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The Rediff Interview/Walter Dawaram

'The stupid governments should know that Veerappan will never surrender'

Former Tamil Nadu director general of police Walter Dawaram had always been a daredevil.

Nothing troubled him. Not the encounters against Naxalites. Not the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Hailing from the Munnar hills, the mountains never terrified him. So when the Jayalalitha government decided to hunt for sandalwood smuggler Veerappan in the 6,000 sq km jungle, they could not think of anyone but Dawaram to lead the joint Special Task Force of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. He lead the team from the front and Veerappan's gang was reduced from ''150 to five''.

Dawaram is back in the news again, thanks to Jayalalitha's statement that the former DGP should be sent to capture the criminal.

The retired official, however, has been avoiding the media, except for a media meet and an interview each to Vijay TV and Cho Ramaswamy's Tuglaq.

But when Rediff On The NeT's Shobha Warrier sought an interview, he agreed, after initial reluctance.

Under what circumstances and under whose instructions was the Special Task Force formed?

Veerappan is a Tamilian, but belongs to the Karnataka side. His riverside village was part of the old Coimbatore district. When states were formed on linguistic basis in 1956, the Kollega taluk was transferred to Karnataka.

He started as an elephant poacher like several others of that area and later on graduated to sandalwood cutting in a small way. Slowly his gang members increased and he began eliminating his rivals through treachery. He would call them for a peace talk and quietly kill them.

Thus he became the sole leader of the sandalwood smuggling gangs. He soon started killing Karnataka forest officials. In Tamil Nadu also, he killed one official.

The Tamil Nadu government, however, did nothing, but for a solitary arrest -- of one of his men.

In Karnataka, when he started killing police officers, they took him seriously.

In 1989, he made his first offer to surrender. He sent his brother Arjunan to district forest officer Srinivas, a very idealistic, young gentleman.

Veerappan said he would surrender before Srinivas. He wanted Srinivas to go to a temple unarmed, where he was going to surrender.

Srinivas was prepared to go, but the villagers dissuaded him as the brigand killed a rival group at the same temple, after inviting them for talks. Like Srinivas, they were told to come unarmed.

Srinivas ignored the villagers's advice, and was beheaded. That was in 1989.

The same offer was made to a young police superintendent, Harikrishna. He also went with a small team. Before he reached the spot, he and five others were ambushed and killed.

Subsequently, he had attacked a police station, killed some politicians, attacked a jeep and killed a sub inspector on the Karnataka side.

Following the violent incidents, the Karnataka government requested Tamil Nadu to depute a police team to help them. Accordingly, a 25-member team led by an SP was formed.

In April 1993, following a tip-off about Veerappan's whereabouts, the team went inside the forest in two vehicles. He blew up the vehicles using landmines and 22 policemen were killed while the SP was seriously injured. The incident happened on the Karnataka side.

This prompted both the governments to employ a joint command. Till then there was no coordination between the two states, though Tamil Nadu had only 25 men and they had 500.

A day after the incident, Jayalalitha visited Mettu and paid homage to the dead. Then, following her request, then Karnataka chief minister Veerappa Moily met her in Madras. I was only an additional director general of police then. They asked me whether I could lead the team. I said, ''Yes.'' Then I asked for volunteers.

Why did you call for volunteers instead of selecting men from the police force?

There was no point in forcibly taking anyone. Most of the policemen are not fit and they wouldn't be interested or they wouldn't like to take the risk.

See, it was not ordinary police work, you have to take a lot of risks. You have to be inside the forest.

We have a 82,000-strong force, but when I asked for volunteers only 500 men came forward. Except for a couple of SPs, all the others were subordinate staff. Senior officials would never come. They are not suitable for the job as as they are used to a very comfortable life. SP Sanjay Arora, however, was a very fit person.

I took only 250 fit men from the 500 who volunteered. I chose the fittest, only those who can go without food and water, who could sustain in the forest and walk 30 to 40 km a day.

Was there any incentive for these volunteers?

Like Churchill said, the only incentive I could offer was, ''blood, tears and sweat''. I told them there was no incentive. ''You will have to forego your family life and be in the forest.'' After one month's training, we entered the forest on May 12, 1993.

Did you enter the forest along with the Karnataka force or alone?

It was a very big forest -- 6,000 sq km. The distance between our border village and their border village is about 120 km. They were stationed in various places there but we used to coordinate. Till then the Tamil Nadu police never entered the forest.

Did you also enter the forest?

Of course. You have to lead the operation, otherwise, you cannot be successful. It is not fair or proper on the part of the senior officers to sit safely in one place and ask the juniors to go.

In all the operations I had undertaken, whether it be against the Naxalites or the LTTE, I used to be in the forefront. When the LTTE rioted in the Vellore prison, I was the first to enter the building. That was when the DMK was in power. About 300 LTTE men were inside the prison as we smashed into the area. My men were willing to come with me because they know that I lead from the front. Likewise, we entered the forest and killed three of Veerappan's men.

