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The Rediff Interview/R Gopal

'If the police kills two of his men, Veerappan kills four policemen'

R Gopal, editor of Nakkeeran
R Gopal is in the news now. When Shobha Warrier went to meet him, there was already one television crew interviewing him and another Kannada channel crew shuffling its feet outside. And once he was finished with us, he and his man Friday Siva Subramaniam were headed for a meeting with the Tamil Nadu chief minister.

Gopal is the editor of Nakkeeran, a Tamil bi-weekly that hit the big time after reporter Subramaniam stepped into the domain of the dreaded sandalwood smuggler Veerappan and interviewed him.

Subramaniam seems to have got along with Veerappan who, till then, thought the media was biased against him. Both Gopal and Subramaniam continued their visits to Veerappan, either to interview him or to negotiate the possibility of surrender with him. The Tamil Nadu government has now entrusted Gopal with the task of negotiating the release of nine Karnataka forest officials held hostage by Veerappan, followed by a surrender by Veerappan himself. No wonder Gopal is in great demand these days. Excerpts from an interview:

Shall we start from the very beginning? Why did you decide to meet Veerappan and write his side of the story? And how did you achieve what was once thought impossible?

Our magazine was a weekly then, and we used to carry a lot of reports on Veerappan from Salem, Erode, Periyar, etc. To people residing in those areas, Veerappan is like a hero. So, our magazine used to be a sell out there, if we had some story about him.

We had only one photo of Veerappan then, handed over by the police, and we were forced to use the same photograph alongside all our reports. In those days, Veerappan used to commit a lot of murders. Naturally we carried as many stories too. You see, I am the editor, and also the lay-out artist of our magazine. Because I was tired of using the same photograph week after week, I used to ask my reporters whether there was any chance of getting a new photograph of Veerappan.

An issue regarding Veerappan came up in the assembly in the first week of April 1993. Do you know what the government said? That Veerappan did not exist at all. They also said he might be somewhere in Bombay and not in the jungles.

Within ten days, Veerappan murders 22 people in a bomb blast. As if to inform the government that he was very much there. I wanted to find out the truth about Veerappan. That was why we asked Siva Subramaniam to try to go inside the jungles.

Till then, had you no contact with Veerappan at all?

Nothing, nothing at all. In fact, we tried to meet him several times but in vain. It went on for several months.

Veerappan with Gopal
Was Siva Subramaniam not scared to go all alone to meet Veerappan?

Of course, he was scared. It was a challenge, was it not? We knew the politicians and the police were lying to the public. And we wanted to find out the truth and expose them. Is it not the duty of a newspaper to let its readers know the truth?

It was the time the government had announced Rs 40 lakh (Rs 4 million) as a reward to anyone who would help them capture Veerappan. There was a Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) reward for (the capture of) his younger brother, Arjunan too.

In those days the villagers used to tell us about the cruelties of the police -- the way the police raided the villages, beat all men up and raped the women just to get some information about Veerappan. They even caught hold of Veerappan's wife, Muthulakshmy, and harassed her a lot.

The moment the news about his wife reached Veerappan, he caught three policemen and held them hostage. That was in November 1994.

The gang at rest
All the three men came out of the jungle one day. The Tamil Nadu police then claimed they helped the hostages escape while the Karnataka police claimed it was due to their efforts that the hostages were free. When we asked those three men, they told us that they just escaped from his custody. See, the police force was lying once again. That was the second time that they were trying to fool people.

In the meantime, Veerappan's brother Arjunan was mediating with the Karnataka police. One day the police informed the world that Arjunan had consumed cyanide and killed himself. Veerappan was naturally angry and accused the police for murdering Arjunan. He said, Arjunan was not a coward and would never commit suicide. In retaliation, he captured three forest watchers...

We are not supporting Veerappan or justifying his actions. We just want people to know his side of the story also. So, we interviewed him in front of the camera and that was shown on all the major television channels. That was the first time that people heard him talk.

What surprises all people is how you met him again and again when nobody else, not even the police could reach anywhere near him?

R Gopal
You must take the risk. When you venture out on a story like this, your life itself is at stake. Today we are going once again at the instance of the Tamil Nadu chief minister. Veerappan has nine people as hostages with him and we are also taking a risk by going inside. He could keep us also there. Anything can happen.

What I want to say is, nobody else was willing to take such a risk. I am not criticising anyone. But nobody was willing to risk their lives. In fact, if you are ready to stay with the adivasis for a couple of months, you will be able to find out about Veerappan.

Will they help?

You should win their confidence first.

What do the villagers say about Veerappan? We have heard that he threatens and kills them. Is it true?

If they help the police by disclosing Veerappan's hideouts, he kills them. The saddest part is, if they do not help the police, the police will kill them. So, the real sufferers are the poor villagers who live all around the jungle. The jungle is as big as 6,000 sq km and there are about 125 villages there. Should we not help those hapless people?

What did the villagers tell you when you met them?

They want an end to all their problems. They want the Veerappan case to get over fast so that they can live a peaceful life. They have stopped believing in politicians because politicians have failed in their attempt to protect them. They have seen how cases drag along...

Do the villagers support Veerappan? Do they have any sympathy for him?

I have found out that they do support him, and without their support, he will not be able to hide in the jungles for so long. Not a few, but many villagers support him.

Tell us what you think of this interview


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