When Koose Muniswamy Veerappan was shot dead, the foremost question was: `How did the police personnel manage to do what they could not for nearly two decades?' But the question could as easily have been: `What took them so long?' SURESH NAMBATH looks back on a long manhunt.
THE longer it takes, the harder it looks. But the easier it gets. As old age and illness slowed down Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, the Special Task Forces (STF) of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, for long in the hunt for the forest brigand, were learning from their mistakes. Time worked against Veerappan, while patience began to yield rich dividends for the STF personnel.
`What took them so long?'
When Veerappan was shot dead on the night of October 18, 2004, the foremost question was: "How did the police personnel manage to do what they could not for nearly two decades?" But the question could as easily have been: "What took them so long?" The long and, until now, fruitless hunt for the bandit had provoked all-round cynicism about the capabilities of the police personnel. So much so, when the STF finally tasted success, it seemed like a superhuman effort.
No doubt aided by the bandit's infirmities, the STF did put in an extra-ordinary amount of time and resources to successfully hunt down a man who, over the last 40 years, had killed more than a hundred people, shot more than 2,000 elephants, and felled a forestful of sandalwood trees.
Not arms and men, but tact and cunning were in short supply as the Governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, supported by the Centre, ordered his capture dead or alive. Having lived most of his life in the forest, Veerappan was more than a match for conventionally trained commandos. With 6,000-square kilometre forest area as his area of operation, the bandit could evade search teams. Unless absolutely necessary, he would avoid confrontation with security personnel who, though slow-moving on forest terrain, were better armed.
If Veerappan did have a score to settle with forest or police personnel, he did so by luring them into the jungle, and then surprising them. He never chose to go after his hunters. If he chased anyone, it was only his kidnap victims. Thus, the Deputy Conservator of Forests in Karnataka, Srinivas, was enticed with an offer of surrender and killed inside the forest. Srinivas had managed to wean away his gang members, and interrupted his supply chain of food and sandalwood.
A similar tactic was used in the killing of Superintendent of Police Harikrishna, who had launched an intensive search for the brigand. A Veerappan loyalist, pretending to be an "informer", gave details of Veerappan's place of hideout. When Harikrishna led a police party into the jungle, he was riddled with bullets.
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Not surprisingly, the STF succeeded only when they imitated him. Rather than play to his strengths by searching for him in the forest, the STF decided to lure him out into the civilised world.
In this, they were helped not only by Veerappan's illnesses, but also by his need for the comforts of the civilised world. His modern gadgets aside, Veerappan, in his later years, depended entirely on the world outside the forest for his day-to-day requirements. With the ransom amounts obtained from his kidnapping ventures, he sourced his supplies of food and other provisions from villages on the fringe of the forest. This no doubt increased his exposure to the intelligence network of the STF.
Over time, the STF settled several of its personnel in these villages without arousing the suspicion of the locals. "Operation Cocoon", which had Veerappan using an STF vehicle driven by an STF man for his journey to a hospital, revealed the extent of the STF infiltration of the bandit's set of contacts.
When he began to be noticed
The story of Veerappan is not of one man's daring and crime. In his rise from small-time elephant poacher to a kidnapper of celebrities, Veerappan developed a nexus with law enforcement officials. At first, he was sustained by elephant poaching. And later, when poaching became less productive, by sandalwood smuggling. Although he had tribal villagers to help him transport the ivory and the sandalwood to middlemen waiting outside the forest, Veerappan was no marketing man. He would have been completely lost without the connivance of forest officials in his poaching and smuggling.
However, for Governments that did not see forest conservation as a top priority, Veerappan was no major threat until he began killing those forest personnel who challenged him. Thus, there was no political will to curb him until he had established himself in the forest, and his network in the outside world.
