The Rediff Special

Puppet on a chain

Will Koose Muniswamy Gounder aka Veerappan, who has killed more than 100 people, be now brought to book?

Will he be tried in a court of law like any other criminal? Or will the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka grant him amnesty, like some Tamil separatists demand?

"It is not Veerappan who is calling the shots now but a determined group of Tamil extremists," says Roving Editor Ramesh Menon who reported extensively on the Rajakumar kidnap drama. "They are using him to draw out a dangerous agenda."

Meanwhile, the state governments are busy celebrating the film star's release...

Rajakumar is free.

But so is Veerappan.

Why hasn't an operation to nab him been launched?

There are enough people now who have been to his various hideouts and know his style of operation. Why then is the Special Task Force, of nearly 400 policemen, still just standing by?

In the last 10 years, over Rs 15 billion have been blown up trying to capture the bandit. Will he be ever caught?

"It is highly unlikely as the Tamil Nadu government worked all these days to help Veerappan plan his final escape. Rajakumar's release took so long so as to give Veerappan time to plan his strategy. I suspect that he has been given money, arms and ammunition," political commentator, satirist and Rajya Sabha member Cho S Ramaswamy told rediff.com

A senior Bangalore-based police officer said it required political will to launch an operation to capture the bandit. Politicians, as it has turned out, have their own agenda.

THERE are many who suspect a deal was worked out in favour of the bandit. Ramaswamy echoes a common feeling when he says:

"One does not know what happened. The Tamil Nadu chief minister has yet to truthfully tell us what transpired. He has not yet uttered a single truth."

The governments of both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu went down on their knees asking pro-LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] negotiators to help release Rajakumar. This, observers feel, will definitely give a fillip to Tamil separatist groups. The bandit, for his part, handpicked Pazha Nedumaran, a proud LTTE supporter, for the negotiations.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi gloats over Nedumaran's role in freeing the Kannada film icon. He should heed the danger signals as well.

Just a month ago, Nedumaran chaired a state-level conference of his party in Madurai where he said that Tamil Nadu must have the right to secede. And that in the next census, Tamils all over India must register themselves as Tamil nationals and not Indians. With Rajakumar's release, Nedumaran has become a household name in Tamil Nadu. The government has conferred on him a legitimacy that he never had.

Veerappan's gang that had been decimated to just five members has now swelled to around a dozen. This includes some wanted criminals from the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army and the Tamil National Retrieval Troops. Both are extremist groups with separatist designs and close links to the LTTE.

Says Ramaswamy: "What the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu effectively did was help the LTTE activists to hold a meeting in the forests to figure out their future course of action. Everyone who went to negotiate with Veerappan had LTTE sympathies. Rajakumar now says the lady doctor played a crucial role. Even she had LTTE sympathies.

"What is happening is very dangerous. And what is still more dangerous is that the Tamil Nadu government is letting it happen."

There is fear in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka that Veerappan will strike again. Observers feel that extremists have the upper hand now and will use the bandit again. The Tamils in Karnataka are so terrified of a Kannadiga backlash that they repeatedly stated that they did not need a plunderer and murderer like Veerappan to orchestrate their demands.

Says Vasanti, a Madras resident: "I wonder what will become of Tamil Nadu if the extremists are allowed a free run. This is such a lovely and peaceful state. Once extremism starts, it will never be the same again. We are probably seeing the beginning of it."

Shankar Mahadev Bidri was one of the STF commanders who played a major role in decimating Veerappan's gang. He told rediff.com: "No deviant approach can work. The only way out is a straight correct path. Veerappan must be made to face charges for the murders he committed, the elephants he shot and the forests he plundered."

Unfortunately, no one is listening.

THE Tamil Nationalist Front that Nedumaran heads may be a fringe party. But it is a mouthpiece of the LTTE.

His role in negotiating Rajakumar's release is likely to increase his separatist rhetoric and encourage other Tamil militant groups.

The general view in Tamil Nadu is that Veerappan will not be caught as he is now seen as a fighter for the Tamil cause.

Walter Dawaram, a former director general of police in Tamil Nadu who also commanded the STF, had offered to lead a team into the forest to nab the bandit. But Karunanidhi pretended not to hear him.

"Both these governments do not want to put a plan in place to nab Veerappan," says Ramaswamy. "The Tamil Nadu government wants the LTTE to thrive."

Former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha may have little credibility today, but her demand for a commando operation finds wide support.

"By tying the hands of the police and the STF, Veerappan has been able to move about freely," she had said. "As a result, today in Tamil Nadu the extremist outfits, the LTTE supporters and Veerappan have joined hands."

For over two years, after Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam rode into power, there was hardly any operation worth the name against Veerappan. For all practical purposes, the STF was around incurring an expenditure of over a million rupees every month.

As Veerappan was also lying low, no one bothered. But now he has re-emerged, in the avatar of a Tamil revolutionary. It is amply clear that the Tamil militants who have holed up with him are using him for their own purposes.

As for Veerappan, he gets to smother his criminal background under the Tamil nationalistic identity.

TILL the Rajakumar kidnap, the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army was more or less unknown in the rest of the country. Even in Tamil Nadu, it was dismissed as another extremist fringe group.

But with Veerappan demanding the release of the terrorists belonging to the TNLA and the Tamil Nadu Retrieval Troops, intelligence officials have started taking notes.

Kolathur Mani, one of the negotiators, is a known LTTE supporter. In 1983, he had allowed his land to be used by the LTTE for training.

TNLA leader Maran is now holed up with Veerappan. One of Veerappan's demands was to release Muthukumar, the TNRT leader who is in jail. Muthukumar has close links with the Tigers.

If Veerappan's cassettes are anything to go by, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments have enough reasons to be worried. He has clearly stated that he wants to fulfil certain objectives and was not looking for amnesty, as he is part of a "movement".

Orchestrated by Maran, Veerappan today talks a different language. His vocabulary is caustically political and pro-Tamil. It indicates the shape of things to come.

The bandit, it is clear, is now refashioning himself as a political radical. And if the state governments do not act, he will succeed in that.

Warns a senior police official: "You cannot kiss a poisonous serpent. Karunanidhi will ultimately pay the price for going slow on Veerappan."

Still At Large
Operation Nab Veerappan
A call for partition
The Rajakumar kidnap: complete coverage