Operation Rescue Rajakumar

THE day we ran the story The Women Veerappan Widowed, our mailbox received remarkable attention.

Many readers were shocked that Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were seriously considering the release of extremists to free Dr Rajakumar.

Don't give in to a bandit, they urged the authorities, go in and get him.

Go In And Get Him. On the face of it, direct action seems the straightest way out. Granted there is an element of risk involved, but is it as tough as it has been made out to be?

Roving Editor Ramesh Menon and Special Correspondent Josy Joseph spoke to experts in the field -- and not one felt that it was an impossible or even a "very difficult task".

"The responses were all positive," says Joseph. "They felt commando action against the bandit at this juncture was a calculated risk and stood a good chance of success."

FACT is, we have been hearing a lot about the need to rule out such an action as it would endanger the hostages. Especially from Dr Rajakumar's family.

But there, the experienced counterinsurgents and lawmen we contacted differ. Hear this senior chief of operations in one of India's elite commando forces:

"It is definitely not a difficult operation. We keep on performing much more difficult tasks in areas such as Kashmir, and getting Veerappan looks like a rudimentary operation. Even the local police can do it."

The events in the last two months have stolen from Veerappan one of his biggest advantages: for once, the authorities know where he is.

"If earlier the police had the whole 6,000 square kilometres of Satyamangalam forests to hunt Veerappan, they now know where he is holed up," reports Contributing Special Correspondent M D Riti from Bangalore.

"There are three villages across the Karnataka border, in Tamil Nadu -- Perinkadur, Bhavani and Bannari. A senior police official reveals that these villages are all within 15-20 kilometres of Gajanur. Veerappan is in that vicinity."

"But," she continues, "senior police personnel here are not keen on a commando raid. They feel the drama is nearing an end anyway. And Dr Rajakumar's life is in no danger from Veerappan. The chances of his being harmed by the bandit, they say, are negligible."

The police officials' reasoning goes thus: Dr Rajakumar is Veerappan's golden goose -- a fact that the bandit recognises. If any harm befalls the actor, the people, in whose esteem he has risen, would turn against him. Hence he is bound to release the actor sooner or later. So why risk a raid?

THERE are, however, voices of dissent. Listen to this official of the Special Task Force in Karnataka, who spoke to Menon:

"Our force is completely demoralised as governments crawl before a criminal like Veerappan. There is only one solution -- go into the forest and shoot him dead. If that is not done, the country will continue to pay a heavy price."

And a heavy price it is that Veerappan wants. A price that people like K P S Gill, who ended terrorism in Punjab, and Walter Davaram, the former director general of Tamil Nadu police and a Veerappan hunter, are not willing to pay.

"An operation in the forest maybe difficult," admits Gill. "But it is not impossible. A hundred options can be explored to nab the bandit. All it requires is good intelligence from the locals on his movements, a dozen or so commandos, and a guide who knows the terrain."

Davaram says there are officials capable of carrying out the task in the STF itself. If those jailed are so easily let off, then we are going to see more of such blackmail, he adds.

IN normal circumstances, capturing Veerappan would have been just a matter of routine -- this, from a senior army officer who has commanded various counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir:

"A brigade of 3,000 soldiers would require just two or three days to nab him. A traditional combing operation after encircling the forest cover should be successful."

For reasons known only to the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments, despite the unsuccessful and costly manhunt spanning 13 years, the army has not been approached for help to date.

Nor, for that matter, has the National Security Guards, given the present crisis. NSG chief Nikhil Kumar, who is confident of chalking out a workable plan "if information of the terrain and other factors are provided", says his force has not been approached for any operation against Veerappan.

Asks Lieutenant General V K Sood, a former army vice-chief who has served over 38 years in various troubled areas: "Why cannot the police get him? If the army has to do it, our paracommandos will not take more than 24 hours to eliminate him."

"He is just a brigand and we should deal with him as such," he continues. "We have made much of him for no rhyme or reason and have made him larger than life."

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What inspires the people who advocate direct action is the fact that after the release of Dr Govindraj and the escape of another hostage, there is a wealth of information about the bandit.

For instance, the authorities know his approximate whereabouts, his weaponry, and the number of people with him. Also, there are many instances across the world wherein far more daring operations have been pulled off.

After his release, Dr Govindraj blew the myth that Veerappan is armed with "sophisticated weapons." The brigand's capability in this regard, it would appear, extends only to a few AK-47 assault rifles supplied by the Tamil extremists with whom he has recently ganged up.

"Beyond that, he is believed to have a few SLRs, .303 rifles and muzzle loaders," reports Associate Editor George Iype, who toured Gajanur and the surrounding areas recently. "He is normally armed with either a .303 riffle or 7.62 rifle, and has around 12 men with him."

Thus, for commandos trained in jungle warfare, rescuing Dr Rajakumar and capturing an ill-equipped and ill-trained Veerappan should not pose much of a problem.

HISTORY too seems to support this. On two previous occasions the authorities had sanctioned direct action against the bandit under similar conditions and won.

On December 3,1994, when Veerappan kidnapped a deputy superintendent of police and two others, Davaram, then the chief of the joint task force set up to capture Veerappan, entered the forest with around 25 policemen. An encounter ensued, Veerappan fled, and the hostages were rescued.

In November 1995, Veerappan kidnapped three forest guards. Davaram again moved in. Veerappan had to flee once more.

All of which goes to prove General Sood's view: "Veerappan can be dealt with very, very quickly. He can be got hold of either dead or alive."

Provided, of course, there is the essential ingredient that has been lacking till now -- political will.

Additional reportage: Swapna Khanna
Page design: Dominic Xavier

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