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A brigand changes his colours

Print edition : Aug 19, 2000 T+T-

From demands that spelled self-aggrandisement to those that carry the false aura of a defender and champion of Tamil nationalism and all that, Veerappan has come a long way indeed.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

"VEERAPPAN calls himself a Tamil extremist... It is true that Tamil extremists are with him. But he is the captain... He talks of Che Guevara... He says he is fighting for the six crore Tamils." These words of "Nakkheeran" Gopal have lent an ominous new dimension to the Veerappan story.

NAKKHEERANNakkheeran

Clearly, the brigand now has a nexus with two ultra-Left Tamil extremist groups, the Tamil National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil National Retrieval Force (TNRF) (see separate story). Pointing to this fact are the four demands Veerappan came up wi th in addition to the 10 he had made soon after the latest abductions.

Two of the four demands were: Tamil should be made the medium of instruction up to the tenth standard in schools in Tamil Nadu and five men of the TNLA who are in prison in Tamil Nadu should be released.

All this leads to the question whether the outlaw has suddenly developed social concerns himself, or whether he is being manipulated by the TNLA and the TNRA to project their agenda.

According to Gopal, who spent some 24 hours with Veerappan and Rajkumar in the forest, Veerappan appeared to call the shots there, although nine armed extremists were with him. "He has established himself as the captain," Gopal said at a press conference in Chennai on August 11.

Veerappan evidently was conscious of the value of his prize catch and was determined to drive a hard bargain before he agreed to release the hostages. Gopal added: "I insisted that he release Rajkumar immediately. Veerappan merely kept nodding his head."

"I could feel a big change this time in his approach, from the time he received me till he saw me off," Gopal said. First, he refused to allow Gopal to meet Rajkumar. He took the stand that abductors never allowed anybody to meet those whom they had abdu cted. Gopal then explained to him that Rajkumar's wife, sons and relatives were anxious about his safety and that a tense situation prevailed in Karnataka. "So I asked him to allow me to videotape Rajkumar. Only then did he give me permission to talk to Rajkumar for half an hour."

Veerappan's choice for the latest abduction was canny: a film superstar who has acted in about 200 films, a cult hero adored by millions. Veerappan obviously reckoned that this abduction would bring the two States to their knees.

The abduction itself had all the trappings of a typical Veerappan operation. He was aware that Rajkumar did not have police protection during the visit. And it was on a new moon's day. It was on new moon's day again that Veerappan abducted Deputy Superi ntendent of Police V. Chidambaranathan and two others in December 1993, nine Karnataka Forest Department personnel in July 1997 and six men in October 1997.

In the cassette he gave Parvathamma, Veerappan explained why he chose Rajkumar as his victim. According to Veerappan, after his brother Arjunan and two other associates, Ayyandurai and Korangalur Rangasamy, surrendered before Tamil Nadu officials in Dece mber 1994, they were "poisoned to death" in Karnataka. (They died on September 27, 1995 after being taken there in connection with a case.)

Veerappan said he abducted Chidambaranathan and others in order to get amnesty. Later, Chief Minister J.H. Patel rushed to New Delhi seeking arms including "cannons and aircraft". "That is why I have arrested this important person now," Veerappan said. " We will not be afraid if you get cannons, missiles, even nuclear bombs," he added.

A comparison of the present 14 demands with the demands Veerappan made following abductions in 1994, 1995 and 1997 shows stark differences. While the motive of self-aggrandisement was evident in the previous instances, the present package unambiguously t ries to convey the image of a man who is fighting for Tamil Nadu's interests vis-a-vis Karnataka on the Cauvery issue; as a person who seeks to boost Tamil as a language; and as a person who tries to obtain justice for the wronged and the downtrodden sec tions of society.

His earlier demands reflected a craving for surrender, which soon turned into a demand for a general amnesty. Upon realising that he stood no chance of being given amnesty after having committed so many cold-blooded murders, he resorted to some wordplay. He asked for pardon!

Walter I. Dawaram, former Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu, who once led the hunt for Veerappan, said: "Before his first abduction on December 3, 1994, he offered to surrender. He sent a cassette to me. He wanted me to come for final talks. Then he ran away."

He abducted Chidambaranathan in order to be able to talk from a position of strength, and he renewed his offer of surrender. His outrageous demands then included Rs.1,000 crores to rehabilitate the families of his gang members killed by the police; grant of a 100-year lease to quarry blue metal in the Malai Mahadeshwara Hills near Mysore; withdrawal of all cases against him anywhere in India; provision of security to him by Black Cat Commandos; grant of licence to hunt wild game; supply of 500 rounds of ammunition; withdrawal of the STFs from the forests; and action against Dawaram, Superintendent of Police Sanjay Arora and Karnataka Deputy Inspector-General of Police Shankar Bidri for "violation of human rights".

In November 1995 he struck again, kidnapping three Tamil Nadu Forest Department employees. After the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam headed by Karunanidhi returned to power in May 1996, Veerappan renewed his offer of surrender but the government ignored it. He made a similar offer to the Karnataka government, which ignored it too.

