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Veerappan finds himself in a tight spot

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

Gone is the flamboyance of yesteryear when Veerappan said he was ready to pay Rs 250 million or more to ensure that once he surrendered no harm would come to him. Gone also is the arrogance with which he once proclaimed that he would use up all his money to become a politician and make all his enemies pay. Times and changed, and now Veerappan, killer and ivory and sandalwood smuggler, is on the run.

His brother and emissary Arjunan died in Tamil Nadu police custody while three other close aides, including the gang's crown prince, 'Baby' Veerappan, reportedly consumed cyanide while being taken away by the Karnataka police for interrogation. Veerappan claimed they were killed so that they would not reveal their political links, But he was certainly not out for revenge then, as he has been many times before.

Veerappan is a mellowed man now. More than that, he is tired, desperately tired, of being continually on the run, to sleep on rocks, to be threatened by the elements, to make deals with untrustworthy politicians, policemen and forest officials to keep out of jail, and keep an eye on his associates to keep out of the grave.

Veerapan has survived because he knows the forests better than all his men, because of his ruthlessness, and because he played godfather to villagers around the thick forests, alternately bullying and mothering them. But with his band shrinking, the brigand is feeling the heat. He wants to surrender remembers he has 112 deaths on his head. He has also killed about 500 elephants for their ivory and cut down countless trees for sandalwood. In a single search operation, police recovered 100 tonnes of sandalwood from the Siluvyikal forest stretch in 1989.

Ironically, Veerappan seeks to remain in public view once he surrenders, if only to ensure he is not killed in police custody. Tamil Nadu was willing to strike a deal with him but Karnataka was reluctant. To prod them on Veerappan kidnapped nine of its forest department officials, threatening to kill them if he is not allowed to surrender.

Now he is beyond harm, safe within his forest, untouchable for the moment.

"I was bewildered," recalls R Rajagopal, the editor of Tamil magazine, Nakkeeran, which conducted the first-ever interview with Veerappan. "He could distinguish the movements of a bunch of leaves on a branch, to identify an animal behind now, a human being later," he says.

It was Rajagopal who passed on to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi Veerappan's first offer to surrender. Details did not appear in Nakkeeran. He is certain that given Veerappan's feel for the wild and his swift reflexes, it will be next to impossible for policemen to track him down.

Veerappan himself had sent a recorded message to the Karnataka police, boasting about how a patrol party had pussyfooted past him while he was standing behind a rock, covered by bushes. He gave all details of the place to prove he wasn't lying.

Veerappan could have quietly continued as an elephant poacher and sandalwood smuggler from Gopinatham, paying off politicians and bureaucrats, had he not killed famed Tamil Nadu forest official Chidambaram in July 1987. His Robin Hood image, an inseparable blend of fact and fiction, and the cruelty of the police made his a legend.

Among his victims was the young and energetic P Srinivas, deputy conservator of forests, Karnataka. Veerappan took Srinivas into the jungle in 1990, promising to surrender, and killed the forest officer there. Veerappan claims Srinivas had raped his sister Maari, leading to her suicide. There is no evidence that he spoke the truth.

Unlike Phoolan Devi who got entangled in politics after her surrender, Veerappan is believed to have been dealing with politicians long before he fled into the jungles.

When five people, including police officer Chidambaranathan, "escaped" from Veerappan's clutches, it was alleged that the Tamil Nadu government had given away the large sum demanded for securing their release. Others claimed W I Dawaram, the colourful inspector general of police, had secured their release, still others that the prisoners had just walked away to freedom, let off by Veerappan.

While the police could never catch Veerappan, it is their efforts that have made him seek surrender. But there are troubles ahead for Veerappan. The state Opposition parties are sure to demand why a killer is being given what amounts to a state honour when he has even allegedly harboured Liberation Tigers of Tamil militants.

But a few friendly politicians in high places, a few bribes in the right places. That's all it takes to smooth things out for even the hardest-core criminal.

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