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September 18, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ R R Gopal

'Earlier, I met only one Veerappan, and now I am meeting nine Veerappans'

Previous: 'Veerappan has become a terrorist'

Yes, that is the question everybody is asking these days.

Anybody who has some courage can go into the jungle and meet Veerappan. Anybody who is willing to take risks can go and meet him. But you have to be courageous!

I will tell you how we were taken inside. There were four of them including some extremists who met us near the forest at around 9.30 pm, and we were also four: Sivasubramaniam, Subbu, Balu and myself. We walked 'like a train' with Govindan in the front, followed by us and in the end were the extremists. We were not to use a torch and we just followed Veerappan's men. And, throughout the journey, we were allowed to talk only in whispers. We could speak normally only after we met Veerappan, and that too, only after he spoke to us in a normal voice.

We would have walked for about five kilometres when suddenly we heard a sound. Veerappan's men asked us to even stop breathing. They recognised the sound as that of an elephant. They are very thorough with the forest and the animals that live in the jungle. After the elephant disappeared, we continued our trek. After a while, one of the extremists shouted in a low, coarse voice, "Snake! Snake!" It was the ninth person from the rear who saw the snake. We ran back to see the snake, shivering in fear. It must have been at least 10 ft long. Govindan, after killing the snake, informed us that we would not have lived for more than ten seconds if it had bitten us. Just imagine, all of us walked past that deadly, poisonous snake but luckily, it did not bite any of us!

Why did Veerappan refuse to let you meet Rajakumar initially?

Yes, he did not let me meet Rajakumar initially. When I was waiting for ten days to meet Rajakumar, here everybody thought Veerappan had taken me too hostage. I insisted on meeting Rajakumar first, as I was not sure how such an old man could survive there. Veerappan told me that no kidnapper had ever allowed anyone to meet the hostage. He had never spoken to me like that. Somebody has taught him all this.

Veerappan himself met me only after making me wait for a couple of hours. You can imagine how depressed that made me. Only later did we begin our negotiations.

Is there any difference in the manner in which he negotiates now?

Yes, there is a difference. Earlier, he used to talk to me but this time, he read out his demands from a piece of paper.

So, he has advisors there.

Earlier, I met only one Veerappan, and now I am meeting nine Veerappans. All of them would discuss each and every point first, and only after that would Veerappan speak to me. But I can say for sure that the jungle is under Veerappan's control.

What was Dr Rajakumar's mental state like? Did he show any fear?

He is very calm outwardly. He is a great man. So far, he has not requested help to rescue him from there. He has faith in us. He believes that we will be able to bring him back from the jungle.

The day before the Supreme Court judgment came, he was visibly very happy. He knew the negotiations had been successful and that he would be able to return home. In fact, on August 31, I had given instructions to bring the five extremists to a point from where they would be handed over to Veerappan's gang and we would reach there with the four hostages. All of them were very hopeful. Then on the afternoon of September 1, we got the news of the Supreme Court's ruling.

Rajakumar has been living a life of luxury for several years. How has he taken the life inside the jungle?

That is the greatest thing about him. I call him a rishi. In fact, I have become a fan of his now. He is one of the greatest actors and he had been living in luxury all these years. But today he lives in the jungle with no trappings of luxury. He gets to eat rice only once a day. He has only a mat to sleep on. He gets to drink only black tea. But he is happy and satisfied with whatever he gets there. Is it not great to turn unhappiness and sadness to your advantage?

Did he speak to you in Tamil?

Yes, he spoke to me in Tamil but not very fluently.

Is he allowed to go alone to take bath, etc?

No, he has to follow somebody and there will be people behind him too, with guns. See, the forest is dense and dangerous. Anybody who is new to the place will be lost. We have seen footmarks of tigers, bears, elephants, etc when we go to take a bath.

This was what we had to go through, and you were asking me why I didn't help the police nab him!

But I had to ask you that question. If you had been in my place, you too would have asked the same question.

Okay, okay. See, we have been meeting Veerappan from 1993 onwards. And, we have also seen the kind of drama the police had staged. In 1994, when three people were kidnapped by Veerappan and later on rescued, Dawaram and Sandarbhagiri, the collector, announced that they rescued the hostages. When we interviewed the hostages, Chidambaranath, the DSP, told us that it was not the police who rescued them but they themselves escaped. When they were inside the jungle negotiating with Veerappan, nearly 25,000 policemen reached there. Chidambaranath told us that while the second round of negotiations were going on, he understood the police had cordoned the area. So, they escaped.

Chidambaranath told us that in front of him, both Dawaram and Sandarbhagiri told the press that they had rescued the hostages. When we published this story, do you know what Chidambaranath got? A transfer to Rameswaram. And Dawaram? He got a medal!

