Veerappan's prize catch

Published : Aug 05, 2000 00:00 IST

The abduction of Kannada film star Rajkumar by Veerappan and his gang sends shock waves through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

THAT Veerappan the forest brigand was low on funds and may resort to abduction as a possible means to replenish his coffers was known to the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka Special Task Forces (STFs), which had been constituted to nab him. But where and when he would strike was the question no one could answer. Now when he struck, he chose a precious target.

According to Director-General of Police C. Dinakar, the violence had not acquired communal overtones. Six companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and 10,000 police personnel of the State police, including 28 platoons of the Karnataka State R eserve Police and 30 platoons of the Bangalore City Police, were deployed in Bangalore. The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments have not suspended the STF operations. According to the Karnataka STF commander, Deputy Inspector-General of Police Dr. C. Ha rshavardhana Raju, the situation was being monitored. STF personnel were rushed to Talewadi, the nearest police station to Gajanur.

In a movie-like sequence that lasted hardly 10 minutes, Veerappan and his men abducted Kannada matinee idol and Dadasaheb Palke Award winner Dr. Rajkumar from his ancestral farmhouse at Gajanur, a hamlet in Tamil Nadu’s Erode district 4 km from the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border, on the night of July 30. Coming to know of the actor’s presence in the farm, which is in a forested area, Veerappan and his men in pouring rain stormed the new house, the “house warming” of which had taken place earlier in the day . The gang assaulted some of the people present there and forced them to disclose where the actor stayed. Rajkumar was in the old house, situated some 100 feet away.

Rajkumar, who along with wife Parvathamma and some relatives and friends had gone to Gajanur on July 27 to make preparations for the house warming, had just finished dinner when 10 or 12 men, some armed with self-loading rifles, barged in around 9 p.m. a nd asked in Tamil where he was. Veerappan then followed them into the house and escorted the 72-year-old actor out. Re-entering the new house, Veerappan inquired from Rajkumar about the people present there. When Rajkumar provided the information, he rou nded up three others - Rajkumar’s son-in-law S.A. Govindaraj, another relative Nagesh and an assistant film director, Nagappa.

According to Parvathamma, Veerappan gave her an audio cassette and asked her to hand it over to Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna. He also assured her that Rajkumar would not come to any harm. Parvathamma then asked her driver to take her to Bangalor e. She informed the government in the early hours of July 31 about the abduction.

By the time Krishna called a morning press conference to announce the news, Bangalore and the rest of Karnataka were all agog. Trouble began almost immediately in Bangalore: vehicles were damaged or burnt, roadblocks raised, processions taken out, stones hurled and commercial establishments told to down their shutters. A scooterist was stabbed to death. The Rajkumar Fans Association swung into action, demanding that the government secure the actor’s release by that evening. Most offices remained closed for the day, and the government declared a two-day holiday for schools and colleges. Miscreants attacked the Bangalore offices of four Tamil newspapers - Dinamani, Dina Thanthi, Kalaikadir and Dinasudar - and set fire to newsprint reels. Two train s were blocked near Mandya and a bus was set on fire in Tumkur. The Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce decided to suspend all its activities, including the screening of Kannada films, until Rajkumar was released.

Krishna told newsmen that he had informed Union Home Minister L.K. Advani about the abduction. Later in the morning he left for Chennai along with Parvathamma, his Minister for Home Mallikarjuna Kharge, film actor and Congress(I) member of Parliament Amb arish, and top officials to meet Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

BOTH the governments have their hands full. Rajkumar is by far the most high-profile hostage Veerappan has taken in all his years of banditry. According to Krishna, the cassette did not specify any demand: Veerappan only wanted the government to send an emissary, who will be told of his demands.

Veerappan’s latest act of dare-devilry (the Karnataka STF would not describe it that way; according to it anybody toting guns can abduct anybody) after lying low for 19 months, has provided fresh proof of his ability to take hostages with impunity. He la st attacked a police outpost in Vellitirupur in Tamil Nadu on December 20, 1998.

The STFs had in the past warned Rajkumar against visiting the farmhouse. Both Harshavardhana Raju and the previous Joint STF Commander, Inspector-General of Police P. Kalimuthu, had warned Rajkumar about the threat perception. This has been acknowledged by the actor’s son, Raghavendra Rajkumar, who said that his father had not taken the threat seriously. Rajkumar visited the farmhouse several times in recent months, and on the latest occasion he failed to inform the police.

