Trial by terror

Is Veerappan playing his last ace? Or is he having the last laugh on the incompetence of the State machinery?

Published: Wednesday 15 October 1997

Trial by terror

 Wild trail: the Editor of   N when eight Karnataka forest department personnel held hostage by Veerappan were released in end-August after 45 days in captivity, the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu state governments -- besides the hostages and their families -- heaved a sigh of relief. Veerappan has an exceedingly bloody track record, but had only used them to send out a desperate signal that he is willing to surrender. The man charged with killing 119 people (see boxes: The making of a criminal and Trigger happy ), many of them police and forest department personnel, seems to be at the end of his tether.

The release of the hostages was accompanied by a list of fresh demands with a one-month deadline. Veerappan did not want to be tried under the law, wanted imprisonment not exceeding two years with special treatment, and Rs 50 lakh for rehabilitation. He also indicated that he might embark on a career in politics.

This is not the first time Veerappan has offered to surrender. "His earlier overtures were spurned by the Special Task Force ( stf )," says R Rajgopal, the government emissary in the recent hostage drama and Editor of the Chennai-based bi-weekly, Nakkheeran . Rajgopal is the only representative of the State - and of the Press - who has met Veerappan several times.

"It appears that Veerappan will surrender," says Karnataka home minister Roshan Baig. "Discussions with the Tamil Nadu government are on, and we hope to arrive at a con-clusive surrender package for the outlaws." According to Baig, earlier efforts to capture Veerappan or get him to surrender had been lethargic. Both state governments are now keen to end the story. "With continued ground efforts to nab him, and a certainly increasing intelligence in terms of knowing Veerappan's ways of operation, we feel that he is under increasing pressure," says A X Alexander, additional inspector-general of police, Tamil Nadu.

A chronology of major crimes commited by Veerappan

Trigger happy
A chronology of major crimes committed by Veerappan
Date/Year Person(s) killed Site of incident
1983 Puttu (forest watcher) Lambini Arjuna, Madachetti(gang members) Forest area
May 1986 Koteyur Madiah & Thangavelu (rever ganga members) M M Hills area
1987 Chidambarnath (Regional Forest Officer, Sathyamangala) Near Gunderi Dam
January 1989 Ayyan and four others (rivals) M M Hills area
August 4, 1989 Mohaniah (forest watcher) palar Bridge
August 7, 1989 Two forest watcher and one member of the public Forest area
April 9, 1990 Three Karnataka sub-inispectors Gopinatham-Hogenakal Road
November 10, 1991 P Srinivas, Deputy Conservator of Forests Yerakhella
May 19/20, 1992 Five police personel Ramapura Police Station
August 14, 1992 T Harikrishna, Superintendent of Police, Mysore,and five police personel Meenyam Road
April 9, 1993 22 Special Task Force(STF) persionel killed by landmine Near Palar
May 24, 1993 Six policemen  in the convey of Superintendent of police, STF Rangaswamyvoddu
November 2 ,1993 Eight cowherds Manjugumapatti
Janury 28, 1994 M K Ponnappa, police officer Forests area
September 17, 1994 Three Border Security Force personel Kailasapallam
October 8, 1994 Five villagers Gaddesalu village
May 21, 1995 Two villagers Nullur village
August 8,1995 Five Soliga tribals Sapahalla forest
August 9, 1995 Five more Soligas Punjanur village
February 1996 One STF jawan Forest area
The 10 Karnataka forest department personnel were kidnapped on July 12 close to Marapalla in Kollegal taluka . The jeep in which they were travelling was surrounded by Veerappan's gang near a bridge. They were taken to Burude forest guest house, some 10 km away. The driver was released and brought back an audio cassette with a recording listing Veerappan's demands - a ransom of Rs 5 crore and general amnesty. Though this was rejected by both states, a hostage who was unwell was released a few days later.

The days in captivity were a nightmare for the remaining hostages. They were constantly on the move, often walking for days. At one stage, Veerappan pointed his gun at one of the hostages, Chika Kumba, 35, an epileptic. "Chika trembled and asked Veerappan to kill someone else instead," says Velayudhan, a forester. He recalls the terror of the moment: they all knew that their lives were dangling by a thread. Another hostage, Aandani, lives in Kollegal and has been in the department for 25 years. He took the ordeal in better form than most of the others. "I'll have some stories to tell my grandchildren all their lives," he grins. But Dasiah, who lives in Doddanvadi, 10 km from Kollegal, is a nervous wreck. He is afraid of meeting outsiders. His neighbours ask visitors to spare him and he does not venture out of his house.

Rajgopal risked his life to act as an emissary of both the state governments and went into the dense jungle twice to secure the release of the hostages. He had a 44-hour meeting with the brigand on his second visit. "I realised that Veerappan was using Phoolan Devi (the well-known bandit queen who is today a member of Parliament) as a role model, wishing to have a film made on his life, and eventually to enter politics. I used this to convince him that if he released the hostages he would be seen by the world as a magnanimous person," says Rajgopal. This apparently worked on Veerappan.

While the incident ended without mishap for most concerned, the Karnataka state government came under considerable flak for genuflecting to Veerappan. Karnataka chief minister J H Patel had to defend his government's handling of the situation. Following the release of the hostages, efforts to catch Veerappan have cooled down considerably even in Tamil Nadu. Sources at the Karnataka police headquarters indicate that the Tamil Nadu stf had almost ceased functioning since 1995. "As of now there are some 250 soldiers in the force," says P Kalimuthu, inspector-general (law and order), Tamil Nadu. Asked what the state's stf was doing at the moment, Kalimuthu, who is in charge of the force, was cryptic. "Ask the Karnataka police," he said.

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