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|September 27, 2002|
The Rediff Special/M D Riti
Veerappan frequents those parts of the forest where even the animals do not go," says Kannada superstar Rajakumar. "It would be very hard for someone who does not know where he moves around to track him down."
Rajakumar should know. Veerappan had kidnapped him two years ago and held him hostage for almost five months while constantly moving around in the vast Sathyamangalam forest. The dense jungle has been Veerappan's kingdom for almost 15 years now and has defied thousands of policemen and paramilitary personnel in that span of time.
The forest stretches along the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border and lies between the major towns of Mysore (Karnataka) to the north, Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) to the south, Salem (Tamil Nadu) to the east, and Kozhikode (Kerala) to the west.
Comprising dense jungles, ravines, river systems, and hills and valleys, the forest covers a huge 6,000 square kilometres along west Tamil Nadu and south Karnataka, abutting slightly into eastern Kerala. On its northeast lies Hogenekal in Tamil Nadu, on its west are the hills of Male and Mahadeshwara, and Bandipur and Biligiri-Ranga in southern Karnataka, and to its southwest lie the Nilgiri range, in which nestles the famed hill resort of Ooty (Udhagamandalam).
Most of the forest area is reserved, meaning that outsiders are not permitted.
Veerappan knows these jungles like the back of his hand, having grown up in them. His native village Gopinatham is on the Karnataka side of the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, which explains how the Tamil-speaking Veerappan is also fluent in Kannada.
Gopinatham is a small settlement right in the middle of the forests. To its west is a huge tract of what forest department surveys describe as a "closed forest". A closed forest is an extremely dense forest, where often the sunrays don't touch the ground! Right in the midst of this huge expanse of closed forest are the Male-Mahadeshwara Hills, where the Special Task Force --- created to capture Veerappan --- set up their headquarters. East of Gopinatham is what the forest department calls an "open forest", which is less dense. Not far from Gopinatham is the Stanley Reservoir in Tamil Nadu.
For the Special Task Force hunt for Veerappan, the jungle is a bigger hurdle than the brigand's cunning. There are several factors that make this terrain very difficult for the uninitiated to navigate through and for those in the know to hide in. The first is, of course, the thick tree cover. Forest surveys describe it as "dense mixed jungle" alternating with "fairly dense mixed jungle with bamboo".
Then there are open grottos, described as "shepherds' camping grounds", in the jungle with names like Yemmegoolipatti (in Kannada, yemme means buffalo and gooli means ox) and Gaudikerepatti (kere means lake).
"Five rivers crisscross Veerappan's domain," says former STF commander Shankar Mahadev Bidri, who spent nearly three years chasing the brigand in the jungles. "They are the Cauvery, the Palar, the Moyar, the Chinar, and the Bhavani." Moreover, the area has scores of tiny freshwater streams and rivulets running all through it.
The dense tree cover is what makes it difficult to spot Veerappan and his men by helicopters. "All you can hope to see is maybe smoke rising from some cooking he might have done, but that has never happened so far," says Bangalore Police Commissioner H T Sangliana (right), who surveyed the region extensively by helicopter when he headed the STF last year.
At present too, the Special Task Force has three helicopters to hunt down Veerappan. While one copter is being used for aerial surveillance, the remaining two are on standby in Coimbatore for possible operations. But K Arakesh, the officer who was a superintendent of police in the STF, has advised against the use of helicopters in seeking out Veerappan. "Helicopters are used for reconnaissance to trace the movements of the gang," says Arakesh in his report to the Karnataka government. "For that, the helicopters would have to fly at low altitude, which is not possible in hilly terrain. If the chopper does fly at a low altitude, it could fall within the range of Veerappan's self-loading rifles. Moreover, Veerappan can dodge reconnaissance by simply hiding in a bush on hearing the sound of a helicopter."
The hilly terrain also helps Veerappan dodge the cops. Cone-shaped hillocks rise from as low as 311 feet near Gopinatham to above 1,250 feet further along. There are a few unpaved tracks that would allow a jeep to move through in the dry season. But most of the pathways are just narrow jungle tracks where men can walk in single file with extremely dense vegetation all around.
Further south there are spots, like the one near Bodamalai, where surveys record grass over two feet high. But local foresters doubt if the fugitives would hide in the grass since the territory is marshland. Further south the marshland gives way to gravel. And wherever the jungle gives way to open scrub, settlements can be found. And in certain areas, the rock is sheer.
Veerappan roams freely through all these areas, comfortable in jungle, grassland, and rocky terrain. "We once chased him all the way to the Silent Valley (which is in northeast Kerala)," recalls Bidri. But despite the chase, Bidri never sighted Veerappan. "If I had spotted him or chased him directly, there would definitely have been an exchange of fire," he says. "But I only trailed him. I never actually saw him."
The Sathyamangalam forest also boasts some of the best wildlife to be found in south India, such as tigers, leopards, snakes, monkeys, elephants, boars, deer, and even three-foot-long monitor lizards. Recently, a policeman shot himself accidentally after he fired his gun in sheer fright when he came across an elephant!
Rajakumar (left) claims that Veerappan is perfectly at home in the wild. He hunts wild animals and uses their bodies and skins for all kinds of native medicine.
The final factor is the support of the forest-dwellers. The police are clear that Veerappan can only be captured if the tribal communities in the jungles, who willingly or unwillingly support him, help them. "If only we had developed a good enough intelligence network among the tribals and forest-dwellers, someone would have just told us when Veerappan was bathing under a waterfall or lounging on a rock," says Sangliana. "We could have just crept up there quickly and caught him."
Despite Sangliani's words, it is easier said than done, given that the dense jungle is a territory hostile to all except the native. No wonder Veerappan still roams free after all these years: the jungle protects him.
Design: Uday Kuckian
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