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The Rediff Special/ Gita Aravamudan
Once upon a time, the latest fairy tale goes, there was an attractive 15-year-old village girl called Muthulakshmi living in Dharmapuri. She wanted to see the notorious forest brigand Veerappan. The man with the skinny frame and famous moustache. The man who had slaughtered hundreds of elephants, plundered the forests of their trees and killed the men who dared to try to catch him.
But she believed he was not evil for she heard that he used the money to help poor villagers. He was a man old enough to be her father, yet she yearned to catch a glimpse of him. And so, she bribed a little boy to show her the notorious Veerappan when he made a nocturnal visit to her village.
What followed is the stuff of which Tamil films are made. She saw him. He saw her. And he fell head over heels in love with her. He wooed her. She refused, afraid of her parents. Her uncle helped her and they eloped into the forest and led an idyllic life. She bore him two children.
Two? But we hear only of the smart and precocious Vidya Lakshmi, the nine-year-old who was thrown out of school because of her father's notoriety. What about the other?
And then comes the part of the legend no one wants to talk about. At least not now. Not when Jayaprada is talking about tying a rakhi on Veerappan anna's wrist and the distraught womenfolk of Rajkumar's family are begging their "brother" not to harm the ailing thespian.
Veerappan strangled his own newborn infant. Even Muthulakshmi doesn't talk about this child who was killed perhaps because she was a girl. Or perhaps because she made a noise which her father feared would attract his pursuers. Muthulakshmi herself was abandoned along with her baby daughter when Veerappan found the going tough. The police picked her up and tortured her, she says, for several years before they released her to live a life of penury as a social outcaste.
Muthulakshmi's story, in a way, epitomises the way in which the actions of the forest brigand have blighted the lives of the women touched by his shadow. And yet, in the famous videotaped interview with Nakeeran Gopalan last time around, when he had kidnapped some poor forest guards, Veerappan projected himself as a saviour of women. The words "karuppazhichanga" (they raped) peppered his long diatribe against the STF men, forest department employees and anyone else who dared to pursue him. They were the villains and he the hero.
In a suburb of Bangalore city lives Preetha, the wife of S P Harikrishna, who was killed in an ambush by Veerappan and his men. It has taken Preetha nearly eight years to put her life together. Her husband went into the forest after Veerappan for the first time the day her son was born.
Over the next two years, he was in and out of the forest. He pursued Veerappan with renewed vigour after the brutal murder and beheading of the gentle forest officer Srinivas who had done so much for the welfare of the tribals. When Harikrishna died his children were just three and two years old respectively.
Sitting in the drawing room of a friend's house, Preetha, who now runs a gas agency recalled those last terrible days in 1992 when her husband went with his young assistant Shakeel Ahmed into the forest after Veerappan.
Preetha is now focussed on consolidating her life and bringing up her children. But his assistant Shakeel Ahmed's father who is himself a former policeman, has opposed the release of prisoners saying his dead son's life should not have been sacrificed in vain. He has the moral support of the many widowed women whose husbands died in the line of duty while pursuing Veerappan.
In the early 1990s, when most of these killings took place, Veerappan hadn't yet acquired the demonic dimensions he now has. He was just considered to be a petty poacher and smuggler. The police officers relied on informants to get details of his movements. And if Veerappan discovered these informants, their fate was no different from that of the policemen.
Over the years, the number of widows grew. Alongside, there were the women who had sacrificed their own freedom by becoming camp followers. They went along with their men into the jungle and led tough lives, cooking, cleaning and giving birth to their children in the deep forests. The poaching, plundering smuggling and killing their men did brought them neither material nor mental happiness. And after a while, Veerappan and his men abandoned them all. Today, the widow of Arjunan, Veerappan's much loved brother also lives in penury in Chennai and the wives and widows of his other men live in hiding, afraid to speak of their past.
There are more broken women in Veerappan's wake. When his sister committed suicide, Veerappan went on a bloody killing spree believing she had ended her life after being raped by his pursuers.
How many women were really raped or tortured by the Special Task Force?
In 1999, some eminent human rights organisations, concerned by the stories of torture of innocent men and women by the STF, conducted a fact-finding campaign. The report, which was made public a couple of months ago, is quite shocking. And as usual, women emerge as the ultimate sufferers who bore the brunt of the actions of their men.
To quote from the report, "A sampling of the tortures inflicted on the innocent men and women would show that they surpass the treatment meted out to the Jews in the concentration camps of the Nazi regime in Germany. The STF personnel had also been responsible for a number of pregnancies among the tribal and other women and their modus operandi was to marry the pregnant women to some innocent and unsuspecting person under compulsion. There was also a case of a child whose parents were both in jail. She had been left with some relatives who had brought her to the gates of the prison and left her there saying that her parents were inside ... The "crown" of the forms of torture was the infliction of electric shock treatment to both men and women. Weeping copiously, the men and women narrated their tale of agony and anguish at the hands of the Special Task Force personnel."
I have quoted here only some of the less gruesome parts of the report, which also has a number of case studies based on interviews with victims. There is, for example, the story of Letchumy of Palapadukkai village whose husband Sithan was allegedly accosted by the Karnataka Task Force on his way to the bank where he was going to repay some loan. He never returned home. But a couple of days later, the six-months pregnant Letchumy was beaten and repeatedly raped by some policemen causing her to abort the next day. She told the commission that 10 days later her torturers came back and "asked if the child was born and whether it looked like Veerappan's brother Arjunan, and laughed."
As part of the process of meeting Veerappan's demands, 12 women TADA detenues were released from the Mysore jail. Of these, 10 had become widows while in jail. Freedom, they told visiting journalists, had no meaning for them. They had lost their husbands, they no longer knew where their children were and no one had ever bothered to come and visit them in jail. As social outcastes and widows they knew they would have no place in their villages where people lived in total dread of both Veerappan and the law enforcing authorities.
Palaniyamma, who lost her husband eight years ago when she was arrested, told a journalist that she neither had a roof over her head in her village nor anyone to take her out on bail. She said, "When I can't purchase a pair of plastic ear rings, how can I get surety for bail?"
And there is 23 year old Veliyamma, who was picked up from some fields in Tamil Nadu along with her husband Shambu and eight-month-old baby. The police told her Shambu was dead. Her baby son was separated from her and she has not seen him in seven years. If surety is required, she says she will also have to continue to languish in jail. She asked, "What sin have I committed to lead such a miserable life?"
And that perhaps would be the refrain of the many women whose lives have been blighted by the man who would be MP. His wife wants him pardoned so that he can lead a normal family life with her and their child. Maybe then the quality of her miserable existence will improve. But what about the others who will never get their husbands, their families or their lives back?
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