He then abducted nine Karnataka Forest Department employees in July 1997. The demand then was only a two-year term, without having to stand trial, the period to be spent in a comfortable place of detention with a large compound ("I am used to walking ten miles a day in the forests"), with his family members being allowed to meet him freely; and firewood, water, chicken, mutton, fruit, butter and curd being supplied regularly. He also demanded that Rs.50 lakhs be given to the families of each of his asso ciates who were killed by the police. He wanted "Nakkheeran" Gopal to be sent to him to discuss the demands.

Veerappan renewed his offer of surrender but insisted on amnesty. Gopal went twice into the forests and ultimately obtained the release of all the abducted men. But Veerappan went back on the surrender offer.

A fourth round of abductions took place on October 7, 1997. Six persons were taken hostage: naturalists-cum-wildlife photographers Senani Hegde and S. Krupakar, a scientist from the Indian Horticulture Institute Dr. Satyabrata Maiti, and three Karnataka Forest Department employees. Although he asked for pardon, he agreed to be in jail for only two years. He released the six men on October 21.

Thus, although the nature of his demands had kept changing with each abduction, the craving for surrender was evident. But surrendering to the authorities was a precondition for amnesty or pardon that should be granted to him. And self-aggrandisement was always the motive.

OPINION is divided on whether Veerappan is now being manipulated by the TNLA and the TNRF to meet their own agenda. Gopal, who has met Veerappan several times earlier, sees "a big change" in him, including that this time he behaved like a "dictator". But Gopal said he did not know whether someone was manipulating him. He said: "Veerappan says he is a Tamil extremist himself." Gopal said he did not ask him why he had become a Tamil extremist because he then ran the risk of being taken hostage himself. "I t was 100 per cent true that extremists were with him." There were nine extremists with him. Gopal added: "Veerappan demonstrated that he was the leader and that these people ranked below him." Veerappan allowed Gopal to take pictures of himself and Seth ukuli Govindan (his close associate) but not of the nine other persons.

When Gopal pointed out to Veerappan that he was already fighting for six lakh tribal people in an area of 6,000 sq km, the reply came quickly from the brigand: "I am fighting for six crores of people (in Tamil Nadu)."

At the press conference when a reporter specifically asked Gopal whether the TNLA was behind Veerappan, the reply was: "He has established himself as the captain. He spoke about Che Guevara. He said he would take a decision only after consulting the join t committee." Gopal added: "Veerappan is clear in what he says. He is clear about his demands." In his assessment, the brigand is no more interested in receiving amnesty.

Yet, Veerappan's apparent Tamil nationalistic talk is not entirely new. Mudhal Vettaiyum Mudhal Kolaiyum ("The First Hunt and the First Murder", published by Nakkheeran magazine), a book which carried the text of Veerappan's earlier video-taped interview with Gopal, carried the brigand's outpourings about alleged atrocities committed by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) against Tamils in Sri Lanka, alleged looting of Tamils' properties in Karnataka during riots over the issue of Cauvery waters and alleged atrocities committed by the two STFs against tribal people, and so on. A long-time observer said: "During earlier kidnappings, Veerappan did bring up the issue of the supposed wrongs done to Tamils in Karnataka, the plight of the Tamils who helpe d him, and so on. These, however, did not receive much attention because the stress then was on his offer of surrender and his request for amnesty. This time he has not talked about surrender and amnesty. So the other aspects have been generally highligh ted."

Some observers say that Veerappan has developed political ambitions and that he is preparing the ground for it by unveiling demands of a parochial nature. Karunanidhi, referring to Veerappan's demand that the Cauvery dispute should be taken to the ICJ, s aid: "Somebody has tutored Veerappan."

Dawaram believes that it is impossible that Veerappan would have made the latest demands on his own. "To say that Veerappan is for Tamils is absolute nonsense. He has killed more Tamils than Kannadigas." According to Dawaram, as far as Veerappan is conce rned only two communities exists: Tamil-speaking ones and Kannada-speaking ones. "Beyond that he does not know anything. To make him a champion of Tamils, therefore, will be ridiculous. A person who demanded Rs.1,000 crores obviously has no idea of money . People who are manipulating him have gone a little too far. They must have kept the demands within the horizons of his knowledge."

According to informed sources in the Tamil Nadu STF, the police top brass was informed in October 1999 of "the possibility of suspected Tamil extremists from far-off districts of Tamil Nadu operating along with Veerappan". There were only some three TNRT men in the gang a year ago. Veerappan has picked up a few more since November 1999. According to the source, at least 20 persons currently associated with Veerappan have links with either the TNLA or the TNRT.

In October 1999, the Erode police arrested three persons associated with both the TNLA and Veerappan. Suspicions about Veerappan's new connections were confirmed when the Karnataka STF arrested Saravanamurthy in the Talavadi Reserve Forests in October 19 99 when he was carrying 15 pairs of olive green uniforms and a country-made weapon, to be delivered to Veerappan. During interrogation he reportedly confessed that he had been trained by one of the splinter groups of the TNRT and had later spent a month with Veerappan's gang. He also mentioned the names of a few others who had been sent by the TNRT/TNLA to 'assist' Veerappan.