The Rediff Special

'Anyone who tries to destroy me will be destroyed!'

Veerappan wanted out.

It was October 1997. The bandit, poacher and sandalwood smuggler had a reward of Rs 4 million on his head. He wanted to surrender.

He believed the only way he could get amnesty was by holding government employees at ransom. That, he thought, would bring the authorities to their knees.

One evening, he and his men entered the Bandipur forests. They stopped outside a house in Melkamanahalli village, adjacent to the Bandipur reserve.

Veerappan knew that two men lived there. They were all the time walking in the forests. Maybe they were senior government officials. The bandit entered the house and Senani, one of the inmates, felt the cold metal of a gun barrel on his stomach...

Senani, who was kidnapped by Veerappan, is one of the few who can provide an insight into the complicated psychological profile of India's most-wanted bandit.

Senani hates talking about the incident. But in Mysore, he slowly opened up to Roving Editor Ramesh Menon, who also met others abducted by Veerappan to thread together this account.

IT was one of those wonderful, quiet evenings. The stillness of the forest was soothing. Senani had just finished his bath. He felt good.

It was getting dark and the door was wide open. From the corner of his eye, he saw something moving outside. Must have been his imagination, he decided. After dusk, no one ever visited them.

Senani asked loudly if there was anyone outside. Before he knew it, he felt the cold barrel of a gun. He sucked in his breath and said: "Oh, Veerappan?"

There was a glint in the bandit's eye. "How do you know?" he asked.

"The world knows you," Senani replied.

The bandit looked happy. There was an unmistakable smile on his face. Veerappan sincerely believed he was a superhuman. Also that he was highly respected, as everyone bowed and cringed before him.

Wildlife photographers Senani and Krupakar stayed together. Krupakar, who came out of the bathroom at that moment, saw armed men. He kept his cool and offered to make Veerappan some tea.

The bandit was taken aback. He snapped at Krupakar, asking him if he realised that he was about to be kidnapped.

Krupakar did not bat an eyelid. "That is fine, but why should that stop us from having tea?"

Nothing doing, responded the bandit. Krupakar persisted. He behaved as if the bandits were his guests.

"Come on, let us at least have some tea."

Veerappan thought for a few seconds and said okay.

Three gunmen followed Krupakar into the kitchen. They feared he would run away or raise the alarm.

Krupakar lit the gas stove with a lighter. The gunmen reacted as if they had seen a miracle.

They were so fascinated with the lighter that they called out to Veerappan. Krupakar was asked to light the stove again while Veerappan watched fascinated: a spark and a silent flame!

After tea, Veerappan asked them their salary. They said they received no salary. He thought they were lying. He was trying to find out if they were important enough to be kidnapped. They tried to explain that all they did were take wildlife pictures.

Veerappan did not believe that. Why would anyone want to take pictures of wild animals?

Senani and Krupakar tried to explain their passion for wildlife. Veerappan could not understand that. He thought they were trying to mislead him, that they were actually government officers. After all, they were always in the forests. They lived there. They seemed to know everyone.

AS darkness fell, they put on the lights. Veerappan wanted to know how they had electricity. The photographers told him about solar energy. Veerappan was completely fascinated.

The gunmen, meanwhile, were virtually ransacking the house. They were looking for something that would indicate that the two were government officers. But they only found scores of books on wildlife.

Veerappan and his gang found the books interesting. They kept leafing though the pages. Seeing the picture of an African elephant, Veerappan wanted to know how much its tusks would weigh.

Senani answered: you should know that better than us.

Suddenly, beetles started coming through the window. The gunmen crushed them under their boots. The photographers did not like that. They asked them not to kill the insects. After all, when one takes wildlife pictures for so many years, one's attitude towards life changes.

One of the gang became angry on being told what to do. He rushed to Veerappan and complained against Senani.. Why should not insects be killed, they asked.

Senani told Veerappan that the solution was to close the windows. Veerappan said a resounding no to that. He hated closed spaces. Maybe it was because he lived in the open all the time.

It was past 2130 hours IST. Veerappan asked them to lead him to the house of the district forest officer or any of 'their other senior officers'. He said they should announce their names before, so that they would open the door.

The photographers declined. They said they never walked the forests in the night and would definitely get lost. Veerappan ordered them again. They repeated their argument.

Veerappan took them out into the forests. That night they stayed in the open. As dawn broke, Veerappan and his men hid near a culvert near the Bandipur forest lodges. He knew that at around 0800 hours everyday, a forest department bus would come that way carrying tourists on a jungle safari.

THE bus came trundling along the dirt track. The tourists were looking out. Suddenly, driver Sebastian hit the brakes. He could not believe what he saw.

Standing in front was Veerappan with a gun. Within seconds, other gunmen materialised all around. Sebastian was asked to get out.

Veerappan asked Senani to interview every tourist. He wanted to separate the big fish, take them hostage and let the others go. He wanted some top government functionary to bargain for his amnesty.

Senani started talking to the tourists one by one. Senani did not look serious. So Veerappan sidled up to him and whispered that he must look pained and serious. To make it look like he meant business, he told Senani politely that he should let a gunman hold a chain attached to his handcuff. Just for effect.

Senani soon told Veerappan that none of the tourists were high profile and they should just be allowed to go. Veerappan did not like that one bit. He told Senani that he had been very unlucky this trip; he had got not even a single person worth kidnapping.

