The Rediff Special

'I aimed at his head and hit it with the first shot'

Read the earlier part of this series.

On August 14, 1992, preparations to celebrate Independence Day were in full swing at various police outposts bordering the forests in Karnataka.

Two officers, however, were plotting something different. They would travel into the forests, pretending to be ivory merchants. They had a rendezvous with Veerappan's brother and trusted aide, Arjunan.

They hoped to trap him. And thus paralyse Veerappan.

Roving Editor Ramesh Menon, who travelled to Kollegal, one of the areas where Veerappan poached elephants, spoke to eyewitnesses to put together this account.

VEERAPPAN'S victims were initially elephants and rival poachers. When he started poaching, there were three other gangs operating in the contiguous forests of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Veerappan did not want a rival. He wanted to be the only one. Methodically, he destroyed his rivals, either eliminating them or forcing them to flee. Rumour has it that he invited rival gang members for a meal and shot them dead.

But after the Bangalore police arrested him in 1986, he saw the police as his new enemy. Anyone in uniform became a target.

Soon, he ambushed a Karnataka police party, killing three sub-inspectors and a constable in MM Hills. He also started raiding police stations with impunity, killing and decamping with arms.

It was then that the police woke up. It wasn't as if they had not known about Veerappan. But they saw him as a problem of the forest department, not law-and-order. But now, Veerappan became their enemy number one. And the Special Task Force was set up in April 1990.

The STF, which comprised policemen from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, was, in the beginning, quite charged up. It succeeded in eliminating some of Veerappan's men.

Veerappan retaliated by attacking police stations.

Superintendent Harikrishna and Sub-Inspector Shakeel Ahmed formed a good team. Both were determined to get Veerappan.

In fact, Shakeel had told his parents in Mysore that he would consider getting married only after his task was over. Shakeel's father, Abdul Karim, a retired police officer, liked his son's spirit and adventurous ways.

After great perseverance, Shakeel managed to develop Kamalnayaka, a villager, as a principal informant on Veerappan's movements.

Veerappan, however, was quick to see the danger. He would have normally finished off a police informant as soon as he came to know of him. But here he struck a new plan.

He raided Kamalnayaka's house and took his family hostage. He kept them in a forest hideout and threatened to kill them.

Veerappan's brother, Arjunan, was wanted by the police. The bandit chief ordered Kamalnayaka to tell Harikrishna and Shakeel that Arjunan had 40 kilos of tusks and was desperate for a buyer. The buyer must come in a white Ambassador car, dressed in white.

Kamalanayaka did as he was told. He had no choice. He wanted his family to live.

Harikrishna and Shakeel bit the bait.

Posing as buyers, they drove into the forests with Kamalnayaka. This, they thought, would be a major victory.

Harikrishna and Shakeel were to be followed by a lorry with about 15 armed policemen in plainclothes. But they were told to keep at least 2km behind.

With an AK-47 on his lap, Harikrishna drove the car. When he reached a curve, he was forced to stop. There were some boulders on the road.

Veerappan aimed at Harikrishna.

The first shot shattered the SP's head.

Another bullet killed Shakeel, who was sitting next to him.

Recounting the incident, Veerappan told a newsmagazine: 'The SP just turned his head to one side to see the stones. I aimed at his head and hit it with the first shot. It shattered. He collapsed in a heap.'

Police officer B D Mandappa, who was following in the lorry, sensed trouble when he heard gunshots. He asked the driver to hurry.

When he reached the spot, he knew his worst fears had come true. Both the officers were lying in a pool of blood.

The forest had the silence of a graveyard. There seemed to be no one around.

When Veerappan and his men saw the vehicle, they thought it was just another lorry and hid in the foliage. But seeing 15 men with guns getting out to investigate, they understood it was the police.

Veerappan started firing. He was at a height and had the advantage.

Taking cover of the lorry, the police returned the fire.

From 1300 hours to 1355 hours IST, bullets flew all over the place. The forest road looked like a battlefield.

In those 55 minutes, seven died -- six policemen and Kamalanayaka.

None of Veerappan's men were killed. If Veerappan asked the officers to come in a white car, in white clothes, it was with good reason. He had wanted to identify his targets easily.

He was a good planner and strategist. With the help of Sethukuli Govindan, one of his most trusted aides, he had planned the ambush after considering every minute detail.

Veerappan was angry with Harikrishna for letting his men burn down some houses in Nallur, as the inmates were suspected of supplying ration to the bandit chief. He feared that if such terror continued, villagers would not keep his supply lines alive.

Mandappa survived the ambush with nine bullet injuries. Eight years after the incident, he continues to fight to nab the bandit. Two of Veerappan's bullets are still in his body.

Now the deputy superintendent of the Kollegal sub-division, Mandappa will not rest. Veerappan does not operate in the Kollegal area, but the police officer is taking no chances.

"Veerappan is very unpredictable," he says.

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

'I kept his head as a souvenir'

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The abduction of Rajakumar