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February 7, 2000

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Sangliana dons disguises to nab Veerappan

M D Riti in Bangalore

The next time you see a sadhu in saffron walking around with a small group of followers, don't walk up to him and seek his blessings. You might be whacked over the head with a baton instead of being blessed with a sprinkling of holy water or ash.

And if you happen to be a diehard Rajakumar fan, carrying his telephone numbers around in the hope of calling him some day, you could be in worse trouble.

Police sources reveal that H T Sangliana, head of the Karnataka Special Task Force, heard recently that Veerappan was going around Velankanni and Tuticorin disguised as a sadhu. So he and four of his men promptly donned the same garb and began scouring the town for him.

Sangliana himself will neither confirm nor deny these reports. "We are in the process of looking for Veerappan and might adopt a wide variety of strategies," he says. "It would be silly of us to publicize them and have him know all that we are doing."

This is not the first time the Karnataka police have adopted disguises to try and catch the bandit. In the famous encounter in 1992, when Veerappan ambushed and killed Superintendent of Police T Harikrishna, then chief of the STF, and Sub-Inspector Shakeel Ahmed, the two officers were travelling through the forest in an unmarked car, masquerading as buyers of ivory. Their backup was following some distance behind in a truck, disguised as construction labour.

Their method of operation led the late litterateur and journalist P Lankesh to remark caustically, "How can they hope to trap Veerappan by travelling through the forest like a wedding procession?" Lankesh might only have been exhibiting hindsight, but Veerappan certainly found it simple to shoot the officers dead and escape.

Police sources revealed that the men accompanying Sangliana on his two days in disguise were Inspector Ashok Kumar of the Chikpet police station, N Nagaraj, Doddamani and Saudagar.

Inspector Kumar has been a part of the STF in addition to his other duties in Bangalore for a long time now. He was part of Inspector General of Police Shankar Bidri's crack team when Bidri headed the STF from 1993-95. Kumar was also on the scene when Veerappan's brother Arjunan turned up at a court in a police van, dead of cyanide poisoning.

Kumar himself has been known to use disguises effectively to capture anti-social elements. A particular incident almost two decades ago, when he disguised himself as a shepherd and staked out a dacoits' den for a couple of days before moving in, has inspired countless movie sequences. Just as Sangliana inspired two Kannada films, Sangliana 1 and Sangliana 2, Kumar has one film made based on his life, Amanusha, starring former Janata Dal minister Anant Nag.

Interestingly, the men who were encountered by the STF in Kerala last week dropped a diary containing three of Kannada film star Rajakumar's telephone numbers. One was his old home number, 3342696. The other two, 2261610 and 2258874, belong to the family's business offices in Gandhinagar, Bangalore.

The offices where these two telephones are located belong to Vajreshwari Combines. Until Rajakumar's abduction on July 31 last year, Parvathamma, his wife, used to spend some time there every day. Their youngest son Puneet, a national award-winning child star who now works with his mother in handling the family's film distribution and other businesses, also works from that office, usually in the late morning and early afternoon. His huge red car is almost always parked on the kerb outside the unimposing fašade of the office.

Rajakumar's two other sons, superstar Shivaraj Kumar and not-so-popular actor Raghavendra, also visit the office at some point in the day.

The police are now trying to indulge in disinformation and claim that there is nothing to indicate that these three numbers are from Bangalore. But since they had been entered under the alphabet R in the address book, they obviously are.

Not much is known yet about the police investigation of the three cellular phones that were found in the bags dropped by the fleeing men. The Karnataka police have recently solved at least three major crimes using mobile telephones dropped by suspects or found at the scenes of crime, by tracing the numbers called frequently on them.

A sum of Rs 300,000 in notes of Rs 500 denomination was also found in a bag left behind by the men. This money is believed to be part of the ransom paid to Veerappan to free Rajakumar last year. Rajakumar's family, however, insists that no money was paid for his release.

Whether both the shootouts that took place in the Kerala border forests were with members of the Veerappan gang is now the subject of speculation. On Saturday, February 3, close to midnight, a group of the Karnataka STF led by Narasimha Reddy spotted and shot at some men in the area of Chinnapadi/Chinnambadhi. These men left behind close to 200 kilos of ganja (cannabis), police sources say.

The Valayar forests just across the Kerala border are known to be frequented by drug smugglers. So, did this shootout involve Veerappan's men, a group of his men that dabbles in drug smuggling, or an altogether independent narcotics ring? This is a question that will have to be answered over the next few days.

The Rajakumar Abduction: complete coverage
The saga of Veerappan

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