Suddenly they heard another vehicle coming up. Everyone hid behind the foliage. It was another forest department vehicle. A group of drivers and forest department employees had come to investigate why the safari had not returned.

Veerapan and his gang surprised them. Remembered Prakash, one of the drivers: "It was really frightening. I froze. For the first time, I had a gun pointing at me."

Joseph Moven Veerappan asked Joseph Moven, another forest department driver, to go back to the district forest officer and tell him that a tiger had died and bring him to the spot. Joseph said that he was too nervous to journey back alone.

Veerappan wanted to know whom he would like to take back with him. He asked for Abdul Mujib. Veerappan called out Mujib's name. Thinking he was being singled out for release, Mujib ran to him.

Veerappan was emphatic: "Both of you go back and get the DFO here. You have exactly 10 minutes to do so. If you do not bring the DFO here, everyone will be shot dead."

As Veerappan spoke, Sethukuli Govindan, his second-in-command, had a gun pointed at Mujib's back.

Both of them drove to Rajgopal, the DFO. They told him what had happened and that Veerappan wanted them to lie to him about the tiger's death. Rajgopal immediately drove to nearby Gundalpet to phone senior officials.

In the forest, Veerappan waited for 45 minutes. He then chose some hostages and left. Among them were Krupakar, Senani, a horticulture scientist, N Mythi, and a few forest employees. One of them, Krishna, was a driver.

Actually, Veerappan had just missed a prize catch. Sitting at the Bandipur reserve were some senior government officers, waiting for an excursion into the forests. But the bus had been detained.

Among them were Harshavardhan Raju, the deputy inspector general, Upendra, the circle inspector, Rajgopal, Thimaygowda, the assistant director of Bandipur, and Rajanna, the range forest officer.

A long time after Veerappan left with the hostages, a battalion of the Karnataka State Reserve Police reached the spot.

Abdul Mujib Mujib had escaped the kidnap drama. But he felt miserable. He kept seeing all kinds of horrible scenarios dancing before his eyes.

He told rediff.com: "I wondered whether I would ever see my colleagues again. I spent sleepless nights thinking of them."

For a few hours, Veerappan and the hostages trekked. Some eight to 10 kilometres away, they set up camp.

Krupakar and Senani were cool. They were used to the forests. This seemed like another day. The only difference was that there were gunmen guarding them.

Veerappan spent many hours talking to them. He was fascinated with their knowledge of wildlife. Once a snake came into the clearing. The gunmen killed it.

Senani and Krupakar did not like that at all. Senani told them that most snakes were non-poisonous. Their captors wanted to know how to differentiate between them. Senani drew pictures of various snakes. They were spellbound.

Krupakar and Senani tried to drive home that violence would not help Veerappan. That terrorism was losing out all over the world.

Veerappan listened but swerved into his brand of logic: "When foresters and policemen want to kill me, why should I not kill them? Anyone who tries to destroy me will be destroyed by me."

His logic went thus: He had only killed around 150 people. The police, on the other hand, had killed nearly 200 people while hunting him. So it was quits now, and the government must give him amnesty.

Veerappan loved to talk about his exploits. He liked to detail his murders, how he killed policemen and forest officials. It was almost as if he was obsessed with those killings. In all the conversations, he glorified himself.

He saw himself always in the right. He believed he was a great personality whom the world knew and admired, and that he was one of the most popular figures in India. He told the hostages that he could even win an election hands down in Salem and Dharampuri.

SENANI and Krupakar, for their part, tried to draw him out gently and get him talking about wildlife. They tried to make the most of Veerappan's experiences in the forests. His observations were sharp, his narration clear and interesting.

"He had the unusual knack of description that great writers have," said Senani, who still remembers the way Veerappan described how a leopard hunted a monkey.

Pieced from Senani's memory, this is how Veerappan went about it: "I was sitting on a stump, just watching the forest before me. There were langurs playing around. Suddenly, I saw a slight movement. It was a leopard. Here it was just now and then it was gone. The leopard was sticking to the ground. The grass made the animal invisible. All I could see was the tail.

"The langurs sensed the leopard. An alarm call went out. A little one ran and clutched its mother. The mother also gave out an alarm call. Silence. One monkey was scratching his armpit. Was the crisis over?

Suddenly, the leopard, a ball of flesh, flew out of the grass. It closed its teeth on a langur and disappeared. Another series of alarm calls rang through the forests..."

The gang hunted for meat. If there were leftovers, they dried it. Usually, they ate rice and sambhar. But the dal soon got over. So they had to content with rice and water mixed with sambhar powder.

Veerappan asked Krupakar and Senani whether they ate monkey meat. The photographers said no. Senani told Veerappan that they would not allow a monkey to be killed for them.

"You people go on feeding a lamb," Veerappan said, "and after you fatten it, you go and kill it. But here you will not allow us to shoot a monkey!"

The other hostages, however, had no such qualms. Veerappan mimicked the call of the monkeys. When they came, his men shot them. And so it went, till the bandit released the hostages.

Three years down the line, Senani observed: "His expert insights into animal behaviour is what has ensured his survival in the forest."

This is the first of Ramesh Menon's series on India's most-wanted bandit. Watch this space for more!

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