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August 7, 2000
Gajanur prays for their 'hero'
George Iype in Gajanur
On a drive from Sathyamangalam to Gajanur on National Highway 209, it is easy to separate Karnataka from Tamil Nadu. The unkempt, muddy stretch of road full of potholes belongs to Karnataka. The tarred, smooth track through the mountains belongs to Tamil Nadu.
But both the states, which have been taken for a ride by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan for the last 15 years, are once again in his grip.
A new "welcome" board has sprung up on the diversion that takes you to Thalavadi, a village town with a police station and a cooperative bank. One kilometre away towards the forest is Gajanur, which has not slept for the past five days, thanks to Veerappan's first-ever celebrity abduction.
Thalavadi and Gajanur both jut into Karnataka and Kannadigas have been demanding that these areas be integrated into the state. When Karnataka created the district of Chamarajnagar last year, the Kannadigas in Thalavadi and Gajanur took out protest marches urging the Tamil Nadu government to hand over the villages to Karnataka.
The demand is reasonable, geographically and linguistically. Though the villages are the last points of Tamil Nadu's Erode district, they would look better geographically if annexed to Karnataka. Secondly, more than 90 per cent of the people speak Kannada.
That was why way back in 1980, Dr Rajakumar led a peaceful, little-known protest dharna in these villages demanding reservation for Kannadigas and introduction of Kannada in schools.
But Veerappan kidnapped Dr Rajakumar not because he is a Kannadiga living in a Tamil Nadu village, but because he is a celebrity. Veerappan knew the matinee idol's disappearance would shut down Karnataka. Indeed, Karnataka and its Silicon Valley capital Bangalore have been practically shut for many days, with loses running into several millions of rupees.
As the hostage crisis continues, the unknown, remote, ordinary villages of Gajanur and Thalavadi, where electricity is a rare commodity and telephones have been dead for 15 days, have attracted international attention.
"When Muthuraj [Dr Rajakumar's pet name] is away in the jungles with Veerappan, it is criminal on our part to sleep," moans Shivraj Kumar Shetty, a village helmsman. Like Shetty, hundreds of others have spent sleepless nights, some praying, some crying, but all of hoping that Veerappan will release Muthuraj soon.
No one in the village calls the actor Dr Rajakumar. "We love to call him Muthuraj, his pet name," says Nagesh Goud, a telephone booth operator.
It is a matter of pride for the villagers - irrespective of whether they are Tamils or Kannadigas - that Puttaswamayya Muthuraj, a boy from the village went on to become a super star.
It was an honour for them when Dr Rajakumar decided to spend the rest of his life in the village. "It was three years ago that he expressed his desire to settle down in Gajanur. I could not believe it," says Vodda Nagaraj, a Kannada film actor and a close friend of Dr Rajakumar, who is yet to recover from the shock of the abduction.
"He was touched by the love of the people here. He did not find happiness living in Bangalore," he adds.
Thus some three years ago, Dr Rajakumar began building a modern bungalow in Gajanur. The bungalow, built at cost of Rs 3.5 million, was nearly complete. A new bore-well was dug on the side of the new house. But a deeply religious man, Dr Rajakumar wanted to conduct a pooja before water was pumped out.
It was to inaugurate the new bore-well that he landed in the village on July 28 and ended up in the Veerappan's hands.
Across the road is his old farmhouse, built in the 1960s. Outside that is a hut, that has been locked, but kept neat and tidy. It was in this dilapidated hut that Dr Rajakumar was born 71 years ago.
"He was so attached to the hut that when he came here in June, he opened it, and ate his supper sitting on the floor," says his nephew Venkatraju Gopal, who looks after Dr Rajakumar's properties in Gajanur.
Gopal, his family and other relatives of Dr Rajakumar live in the old farmhouse. On the walls of the hut are photos of Dr Rajakumar's younger days. "He never forgot his roots. Once we attempted to demolish the hut as it was in a bad shape. He was very angry that day," recalls Gopal.
"He is emotionally attached to Gajanur. He used to tell me that I want to die in the village," adds the nephew.
The villagers, who mainly live rearing cattle and goats, are upset these days. "We now fear that Muthuraj will no longer stay here after his release," points out Sadanand Garuda, a villager.
Hundreds of villagers have been visiting the small temples that dot the lap of the mountainous forests with two submissions. First is the early release of Dr Rajakumar. "We know that he will be freed one day. But we pray that Muthuraj does not change his mind about spending his retirement amidst us," says Selvraj, a labourer on Dr Rajakumar's farm.
The small temples in Gajanur and Thalavadi are overflowing with the forest flowers that Dr Rajakumar's fans have offered. Special prayers are offered in the villagers' mud-houses. Every day, public meetings are held in Gajanur and Thalavadi, where the village helmsmen inform the villages about the latest in the abduction crisis. Hundreds of people collect in front of the Thalavadi police station waiting for good news.
People from Bhimrajnagar in Karnataka, which is just four kilometers away, descend on to Gajanur everyday to join the villagers' prayers and protests.
Gajanur is now preparing for the release of the star. Hundreds of police personnel have landed in the village. Police vans with labels, "The Striking Force", are patrolling the village. A helicopter has been brought in for any emergency action. Police believe Veerappan will release Dr Rajakumar in Gajanur only.
Therefore, the villagers and television cameras are waiting for live action.
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