nobody's behest but purely on humanitarian grounds".

The Karnataka government's response to the abduction has thus far been a chain of knee-jerk reactions. For instance, Kharge, when asked about Veerappan's reported plan to flee to Jaffna in Sri Lanka after releasing Rajkumar, said that "after the release of Mr. Rajkumar let him go anywhere". The reply was of a piece with what former Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel said in August 1997 when Veerappan released eight Karnataka Forest Department personnel whom he had held hostage for 44 days. Patel, when asked whether the Karnataka Special Task Force would pursue and apprehend Veerappan, said that if he roamed "like a wild animal in Tamil forests, it is none of our business".

Veerappan has made the State pay dearly for this attitude. He kidnapped six people from the Bandipur forests in October 1997. Then, after lying low mostly on the Tamil Nadu side of the forests for nearly two years, he kidnapped Rajkumar. It would appear that Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have meaningfully responded to Veerappan's challenge only when he kidnapped someone.

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