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December 13, 1997


The Rediff Interview/R Gopal

'Veerappan has not killed a single person in the last twenty months. That was one promise I extracted from him'

Nakkeeran editor R Gopal has just returned from meeting Veerappan, one of India's most wanted men. This time, he did not go as an emissary of the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments, but as an investigative journalist. The result: TN Chief Minister M Karunanidhi is cut up with him and refused to meet him when he returned from the forest. Karnataka Chief Minister J H Patel too refused to listen to Veerappan's latest demands.

At a press conference after his return, aggressive journalists bombarded him with hostile questions. The next day he received a summons under the Criminal Procedure Code for refusing to part with information about a criminal (Veerappan) from the superintendent of police, Erode.

Gopal appears hurt at the turn of events. From being a national hero just four months ago, his every action is now being viewed with suspicion. The only solace in the midst of all this controversy was a national award for being one among ten 'outstanding young Indians.' Shobha Warrier met the editor in Madras this week to find out the latest on the Veerappan saga.

You are just back from the forest after meeting Veerappan. You did not go as an emissary of the government. How did you get the message from Veerappan that he wanted to meet you?

I received an audio cassette from him by courier on the 16th of November. That was how he has always communicated with me, even when Jayalalitha was chief minister. His messages reached me either by post or by courier, or even by phone. What they do is this: one of his men stops a bus and asks them to deliver a message to me or post it somewhere, or they ask a village boy to send it by courier. Sometimes they even call me over the telephone from Salem or Erode or Sathyamangalam.

One thing you should understand is, communication has never been a problem for him. Many people have asked me several times, how he communicated with me. He sends messages to me like any other person in India.

Was it a surprise to get a message this time?

I was really surprised. This time he spoke only for two minutes. What he said was, he was willing to surrender and the signatures of the two chief ministers that he demanded earlier were unnecessary. But he asked the chief minister to send me once again as he wanted to convey some message. I immediately called on the chief minister and he, along with all his top officials, listened to the cassette. Then he replied through All India Radio that he was happy to receive such a message and asked Veerappan to name the place of the surrender.

Within two days, I got one more message, this time over the telephone. Do you know what that person said? 'Anna (that is Veerappan) is ready to surrender.'

As the CM had gone to Delhi because of the leakage of the Jain Commission report, there was no way I could get in touch with him. I decided to go ahead with the mission. We had been waiting for his surrender for such a long time and when we were so near, I didn't want him to change his mind.

It was we who brought Veerappan's story to the people. We are the only journalists who have met and spoken to him. I felt it was our duty to put an end to it too. That was why I decided to take the risk. I knew it was dangerous because with all these Special Task Force personnel around, it was difficult to enter the forest without them noticing us. I knew very well that if they spotted me, they would shoot me.

What baffles everyone is the way you enter the forest. How did you manage to do that without anyone recognising you?

That is why I said, there was a lot of risk involved in our mission. But please don't forget, this was the way we had gone inside earlier, that too several times. The same STF people were there then too. This time we passed a couple of STF checkposts, but nobody recognised us. What helped us this time was the rain. It was pouring and we had to carry umbrellas. On top of that we had covered our heads with towels and we wore shabby shirts and lungis. So we looked more like Sabarimala pilgrims than journalists.

If they had spotted us, they would have killed us and I would not be here talking to you. The STF came to know about my journey later on and they even bombed some places.

How did they find out that you had gone inside the forest?

It might be difficult for you to believe, but these days all my telephones are being tapped. Do you know what the Karnataka chief minister said? It would be a shame if Gopal came back safely from the jungle. The Karnataka STF had given shoot at sight orders.

If they had shot you, they would be denying themselves the presence of the only person who could lead them to Veerappan. It would their loss, wouldn't it be?

That is why I do not understand the way they function. When the STF was not there for quite sometime, the villagers lived peacefully. Now that they are there, it is harassment time for the poor villagers.

Are you against the STF hunting Veerappan?

I am not against it at all. I also do not say that they should not hunt Veerappan. But what they do is, under the pretext of hunting for Veerappan, they harass the villagers. Kalimuthu himself said that sixty STF men went inside. Out of the sixty, twenty were poor villagers who were taken inside as a shield for these personnel. So, if Veerappan shot at them, the villagers would get killed first and not the police who walked behind them. This is what I am against.

Why do you take such risks?

Nakkeeran is an investigative magazine and we would like to see a full stop to this story, the story of Veerappan. My journey was just a continuation of what we had started earlier. Can you believe he has not killed a single person in the last twenty months? That was one promise I extracted from him when I met him last. And he has adhered to it.

One thing that surprises all is the contradiction in your statement and that of the police including Walter Dawaram who headed the STF during Jayalalitha's time. You say that Veerappan cannot be caught, but the police says he can be.

