June 21, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Special Task Force Chief Walter I Dawaram

'Hunting for Veerappan is like looking for a needle in a haystack'

When Kannada film star Rajakumar was kidnapped by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, Tamil Nadu's former director general of police Walter I Dawaram openly asked for a chance to nab him. But the government led by M Karunanidhi did not pay any heed.

It was understandable. Dawaram was known as J Jayalalitha's favourite.

So it came as little surprise when Jayalalitha called him out of retirement on her return to power -- to head the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force on Veerappan's trail. The STFs of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, a total force of more than 2,000 men, have launched a hunt for the forest brigand in the Satyamangalam forests.

Known in police circles for his unorthodox methods, Dawaram confidently told Shobha Warrier in Madras that he would definitely capture Veerappan, but was discreet enough not to give any time frame. Excertps:

Even before J Jayalalitha came back to power, the general talk was that you would be reappointed if she won. Were you also expecting the assignment?

I was actually looking forward to it. I was confident that she would give me another chance. As you know, this was a task assigned to me in 1993. Subsequently, we came very close to nabbing Veerappan. Because of various reasons, including my promotion as director general of the state and the change of government, he could not be nabbed.

Now, I have got yet another chance to complete [the task]. Yes, I was expecting it and looking forward to it.

Is it because you felt the task assigned to you was left unfinished that you looked forward to the assignment?

I had been assigned several important jobs like fighting the Naxalites, the LTTE, kisan [farmer] agitators, other militants, etc. We could complete all those jobs successfully. But this remained unfinished. Now that I have got another chance, I will ensure that I am successful in this too.

Is nabbing Veerappan going to be your toughest assignment as he has remained elusive for so many years?

Yes, it is one of the toughest jobs because this is a long drawn-out affair. I have done many difficult jobs, but everybody feels this is going to be the toughest because of the long process. Yes, this job is not one that can be finished in a day.

If it was a mob operation, it could be over in 10 minutes. If it is nabbing a city-based gang, it may take a few days. But here, various factors play important roles, like the terrain, the vastness of the area, etc. Now that the gang has become very small, the job has become even more difficult.

But we have to be patient and have to persevere with our efforts. Then I am sure we will catch him.

How long do you think it will take?

See, it may get over in a month or within a week. Or, it may even go on for some time. My contract itself is for one year, or when he is nabbed, whichever is earlier. Here is one occasion where we are not going to prolong the job. We want to finish the job as fast as possible. To tell you an exact time frame is difficult.

The STF is a joint affair of the Tamil Nadu and the Karnataka police, but Veerappan was spotted last time in Kerala. Some former police officers were talking about including the Kerala police also in the operation. What do you think?

According to the Indian Police Act, a criminal if he is placed anywhere within India, any police force can go and nab him. There is no need for us to get Kerala involved in this operation. If he has gone to the Kerala side, we can certainly go there and nab him. How do criminals from Madras get caught in Delhi?

We do not want to include Kerala in the scheme because he [Veerappan] is always in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

A part of the Satyamangalam forest also spreads into Kerala...

A part of the forest may extend to Kerala, but he won't go to Kerala. If he goes there by chance, then we will involve the Kerala police also.

You say that because Veerappan's gang has become smaller, the job becomes tougher. Why?

There are advantages and disadvantages. When the gang is big, you can sight somebody and an encounter is possible. Now that his gang is very small, once you locate the gang, it will be the end. But to locate a gang that is very small in a vast forest is difficult.

Police forces and the military have encounters with hardcore militants quite regularly these days, but this one man has been ruling the forest for such a long time. Is it his alleged political connections that are hindering his capture?

I don't think so. Even in the Chambal valley, most of the dacoits could not be nabbed; they just surrendered. The Chambal valley is not a forest but the terrain is as difficult. Man Singh was the only person who was shot dead. All the others surrendered.

Here, the terrain is very helpful to the criminal and there has been no continuity in the efforts of the police. For six months, there is activity, then it slows down.

