The Rediff Special

'And they just shot him dead!'

IN Nallur village, the green hillsides and the fields of corn are a picture of tranquillity. But there is a storm brewing in every house.

This is Veerappan country. The people do not really want to be involved with him anymore. But in Veerappan country, you don't have a choice. If you do not co-operate, you become a suspected police informer. And if you help the gang any which way, you get the stick from the police, or are thrown in the jail. Or even shot.

This story holds true in all other villages bordering the forest. The people all have the same dilemmas, the same tragedy.

There are numerous houses in Nallur that are roofless, with burnt-down walls. Rampaging policemen, who suspected the inmates of helping Veerappan, torched them.

The police say they helped Veerappan raid a police station, mow down five policemen and decamp with arms. But Mandappa, the deputy superintendent of police in Kollegal, says: "It was just an accidental fire that spread."

How a fire could spread to houses unconnected is a mystery.

It is almost nine years since the houses were torched. But villagers have let the ruins be. It is a grim reminder to them.

Farmer Doraiswamy says he will never rebuild his house as it is an ill omen. His father, Madho, has been in jail for eight years on the charges of aiding Veerappan. He is still awaiting trial.

His uncle Muniswamy and aunt Sewa, too, are in jail. They were all called to the MM Hills police station for questioning. They never returned. While at the police station, they were administered electric shocks, Doraiswamy says.

Watching the house burn, Muniswamy's younger brother Palaniswamy could not restrain himself. He questioned the police.

"And they just shot him dead!" says Doraiswamy. "Then they announced to the press that he had been killed by Veerappan."

The people do admit that some villagers went to carry loads of sandalwood for Veerappan. But they saw it as just another job and did it only to earn money. Poverty stalks these areas. Most of the villagers are daily wage labourers, earning between Rs 25 and Rs 50 a day.

Sixty-year-old Ammachi's eyes are glazed when she talks of her sons Iyandra and Kolanda. They were taken away by the police many years ago. After three months, Kolanda's body was found with bullet wounds on the periphery of the village.

Iyandra has still not returned. She waits for him. He is her only hope. "At least I need to be told if he is dead and what was their crime," she says.

She is not the only one with unanswered questions. Kannamma, 50, one day saw the police charging the village. She and her son Adhneri ran away in fear. When they returned, all that remained of their house were the four mud walls. Everything else had been reduced to ashes.

That was nine years ago. Her son then fled to Tamil Nadu, unable to take the police atrocities anymore.

INCIDENTS like this alienated village after village. The police were cruel and uncaring.

Veerappan, on the other hand, was shrewd enough to cultivate the villagers. He had the intelligence to see that the people could shield him. While the police paid paltry sums of Rs 50 and Rs 100 for information, Veerappan showed that he valued intelligence much more.

For information on police movement, he shelled out as much as Rs 1,000. Even way back in 1986, he used to pay Rs 14 for a kilo of sandalwood. To a poor villager, just cutting a tree for Veerappan meant a lot of money.

Villagers speak about how the STF would walk into their village to "search for Veerappan" and walk out with goats, hens, vegetables. All without even a thank you. But Veerappan paid for everything he received. There was nothing called a free lunch in his vocabulary. A Nallur resident spoke of how he once removed his watch and bartered it for a packet of tealeaves.

Shakeel Beg, a farmer near Gajanur where Rajakumar was taken captive, points out: "Veerappan will not be caught. Politicians support him. He will never harm the poor. He pays for everything. One has to understand the basic economics of the area before venturing out to capture Veerappan."

Arif Khan, a farmer in Thalvadi, puts his thumb on the nub of the problem: "Veerappan has built himself a constituency looking after the needs of the poor. He gives them financial aid, arranges marriages and is generally looking for an opportunity to help the needy. On the other hand, we feel constantly harassed by the police."

Veerappan will continue to get the support of the local populace, which comprises mostly agricultural labourers. Points out Dinakar: "He used his ill-gotten wealth to make the needy feel that he is a do-gooder."

Along the forest belt, legends are a legion of how Veerappan gave money to a hungry family or helped a marriage. All this has helped him carve out a Robin Hood image. Thus, though Veerappan has over 120 cases against him, the villagers do not see him as a criminal. Living off the forest by cutting wood is not a crime to them. So too hunting animals for game or profit.

It is not just his Robin Hood image. Veerappan take care to punish with death all those who squealed on him.

When Veerappan came to know that Palkar Raju, a milkman, had told the police about his movements in the Nallur area, he just walked into his thatched house one evening and shot him and his son dead. His wife Chinatayamma, tried to beg his forgiveness, but he pushed her aside and shot them. As they lay dying, he slit their necks.

Today, his widow sits in a courtyard full of maize cobs, with a deadpan expression. Fear still runs in the family, she says, for he may come again.

Madhav Gadgil, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and an expert on forest management and conservation, says:

"The government failed to nab Veerappan as it did not have local support. The government was largely seen as extortionists." Nothing could be closer to the truth.

Unless the Special Task Force changes its tactics to win over the hearts of the locals and give them the confidence that they would be protected at all costs, there is no chance of Veerappan being captured in the near future.

Says Shankar Mahadev Bidari, a former STF commander: "If the government is determined and there is consistent action, Veerappan can be caught."

This is the second of Ramesh Menon's series on India's most-wanted bandit. Watch this space for more!

'When will this nightmare end?'

Read Part 1

The Rajakumar Kidnapping