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WAITING FOR RAJKUMAR

Print edition : Aug 19, 2000 T+T-

A fortnight after Veerappan took Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar hostage, the brigand continues to hold two States to ransom. At the same time, his new links with Tamil extremist organisations become clear from his list of demands.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Chennai RAVI SHARMA in Bangalore

THE States of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were virtually under a dark shadow last fortnight as a mere forest brigand held Kannada film icon Rajkumar and three others hostage somewhere in the vast forests of Thalavadi-Thalaimalai in Tamil Nadu, in the Sathya mangalam area. Meanwhile, the governments of the two States found themselves pandering to the desperado's whims, with the two Chief Ministers themselves carefully formulating responses to his series of demands. The demands represented a calculated mix of Tamil chauvinism cloaked in Tamil nationalism and specifically targeted populism. And the nature of the demands showed that the ageing bandit now had new friends teaching him new tricks.

NAKKHEERAN

THE visuals were telling. A dense forest with a hillock in the background. The camera zooms in on Veerappan, who is standing, in prayer. Then it shifts to a spot a few feet away, where 'Nakkheeran' Gopal, Rajkumar and the three other hostages are seated on pieces of cloth and sacks spread on the forest floor. Behind them, a black 'dhurry' is held up, for a backdrop. In front of them, on the floor are clothes knotted up, containing personal effects. Gopal and Rajkumar hold a brief conversation in Tamil. The atmosphere appears to be free of tension.

The scene shifts again. This time Veerappan, Gopal, Rajkumar and the others are seated together. Veerappan talks to Gopal. Rajkumar, his head bowed, is quiet and does not look in the direction of Veerappan. There is obviously an undercurrent of tension b etween the two.

These scenes, shot on a video camera, signalled the close of the first stage of the efforts to secure the release of Rajkumar whom Veerappan who had abducted from his farmhouse at Doddagajanur near Sathayamangalam on July 30. The emissary handpicked by the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments to accomplish this mission was R.R. Gopal, the editor of the Tamil biweekly Nakkheeran. When Gopal returned to Chennai with the video cassette on August 11, there was palpable relief in both States. It also ended concern that Gopal himself had been taken hostage by cadres of the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF) who are holed up in the forest with Veerappan.

Gopal also brought a set of four new conditions from Veerappan in addition to the 10 the brigand had sent on August 5. Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna flew to Chennai on August 11. He watched the video tape and discussed the four demands with his T amil Nadu counterpart M. Karunanidhi.

Gopal told a news conference on August 11: "I have achieved 25 per cent success. Only when we obtain the release of all the four persons will I consider it a victory for all of you. I am prepared to venture into the forest again to meet Veerappan if the two Governments want me to do so."

Unlike on the previous occasions in July 1997 when Gopal went into the forest to secure the release of nine Karnataka Forest Department employees, meeting Veerappan was not easy this time. Rain impeded his journey into the forests. Besides, "Veerappan ha s changed. There are other people with him now - not his old associates," Gopal said. He was obviously aware that the ultra-leftist groups had forged a nexus with Veerappan and that they had acted in tandem to abduct Rajkumar. Six days later and after "h erculean efforts", Gopal was able to meet Veerappan and Rajkumar and the other hostages - Rajkumar's son-in-law S.A. Govindaraj, Nagesh, a relative, and assistant film director Nagappa.

In the 25-minute video, as Gopal steps forward to meet Rajkumar, the latter greets him with a "namaskaram". Gopal tells him that he is sorry to meet him in such a situation and suggests that he say a few words for the sake of his relatives and fan s. Rajkumar obliges: "I feel peaceful here and I will return peacefully," he says adding that Govindaraj, Nagesh and Nagappa are all right and that no harm has been done to them.

The scene shifts again, with Gopal asking Veerappan why he abducted Rajkumar. "The two Chief Ministers have accepted your demands and want you to release them. It is my wish too. What is your reply?" The brigand's reply goes mute on the video.

The abduction of Rajkumar was the fifth such act by Veerappan. When it became known on the morning of July 31 that Veerappan had kidnapped Rajkumar, tension spread throughout Karnataka, and there was a surge of anti-Tamil sentiment. Karunanidhi contacted Nakkheeran's Associate Editor A. Kamaraj and told him that Krishna was flying down to Chennai that morning to discuss the crisis with him. Over the next 11 days, Tamil nadu Additional Director-General of Police A.X. Alexander and Kamaraj became t he link between the government on the one side and Gopal on the other in the forests. The cassettes from Veerappan went in a chain to Gopal, Kamaraj, Alexander, Karunanidhi and finally Krishna.