How strong was Veerappan's gang then?

150. The forest is so thick that you cannot even see a herd of elephants which may be just 10 feet away. So the idea of using a helicopter is not feasible.... After several encounters, we killed 56 of his gang members and 90 were arrested. More than killing or arresting them, our achievement was we could demine the whole area. Landmines were his protection then. Our danger did not come from the bullet as we were better armed, but from the landmines.

How could he make landmines while remaining inside the forest? Did he have the villagers's support?

No. The gelatin needed for the landmines is taken from the quarries. The forest had a lot of quarries. He collected money from the quarry owners by the threatening them. What he earned from selling tusks and sandalwood was not much. His main income was from the quarry owners and he spent this money lavishly. He would pay Rs 1,000 for a sack of rice worth only Rs 200. And to carry the sack inside, he would pay the boy Rs 100. And anybody who supplies information about the police would get Rs 1,000.

From where did he got the weapons?

He had some weapons as a poacher. All the forest people have weapons, though not very powerful ones. He attacked them and collected their weapons. When he ambushed police parties he collected all their weapons. He attacked police stations and took away all the weapons. He attacked SP Gopal and six of his men. Gopal escaped, but the others were killed. He took away all the weapons, including some self-loading rifles. I feel he may not have much ammunition left now, unless he has collected again.

But our most difficult task was de-mining the forest. And finally we could render the forest safe. After all, he was running and we were following. When the number became very small, the task became very difficult.

Were you hopeful then that you would be able to catch him?

Yes, of course. Even now I am hopeful. He has to be caught. How can anyone run for ever? Unfortunately, in 1994, I had a near-fatal accident, and had to withdraw from the mission for six months.

After that, for sometime, I couldn't go to the forests. But Sanjay Arora continued his work. At that time, we reduced his gang from 150 to eight.

On December 3, 1994, he captured a DSP, his brother-in-law, a head constable and one more person. They had an estate inside the forest. Though we had advised them not to go there, they went. And he captured all of them and put forward some fantastic demands.

Like this time, he said no police people should enter the forest. He was ready to meet friendly journalists.... After meeting them, he moved away 20 km with the hostages.

As the talks went on between the collector and this journalist (Gopal) in the form of messages in cassettes, I told the then chief minister, ''We have to take the risk -- he could kill the hostages and escape.'' But the CM asked me to go.

Instead of crossing the Bhavani river, my team, including 150 National Security Guard men, climbed up from the other side at night -- nearly 500 feet. From the hilltop, I showed the NSG men the forest. They saw only one hundredth of the forest. But the next day they packed up and went back. They said, ''We are not trained for that.''

On the 26th day, we bumped into the gang. First they opened fire and we retaliated. And one of our constables was seriously injured.... As we continued to fire, they began running. Veerappan is always the first to run. All ran inside and the three hostages came away. They did not escape.

That was what I wanted to ask. Nakkeran has said...

There is nothing to ask. When they ran, the hostages came away. What happened was, in the encounter, everyone ran, including the captors and the captives. When they found that the police was very powerful, three more members surrendered.

Gopal claimed the hostages said they had escaped and that the police did not help at all.

See, he says that because he is living on that! You ask him, why didn't they escape all those 25 days?

What he said was: The three policemen contradicted the officials.

(Angry) Then how did we get injured? One fellow was nearly killed. Do you think I shot the constable? In the encounter, we also suffered injuries. But we seized eight weapons and radio sets.

Then, why did the hostages tell the journalists the opposite?

They never said that. What they said was, ''When the firing was going on, we ran.'' The press just twisted the statement and said, ''They (the hostages) escaped.'' So, only when we went inside, they could escape! I am fed up of explaining this. Anyway, I am not interested in what you think, the press people think. We have done a good job and rescued them.

Do you know in August he sent word to me that he wanted to surrender? He wanted me to go inside the forest without weapons and arms raised. I said, ''I am not a criminal to come unarmed and arms raised.'' Let him also come armed.

He said he was coming with eight people. So, we also said eight of us would come. I said, ''If you are surrendering you come and surrender.'' Then he went away. Later, when Arjunan was caught, we asked him about the surrender move. He told us, ''There was no such move. He wanted to catch either you or Sanjay Arora. That was the plan.''

He will not surrender because he knows very well that amnesty is not possible at all. Even if both the governments agree, I don't think the court will agree. He knows all this. If only I was asked, or any of us who were involved, like Sanjay Arora or Tamil Selvam -- who lost three of his fingers in the ambush -- we would have told the stupid government that he will never surrender.

In November 1995, he again captured three forest people. Again the talks went on between the Erode collector and Veerappan. We waited till the 20th day. On the 20th day, we entered the forest. As soon as the police entered, he left the hostages in the forest and went away. There was no encounter then.

Do you think it's worth spending millions of rupees on one criminal?

