The Rediff Special

'Many people have used Veerappan to make money'

Read the first part of this series

Koose Muniswamy Veerappan is no strapping young lad. Police records say he is easily over 50.

Today, he rules the forests with impunity.

Why hasn't he been nabbed yet?

Roving Editor Ramesh Menon travelled the Veerappan land, interacting with villagers, government officers and the police, to find the answer.

A major drawback in the hunt, he found, is that the intelligence sources of the police have dried up. The local people nurse deep mental wounds that have been festering for years because of police oppression. They see Veerappan in a favourable light.

"At least, he does not hurt us," they say.

WELCOME to the costliest manhunt in Indian history.

The battle to nab Veerappan is 13 years old. It has cost the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over 12 million rupees. One hundred and nineteen people have been killed, and scores injured in the process. Over 500 policemen from the two states have been on the job all these years.

As things stand, it appears they will never catch Veerappan. And now since he has nurtured such an ostentatious image of himself, he is unlikely to surrender.

He says he cannot surrender because he has to take care of "a movement". With visions of being a champion of the Tamil cause, Veerappan now considers himself larger than life.

Senani, a wildlife photographer whom Veerappan kept in captivity for 14 days, told rediff.com: "Veerappan believes that he is feared by the police and respected by the people. He sees people cringing before him. No one looks him in the eye. He feels he can even win an election and be a major political figure."

The abduction of Rajakumar, the Kannada film icon, has reinforced this feeling.

Karnataka State Reserve Police Inspector General Shankar Mahadev Bidari feels it is the terrain he operates in that is Veerappan's best protector. Mostly it is thick forests. Heights help him see police movement, the locals are with him, and in most areas there are no motorable roads.

Plus, the area is enormous: around 6,000 square kilometres. For Veerappan, who knows the forests like the back of his hand, it is easy to avoid the police: when combing operations are on in one area, Veerappan just moves into another.

IN 1986, Veerappan was arrested in Bangalore.

He had come to buy ammunition and had quarrelled with the dealer, who informed the police. They tracked him down to a restaurant. He was enjoying his favourite dish: fried pork.

Veerappan was taken to Chamrajnagar for interrogation. Handcuffed, he was kept in the Budhipadka forest guesthouse.

But Veerappan escaped. Sources say he paid a bribe of Rs 50,000. In an interview to rediff.com, Director General of Karnataka Police C Dinakar admitted as much.

The tragedy, he said, was that nothing was done to punish the official responsible for the escape.

The Special Task Force constituted to hunt Veerappan did reduce his gang from around 150 to five. Now that some Tamil militants have joined him, the gang has about nine members.

Most of the 119 people whom Veerappan has killed are policemen and informers. He has cut sandalwood trees in the forests of Satyamangalam and MM Hills worth millions of rupees. The police claim that Veerappan has poached 2,000 elephants. But that may not be true as other gangs too operated in the area.

Today, two state governments are on their knees before the bandit. When he dictates terms, they have to listen. Is he so invincible?

Not quite. Officials like Dinakar say it is possible to arrest him if there is "political will" and good officers are deputed for the job. The joint operation by the two southern states could have accomplished the task. Unfortunately, the STF suffered from ego hassles and co-ordination problems. Most times, they pulled in different directions. Intelligence was not shared.

The money involved -- Veerappan and his gang carry millions for their heads -- was another reason. Many officers wanted that glory to be theirs personally. And it showed.

There was no political will to arrest the bandit either. Officials of the Karnataka police say that Tamil Nadu seemed to have a soft spot for Veerappan. Political manipulation further demoralised the force. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi reportedly even got a house with modern facilities ready in Maduranthakam, 49 km from Madras, for Veerappan to stay if he surrendered.

Political observers in Madras say the STF has been dormant after Karunanidhi came into power. A senior Tamil Nadu police official told rediff.com:

"The STF did not even make him panicky in the last three years. There was just no leadership or political will to catch him. Senior police officers sent their subordinates and did not lead from the front. A wrong message went all the way below."

A government source in Tamil Nadu said, "Veerappan cannot exist without a pipeline to sustain him. If you have powerful politicians and bureaucrats backing him, he can never be caught. Many people have used Veerappan all these years to make money both in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu."

This is a common perception. The man on the street feels that successive governments have shielded Veerappan and ensured his steady growth.

Asks Sethuram, a Bangalore resident, "Why has the media not unearthed this story till today? Crores of rupees have been laundered in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu by those who benefited from Veerappan."

Intelligence officials had the names of politicians who were helping Veerappan, but nothing was done to discourage them.

Frustrated at not getting Veerappan, the STF resorted to strong-arm tactics. This alienated the local populace that lives on the edge of the forest in little villages. In so-called search operations, they were harassed, beaten up, tortured, and their houses burnt.

As one villager in Thalvadi in Tamil Nadu, points out, "Our women were never safe. If they ever went unescorted into the forest, they would be humiliated or molested."

In villages like Nallur in Karnataka, there are a great many stories of STF oppression. The STF has not been to the village for many months now. That is only because the villagers finally put their foot down when a minor girl was raped by a police officer. She was carrying lunch to her parents who worked in the fields when the officer raped her.

The villagers staged a dharna and senior STF officials rushed to the spot. They promised to take action. But all they did was transfer the officer.

The villagers did launch a first information report against him at the Ramapuram police station, but nothing came of it. The villagers took the girl to many doctors to get a medical confirmation of the rape, but they refused.

And today, R Rachaiah, sub-inspector at the Ramapuram police station, says he does not have the FIR or any relevant papers with him.

Continued: 'And they just shot him dead!'