But when the killings increased in scale, and Veerappan sought a high-profile status for himself by giving out interviews to the media, the Governments were forced to take serious notice of the outlaw who was obviously overreaching himself. The turning point was his escape from custody in 1986 after killing four policemen and a forest official. From then on, the pressure to bring him to justice increased. The constitution of a STF and the deployment of the Border Security Force (BSF) to hunt him down were indicative of the pressure
The offer to surrender
Apparently inspired by Phoolan Devi's surrender, and her subsequent successful entry into politics in the mid-1990s, Veerappan offered to surrender if given amnesty. For some time, people in power toyed with the idea of letting him surrender, but his condition of full amnesty was difficult to meet.
Veerappan was also taken in by the publicity he generated. From the pages of a local magazine, he graduated onto a national English magazine, and then prime time television. At one point, he began to see himself as some sort of a hero, and not as an outlaw driven by petty crime. In the late 1990s, after his request for amnesty was turned down, Veerappan forged links with Tamil extremists of the two banned groups: the Tamil National Retrieval Troops, a group supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army, a Naxalite organisation on the fringe. By this time, his main source of income had become extortion of quarry owners near the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border.
The world saw his most daring venture in July 2000 (in the newfound company of Tamil nationalists): the kidnapping of Kannada film star Rajkumar. Then began his appeals in the cause of Tamils on the issue of sharing of Cauvery waters to making Tamil the medium of instruction. But it was clear that these served merely to mask the main demand: crores of rupees as ransom. Although none of his publicly stated demands was conceded, Veerappan let go of Rajkumar.
In the following years, after the STF stepped up pressure on him, Veerappan was forced to part company with most of the Tamil extremists. He was again on the run with a team of core members. Two years after the Rajkumar episode, he kidnapped and killed a former Karnataka Minister, H. Nagappa.
By this time, the focus had shifted to Veerappan's Vanniyar caste identity from his espousal of Tamil nationalism. Parties such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi, a predominantly Vanniyar party, defended Veerappan.
After the Nagappa murder and until the October 18 ambush, Veerappan had kept a low profile. But there was no saying when or how he would strike, and the killing of Veerappan and his close associates removed a thorn in the flesh for the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka Governments.
Although the forest might never be safe from those who want to poach or fell trees, another Veerappan-like figure is unlikely to emerge. As Veerappan's life showed, there is a lot of money to be had from kidnapping for ransom, but then the money will have to be spent in the forest.
In Veerappan's case, it was a large part of the money that was distributed to friends and relatives and promptly seized by the police. The part of the money that Veerappan kept for himself, if not spent on his upkeep, is perhaps buried deep in the forest.
Will there be another Veerappan?
DURING his lifetime, Veerappan did not allow rival gangs to operate in the same forest area. Competitors were eliminated ruthlessly. The only option for those who wanted to make a living off elephant poaching and sandalwood smuggling was to join his gang.
Now, with the end of Veerappan, will there be more of his kind? Unlikely. Veerappan did not happen in one day. He grew from small-time poaching, from being an ordinary member of a gang to becoming a gang leader and big-time smuggler and extortionist and kidnapper.
With the killing of his close associates, Sethukuli Govindan, Chandre Gowde and Sethumani, in "Operation Cocoon", there is little scope for anyone to step into his role in the immediate future.
Another Veerappan-like figure would need the same space and time that Veerappan had in becoming the most wanted forest criminal. Veerappan's survival skills were developed over years in a vast forest area. That Veerappan outlived inter-gang rivalry is to a large extent due to his empirical knowledge of the forest terrain and animal life. His gang members were dependent on him for their own survival in the forest.
Although Govindan was without doubt the No.2 in the gang after the death of his brother Arjunan, Veerappan never allowed him to share the media limelight that he himself immensely enjoyed.
Another member of his gang, "Baby" Veerappan, who had visions of succeeding Veerappan, was shot dead by Veerappan senior.
As the experience of the Tamil extremists showed, it is difficult for those without an intimate knowledge of the terrain to survive in the forest for a long period.
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