Dawaram completed his five year term and has gone. Now another Dawaram has come. Other than press statements boasting about their achievements, they have done nothing. Could they catch him dead or alive? The truth is that you cannot him. So, the only solution to the problem is his surrender. I ask, why can't you consider that option?

Are you hundred per cent certain that he could not be caught in the jungle?

Yes, The jungle is like his home. He can walk anywhere, any time, that too without chappals. He is not scared of thorns or animals. The rainy season is the best time for Veerappan, but the most difficult period for others as the jungle will be slushy, muddy and slippery. When water is there in abundance, nothing worries Veerappan. I have seen the places where he used to hide. He also changes places quite often like an animal. I feel only if you have 100,000 people to surround the jungle, will you be able to catch him.

We have similar jungles in the North-East where paramilitary forces are fighting the extremists. Do you think they would be able to work in this forest?

They may be able to catch him. May be. Yes, you can even send the army inside. I was talking about the present police force. Why they get angry with me now is because when they have been trying so hard to spot him, I went inside, met him and came back safely. It is a question of a hurt ego. What I cannot understand is, what is prohibiting them from going inside? If you are motivated enough, if you have courage, if you are willing to spend a lot of time with those villagers, you can also go. But you have to win the confidence of the villagers. For that you have to be one among them.

This time when you met him, he gave a new list of demands. Why? Is he going back on his word?

He is ready to surrender even now. Yes, he has put forward three more demands. He has demanded the release of the innocent people arrested for helping him, he wants a commission appointed to probe police atrocities on innocent villagers and a CBI enquiry into the death of his brother Arjunan. You cannot call it additional demands. Once he used to say he would not be in jail for even a day. The same person is willing to surrender now. You should appreciate that. But the whole atmosphere changed after I came back.

Did it come as a shock when Karunanidhi refused to meet you?

I can only say that I did not expect this. I did all this because as a journalist and as a man I want an end to the Veerappan issue. Otherwise, would I have risked my life to go inside to rescue those nine hostages? Now I am looked upon as a criminal, a criminal who refused to part with the information about another criminal. This hurt me a lot. They have issued a summons. They say it is a criminal offence to hide information about a criminal.

Why did you refuse to part with the source of your information?

Yes, I refused. Just look at it from the point of view of a journalist. Have you seen any journalist revealing his source? You read the whole transcript of the Tata Tapes recently. Have any of you gone and asked the Indian Express to reveal the source? Have you asked Prabhu Chawla to reveal his source for the Jain Commission report? Anita Pratap met Prabhakaran and interviewed him. Can you ask her to reveal her source? No, you can't. So many journalists in Andhra Pradesh are meeting Naxalites and interviewing them. I have not heard anyone asking them to reveal their sources. Then, why target me alone? Let me ask you, would you have revealed your source if you had one? I am asking this to all the journalists who question my integrity.

I feel that by sending me a summons, somebody is trying to trouble me. I had gone there ten times, even during Jayalalitha's period, but nothing of this sort had happened before.

Do you think it was because the government feels ashamed that you succeeded where the police failed?

It may be so. I think now my job is almost over. This might even be my last visit to the jungle.

Why won't you go there again?

Now that they have issued a summons, now that the government has turned against me, I don't think I will go again. Now it is the job of other journalists to carry on. Everybody behaves as if I have closed the doors of the 6,000 square kilometres of jungle and hidden the key in my pocket. What I cannot understand is, why is that nobody has so far gone inside? You please go there and see what is happening there, how much the poor villages are suffering and write about it.

Why has no other journalist, no other newspaper tried to go inside the jungle and meet Veerappan? Every journalist, including myself, comes and talks to you. Is it because without Veerappan's help, nobody can go inside?

Only if you really want to meet him, can you do so. Only if you dedicate yourself, will you be able to achieve that. Can you believe we tried continuously for six years before meeting him? Can you believe we failed hundred times and succeeded only ten times? But we were very, very dedicated and we had this strong urge to meet him. It was a big chance for a journalist to get a scoop of that sort and we really worked hard to get it.

Was it not because of that people like you come to interview me not once, but thrice? Please don't think I am boasting. If not for this, you might have considered Nakkeeran as just another Tamil magazine. Because of what we have achieved, other journalists are interviewing me. I think it is a matter to be proud of.

What will happen to Nakkeeran once Veerappan surrenders?

We have been running this magazine for the last ten years. This is not the only issue that we have exposed. We have exposed several cases earlier, like the atrocities that happened during Jayalalitha's time, the Auto Shanker case and many cases like that. We are always looking for challenges. There will never be any dearth of challenges. Once Veerappan surrenders, we will move on to another challenge. Nakkeeran lives on challenges.

The Search for Veerappan

The Rediff Interview

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