Catch me a colossus

Catching Veerappan, who amuses himself upsetting the government cart, is like trying to cage a titan. The State is in no position to meet his conditions for surrender. But his willingness to give up an outlaw's life has raised questions about precedents and antecedents. Can the government provide amnesty to a criminal who admits to having killed five score and nineteen people? How can such a person escape the law for such a long time? What gives rise to people like him who openly flout the law? Is it the result of a policy which increasingly alienates people from what should be theirs and encourages them to support outlaws? Is something rotten in the State machinery? Rajat Banerji finds that politicians today do notunderstand the issues. Or are they playing games in the interest of outlaws?

Published: Wednesday 15 October 1997

Catch me a colossus

imageCall him what you will -- poacher, smuggler, murderer -- Veerappan is a phenomenon that has vexed two state governments for close to a decade. But how does a 'brigand' like Veerappan evade "the strong arm of the law"? Is there a ghost in the law-and-order machinery that trips the keepers of the law just as they are close to nabbing him? What sustains him and others like him? Is Veerappan a by-product of a system that turns a blind eye to local rights and compounds the wrongs? Are Veerappans, as it were, born from the alienation of the people from what is theirs?

With a record that would match the most infamous Indian dacoits', Veerappan has become a public figure. Opinions on what he is may vary. For the agencies of the State -- the police, foresters, administrators and revenue officials -- as well as wildlife conservationists, he is Public Enemy Number One. For some villagers in Karnataka -- who protect him from the police -- he is a 'rogue saviour'.

This is the paradox of Veerappan. He thrives on -- and is born of -- the uneasy alliance between the law and the law of the people. The law hounds smugglers, murderers and poachers. But it deprives the people of the resources of their land. The law of the people says that the crop that you grow in your fields is yours. But the law says that citizens who cannot protect a tree that grows on their land from loggers will be penalised. Today, Veerappan is identified more with sandalwood smuggling than poaching. But both these -- plant and animal resources -- have been governed by policies that do not allow local communities to benefit from conservation.

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