Gopal was accompanied on his mission by Nakkheeran reporters P. Sivasubramanian and P. Subramanian (both of whom have met Veerappan earlier), another reporter Balamurugan, and drivers Mohan and Venkatesan. All of them were insured for Rs.95 lakhs.

On August 4, Gopal spoke to Kamaraj on the phone. " I have spoken to Veerappan's man. Veerappan has sent a cassette through him containing the demands. I have sent it through Balamurugan. I am confident I can meet Veerappan, " he had said. The cassette r eached Kamaraj on August 5.

Another audio cassette, containing comforting words from Gopal and Rajkumar, reached Kamaraj on August 9, which was in turn handed over to Karunanidhi. Some photographs showing Gopal with Rajkumar were also received. This eased the tension, but sparked f resh rumours. Questions such as why was Gopal not photographed with Veerappan began to be raised.

Rajkumar spoke both in Tamil and in Kannada. He said he was happy to meet Gopal. Ten days had passed by quickly, and the company of Veerappan and others had given him "joy", he said. He agreed to the recording being made because Gopal told him that Rajku mar's relatives and fans were worried about his condition and that they should be consoled. The actor said: "Nobody is troubling me. I am happy in this forested surroundings. I am healthy." Rajkumar appea- led to the two Chief Ministers to concede Veerap pan's demands. For his part, Gopal said: "It took me six days to discover the place where Rajkumar was being kept."

The second stage of Gopal's mission will begin when he leaves Chennai around August 17 to meet Veerappan.

The Special Task Forces (STFs) of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been on the hunt for more than a decade now. The 52,000-hectare Thalaimalai reserve forest has around 50 hamlets. The inhabitants of these tribal hamlets, like the residents of the villages on the periphery of the elephant reserve that he operates in, are ever ready to help him. According to informed sources, Veerappan had in the recent past frequented the Doddagajanur area and had received information about Rajkumar's movements.

The Veerappan problem has been consistently swept under the carpet by successive governments. In October 1997, after the brigand released six persons whom he had taken hostage from the Bandipur National Park and kept in the forest for 14 days, Chief Mini sters M. Karunanidhi and J.H. Patel had announced that Veerappan would surrender by October 31, 1997. Patel said: "If Veerappan wants to surrender, why do we need any police action to catch him?" In July that year, Veerappan abducted eight Karnataka Fore st Department personnel, held them hostage for 45 days, and on releasing them offered to surrender if amnesty was declared. All these offers turned out to be ploys to gain time and, more important, money.

A former Karnataka STF commander said: "Tamil Nadu politicians, especially those belonging to parties that hold sway over the Vanniya community, have given Veerappan a sort of cult status and are using his community credentials to make political gains."

Tamil Nadu STF commander, Inspector-General of Police M. Balachandran, has under him less than 190 personnel, against a sanctioned strength of 250, while the Karnataka STF commander, Dr. Harshavardhana Raju, has around 350 men. Both have asked for more m en but the requests are pending. When asked about this, Karnataka Home Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge told Frontline that "since there were no such activities (hostage taking) of Veerappan in Karnataka for some time (the last one was in October 1997 ) the request for more men was not acted upon." The Tamil Nadu STF, during three major operations conducted in the last 18 months, worked with only a fourth of its sanctioned strength.

NAKKHEERAN

A Tamil Nadu STF officer was highly critical of the State Forest Department for the lack of cooperation from it. "During the last two years, in spite of written requests from the DGP and the STF commander to the highest authority in the Forest Department , no official was deputed to accompany the STF personnel during operations or patrols. The department's attitude has been totally indifferent."

According to informed sources, a month before the abduction of Rajkumar, Tamil Nadu promoted and transferred a Deputy Superintendent of Police (Intelligence) with the STF, although there was no bar on retaining him with the STF where his services were ne eded. Four young commandos, who were trained for over 18 months in the forest terrain, were also transferred out. The STF now has just one Superintendent of Police to oversee operations over an area of 10,000 sq km.

Personnel of the STF are also unhappy that they have been asked to stay away from the Sathyamangalam forests. "Each time this happens (kidnapping) we are blindfolded. We need to take a calculated risk by launching a raid-and-rescue mission. This is the o pportunity. Now that we know where he is holed up, we can locate him in three or four days," they said.

But the governments are not willing to take the commando route, more so since Rajkumar is one of the hostages. Kharge was non-committal when asked whether Karnataka would seek the Central government's assistance: "That question will only come up later. L et us first exhaust this method (negotiations)."

As a political pundit put it, Krishna has much more to lose - even his chair - by a blotched operation than he has to gain by a successful one. For Karunanidhi the stakes are not so high, although he seeks re-election by the end of the year.