According to informed sources in the STF, Raju and the overall commander of the Joint Task Forces, Tamil Nadu’s Inspector-General of Police M. Balachandran, were ironically attending a meeting at Dimbum in Tamil Nadu, 55 km from the spot of the abduction , up to midnight. Said the STF source: “We had received information that Veerappan may visit a temple in the vicinity as it (July 30) happened to be ‘Adi Amavasya’ (new moon day). We were therefore present in full strength in and around Dimbum.”

THE abduction of Rajkumar is the latest in a series by Veerappan in the decade and a half that he has been active in the forests that stretch from Denkanikote and Anchetti in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district to the Palghat Gap on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala bo rder and from Tamil Nadu’s Hogenekal in the east through Malai Mahadeswara (M.M.) Hills, Bandipur and Biligiri Ranga (B.R) Hills in Karnataka, right up to the Niligiri ranges in the Western Ghats. The area, which encompasses around 18,500 sq km, is chara cterised by thick vegetation, numerous ravines, river systems, peaks and valleys.

Over the years, given his terrain superiority over the security forces hunting him and the support he gets from the residents of its 180-odd villages (largely populated by members of Veerappan’s Padayachi/Vanniyar community) who live in the periphery of the forests, Veerappan has managed to stay out of the reach of the Border Security Force (BSF), which was deployed between 1993 and 1995, and the Karnataka STF (which has been looking for him since 1993) and the Tamil Nadu STF (which has been deployed al most continuously since 1995).

In recent years, there were a couple of close calls. In November 1998 he was sighted “face to face at a distance of 150 metres” by the Karnataka STF but he slipped away. In late January 1999, a suspected hideout of Veerappan at Needipuram in the Kolathur reserve forests close to Mettur dam was raided but Veerappan, who is apparently equipped with night vision binoculars, escaped. Balachandran says Veerappan is like a jungle fox. “He has always managed to burrow a hole and slip away.”

According to Karnataka Police records, since 1989 Veerappan has killed 138 people, including 32 police officers (22 belonging to Karnataka, nine to Tamil Nadu and one to the BSF jawan), 10 forest officers (four of Karnataka, including a Deputy Conservato r of Forests, and six of Tamil Nadu); slaughtered over 2,000 elephants; smuggled out 40,000 kg of ivory (worth Rs.12 crores); and looted sandalwood worth Rs.100 crores.

Veerappan has often resorted to abducting forest or police personnel and even members of the public in retaliation for the killing of a member of his gang, or in order to gain time and seemingly wrest favourable terms for a surrender. But the offers of s urrender have turned out to be ploys to mislead the forces. In December 1994, he abducted Chidambaranathan, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Coimbatore, and two others; in November 1995, three Tamil Nadu forest officials from near the Andhiyur range were kidnapped; in July 1997, 10 Karnataka forest personnel were taken from their base camp in the Burude region of B.R. Hills; and in October 1997 he took six hostages from the Bandipur tiger sanctuary.

After every incident of hostage-taking, Veerappan has asked for huge sums of money. Although nothing has ever been paid officially, hostage-taking has unofficially proved lucrative, like in November 1995 when he received Rs.3,50,000. Most of his hostages have suffered from the Stockholm syndrome; they have always praised him on being released. He has never harmed a hostage, though his hostage drama has always been a long drawn-out affair.

The abduction of Rajkumar, who is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, has once again brought to the fore the inescapable truth that government forces have failed to nab him a good 13 years after full-scale operations for this purpose began. While lapses su ch as a non-existent intelligence network and low motivation were thae causes initially, lack of adequate strength has hampered STF work in recent months. In the hunt for Veerappan, it is quite evident that every man counts. Reports that the Karnataka go vernment would heed Harshavardhana Raju’s request for an additional strength of 3,000 personnel for the STF have turned out to be untrue. In recent months, some tribal welfare and non-governmental groups complained to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that STF personnel raped, tortured and used “third degree methods” on tribal people and residents of villages to extract information on Veerappan’s movement.

The S.M. Krishna government is not seen to be doing any better on the Veerappan front. Most of the Karnataka STF men are made up primarily of general duty personnel with little or no training in jungle operations. The question now is whether Rajkumar’s a bduction will force the government to work out a strategy.

Or it could turn out to be another ploy of Veerappan to buy time, and, of course, extort a handsome payment.

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