For the last five years, there has been no effort and everyone knows that. Prior to that, we have had as many as 28 encounters in a span of two years. Fifty-eight of the gang members were killed, and 10 of our men lost their lives. But in the last five years, there was not a single encounter, and now we have to start everything all over again.

P Nedumaran [chief negotiator in the Rajakumar hostage crisis] has been talking about giving amnesty to Veerappan. Is there any chance of giving him general amnesty if he surrenders?

If he surrenders, his life will be guaranteed and he will be produced before a court. Then he will have to stand trial. There is no question of amnesty. Nobody has the powers to give him amnesty. Nedumaran or even the prime minister have no powers. He has to face trial, and if he is acquitted, well and good. If he is convicted also he can appeal.

It is said that people living in the surrounding areas are very helpful to Veerappan and that is the main reason why the police finds it difficult to nab him.

If at all people are helpful, that is because he has been terrorizing them. If he suspects anybody of giving information to the police, he lines up all adult members and kills them. There are so many such cases. So, out of fear, they help him. He also pays a lot of money to them. But I would say that non-continuity of police action has also affected the task adversely.

All this will be corrected now.

Don't you have to take the people into confidence to nab him?

Of course. Local help is absolutely necessary. So we are increasing the amount of the reward, amount for information, etc. We will win their confidence.

R R Gopal [editor of Nakkeeran and the government's emissary during the Rajakumar hostage crisis] and Nedumaran allege that atrocities were committed by the STF during your time. How true are these allegations?

There is no truth in these allegations. Why did they wait for seven years to raise the allegations? My operation was in 1993 and 1994. All these stories about police atrocities arose only when Nedumaran came into the picture, after seven years. This is their pattern.

Even when I crushed the Naxalites 20 years ago, the front organizations spread such stories. There are people to raise such stories and it is part of any operation, and we are ready to face them.

The military is waging battles against militants in the Northeast; the forests of the area are similar to what Tamil Nadu has. What about taking the military's help to nab Veerappan?

What will the military do? This can be solved only by the local police. I have seen Nagaland, Manipur, etc and yes, there are a lot of similarities in the terrain. As a matter of fact, all rainforests are the same. And the conditions also are quite similar; it will be dense at certain places and at some places it will not be so. There are a number of tribal villages in Nagaland and here too you have difficulty in identifying who is helping and who is not.

Here the task assumes significance because it has been going on for such a long time. And hunting for Veerappan in the forest is like looking for a needle in haystack. We have to perform the task patiently; only the local police can do it and not the army.

Many are talking about taking the help of a satellite to locate him...

There are 50,000 people in the forest. How are you going to identify him? If he is the only human being there, you can locate him. Will the satellite be able to say the person located is Veerappan and not the tribal Karuppusamy? We have to literally go into the forest, search mile by mile, tree by tree and catch him.

Now that some terrorist organizations have joined Veerappan and set their base in the forest, do you think your job has become even more difficult?

Operationally, it is not difficult. They may be anti-national groups, but when it comes to a fight in the forest, they are no match. They will be nowhere near the original Veerappan gang.

It was reported that Veerappan now has sophisticated weapons.

I don't think he has any such weapons. He only has whatever he has taken from the Karnataka police during various encounters. And he has bombs; anybody can get bombs.

We need not even think about the weapons he has. The only problem is locating him, and the moment he is located, we will get the better of him.

You are going to the forest on a very tough mission and you need a lot of energy and stamina. How do you keep yourself fit at 62?

I have always been interested in sports. That is how I keep myself fit. It was not because I was anticipating the assignment but because I like to keep myself fit that I do workouts even now. I knew I should be fit if some important assignments came to me. Why should I stop working out after retirement?

I am reasonably fit. If you are a little careful by not eating and drinking excessively, you can keep yourself fit. Of course, I can't be as fit as a person who is 40 years younger to me! But I can still lead them.

I belong to the hills [Dawaram hails from Munnar in Kerala], so I am comfortable with hills; I find the hills and mountains very friendly. Whenever I get the time, I climb mountains.

The abduction of Dr Rajakumar

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