See, we had reduced the strength to just five. Then the government changed and under the new government the STF became inactive. No officer was posted. Tamil Selvam got injured and came away. I was taken away for training.

Due to sheer inaction and neglect, many of the volunteers went away. I was watching all this for some time.

When an article appeared about his gaining strength, I wrote to the home secretary, the government saying, ''This is a very dangerous trend. With great difficulty we reduced the number to five, with great difficulty we demined the entire forest. Now, if the STF is not activated and sent inside the forest, he will gather weapons again and ruin the area and we will have more causalities. They never bothered to reply. They were not serious at all. Now his strength has increased.

There was a report that he has now acquired weapons like the AK-47. Could it be true?

I don't know. It is impossible to get AK-47s.... Now the stupid Karnataka government says, ''Only if he comes to our area, we will take action.'' He is wanted in so many cases, he has killed so many officers.

Why do you think the police force and the politicians are going slow in their operations? Is it part of an agreement?

Unless they are asked, the police force cannot do anything.

Why do you think both the governments are trying to shirk their responsibility?

They got scared when these nine people were captured. There was a compulsion to save their lives. It was okay. Their lives were saved. Earlier also, we have saved the lives. We did it in a more honourable way, without giving in to any of his conditions.

Do you think it was right on their part to send Nakkeran editor Gopal as an emissary?

I can only say one thing. As soon as the kidnapping took place, both the governments said, ''We will let him off after a minimum period. All the other gang members will be released immediately on bail.''

This frightened many people as the released criminals would go and kill all those who helped us -- those who would give evidence against him.

So, everyone started asking me, ''Why are you keeping quiet? You were the joint commander of the STF. So you have a responsibility to the STF and the villagers.'' Then I said, ''I cannot say anything now.'' If I said something and he killed the hostages, they would put the blame on me. So I kept quiet.

The day they came out alive, I issued a statement that I have a responsibility to the STF and even now I am prepared to undertake the operations. I am not against the surrender. In fact, I am the first person who started the surrender process. But he must face the trial in all the cases. Unlike Phoolan Devi's case, the evidence against him is overwhelming. The police itself will give evidence. Villagers will be scared but we are there in 20 cases: Ramapuram police station attack, so many ambushes, so many encounters.

So, how can he escape? He knows the governments misguided the public. Perhaps let him also believe that amnesty was possible, and that he need not go to jail at all.

It was reported that you had said you would shoot Veerappan when he surrendered. Why did you say so?

In the last three-four years, every time Gopal went, Veerappan had repeatedly said that he would kill me. So, I said, ''Now that he is coming to surrender, that too with his weapons like Phoolan Devi and Malkhan Singh, I will be there.'' So let him shoot me. Then I will shoot back. I have a right to defend myself.

The media asked me why I would go there. I asked, ''Why shouldn't I go? It is a public function. I am not a coward to run away. See, let him surrender first which I don't think he will. Second, he must come with arms. Third, he must shoot at me. If all this happen, I will shoot back. And if he kills me, one more person can be added to the list of 130 people. If I kill him, I am defending myself. This was what I said. At first it was reported correctly. Later on, they left out some portions....

One MLA said recently that your gun licence should be cancelled as you were threatening to kill Veerappan.

I am not such a stupid fellow. After all, I have been in the department for 34 years. I will not do such stupid things.

Gopal also said they received several complaints about the STF men misbehaving with women in those villages.

The DMK has been in power for the last one-and-a-half years. Why didn't they enquire into it earlier? Tell me. Now, because of their failure to get him to surrender, they are saying all this. I am confident that there was no complaint.

When you led the STF, did you get any complaints?

The possibility is there, but it cannot happen. I am sure nobody will say anything against us. If there is anything, we are prepared to face it.

Are the allegations coming in because you were the DGP under the Jayalalitha regime? It was reported that you were....

Close to her. Whatever I had asked for, she gave. But I never asked anything for myself.... Now they are against me because every time I give a statement, she supports me the next day. Naturally they think we are close. But I am not in touch with her at all. I have not talked to her in the last one-and-a-half years.

At a recent function arranged to felicitate Gopal, some minister abused you and praised Veerappan. And she condemned the statement...

Yes, Jayalalitha took it up. Naturally, as a politician, they will do that. I didn't even know something was spoken against me.

Don't you think this is a political game and you are being used now?

Nothing of the sort. Till now I had kept quiet. I talked because of this surrender issue. Now I have nothing more to say. If I say something, there will be some more controversies. That is why I don't want to talk to the media at all.

Why do you think they are not interested in your service? Is it because you were the DGP under Jayalalitha or they do not want to catch Veerappan?

They never wanted action against him. It is very obvious. Okay, if they have no faith in me, leave me out. But why didn't they send some other officer? There are so many good officers.

If you were asked to take up the mission, will you accept after all this?

I am ready. I am still fit and I have guts. He can be caught. It is difficult, but it is not impossible.

It is not impossible...

It is possible and it should be done.

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