When the kidnap drama of the three forest officers came to an end, Sandarbhagiri claimed that it was he who rescued the hostages while Dawaram told on television that he did. When we talked to those three people, they told us that when Veerappan sensed the presence of police there, he left them there after giving them Rs 5,000 each and fled!

You asked me why I did not help the police. Till now, what the police used to do was to surround the place when negotiations were going on. If they did that, our lives also would be in danger. Leave alone my life, I should be responsible for the lives of the other three young men who come with me. How can I trust a police force which has such a reputation?

Is there competition between the Tamil Nadu police and the Karnataka police?

Yes, there is.

Has it affected the mission?

It could have, definitely.

You were in the jungle negotiating with Veerappan for several days. What did you talk of? Did he not lose patience?

When I met him the first time, he put forward demands, demands and more demands. Then he said, 'only if you come back with answers to all these demands, will I talk to you.' Then, when I went there for the second time, I had all the documents with me, and answers to all his demands.

Yes, he did lose patience and get angry while I talked. I cannot even divulge certain things he told me. We may not like the way some administrators behave. We may not like the way Veerappan behaves sometimes. You must have seen on the video the way he snapped at me and asked me to shut up. After seeing that, many of my friends asked me, why do you want to go and get insulted like this?' But we have tolerated all that.

Let me narrate an incident. One day, as we were eating, a man with a herd of cattle came near the place where we were sitting. These people became suspicious. They felt he might be an informer. Veerappan immediately asked a man to drive the cattle away but his efforts to do so failed. Suddenly, Veerappan himself got up, put a finger into his mouth and began making a noise that sounded like the war cry of an elephant. He also began breaking and shaking the branch of a tree. The cattle and the man fled immediately thinking that there was an elephant nearby!

Were you in an area where even cattle could reach? It means that the area was not unapproachable. Only the police can't locate Veerappan.

Yes, you are right. Now, you have to ask the question to the police -- why didn't they locate the place? Fear gripped me when I saw that man with his cattle. What if the man sensed the presence of Veerappan and informed the police? What if the police attacked the area? What would we do then?

You have no faith in the police?

How can you believe them when you know their track record? I know what Dawaram has done as the STF chief. I know what Kalimuthu has done as the STF chief.

The talk here is that you have taken money with you to be handed over to Veerappan. Have you?

No. That is not my job. I am only an emissary. See, if the mission fails, it will be a big blow to both the governments. But somebody gains if the mission fails, and that person is spreading such rumours. I do not want to name the person. You can guess.

Jayalalitha, in one of her statements, said that you had been getting a lot of publicity because of this hostage drama.

If that is what she feels, let her go to the forests. Then she will get all the publicity!

What is Rajnikant's role in this hostage drama?

Like all of us, he wants to ensure that Rajakumar comes back safely and everything is settled amicably. He knows what will happen if something goes wrong. There are lots and lots of Tamilians living in Karnataka and their lives will be in danger if the mission fails. So, he knows that this has to be handled carefully and sensitively. Because he knows Rajakumar and me, he wants to help me as much as he can.

Why did he come with you to Bangalore?

When I went to the forest for the third time, Rajakumar asked me if I would visit Parvathamma. He had not asked me anything earlier. I told him I would. When I informed the chief minister about this request, he wanted me to meet Mr Krishna too when I went there. As Rajnikant was also planning to go to Bangalore, he felt that we could go together.

How was Parvathamma when you met her?

She has faith in me. She said, 'He (Rajakumar) is like god to me and you have come back after meeting him.' She believes that we will be able to bring him back.

An advocate from Bangalore, Balagopal, is also trying to meet Veerappan. He is even sending messages through the radio.

I did not ask anyone to send me as the emissary. Both the governments came to a decision and asked me to go. Prior to all the three visits, they announced that I was the emissary. Now, for the fourth time, they have announced my name.

Do you think that your mission will be successful?

Even though this is my toughest mission, I am sure we will be successful.

Now, let me ask you something else. I want your opinion as a journalist. Is it right to set several extremists and hundreds of TADA détenues free in exchange for one life?

I do not support the TADA detenues. I was one of the journalists who exposed the atrocities that happened in the villages. The 120 people, half of them women, had been inside the jail for the last eight years without any trail. Is it right? As a human being, how can you justify such injustice?

Everybody is talking about the way the two governments are bowing in front of a criminal. He is dictating terms and both the governments are trying hard to please him.

This is being said by those who want the blood of these two governments. You know who I am talking about. Did the governments talk to Veerappan 50 days ago? No. They are doing all this because he has Rajakumar with him. They are talking to Veerappan because they are trying to free Rajakumar from Veerappan. Is there anything wrong in sending an emissary to free a man who is considered to be god by lakhs and lakhs of people?

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