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What makes a legend... [page 7]

Veerappan - be damned!

The beginnings...
The two south Indian states of Karnataka and Tamilnadu adjoin each other. At the border surrounding M.M. Hills up to the Satyamangalam Forest range in Tamilnadu and from Bandipur in Karnataka is dense forest. To be geographically precise, the road from Mysore in Karnataka to Coimbatore in Tamilnadu passes through some of the forest areas of Chamrajnagar and Satyamangalam Forest Range, widely accepted as Veerappan's central activity point, though his area of operation is much larger. More than 6000 square meters in fact. These are thick jungles although it wouldn't be right to say they are infested with all sorts of wild animals. But elephants, yes. Because they form the genesis to the 24-year old "Veerappan saga" and his notoriety as poacher, sandalwood smuggler, kidnapper, murderer and perhaps more, enough to throw the book at him.

The Induction period...
Ironically, the man who kidnapped Karnataka movie idol Dr. Rajkumar was born in the small village of Gopinatham in Karnataka, bordering Tamilnadu. His date of birth is not known though the year of birth is mentioned as 1945 and there is ambiguity as what his full name is. One theory is "Gopinatham Mulakkan Veerappan", but the fact is that he goes by the name Veerappan and that has been established. He belongs to the Padayachi Gounder community of Tamilnadu and in fact, he was understudy to one Selvan Gounder who initiated him into the art (or technique) of poaching. Veerappan is reported to have shot dead his first elephant when he was just a 10-year old kid. When restrictions were imposed on the export of ivory, Veerappan took to sandalwood smuggling, but not before the gang had gunned down more than 2000 elephants. The resultant ivory alone was worth over 100 crores of rupees. By now, Veerappan had become a master in his trade and established the right connections to sell his "produce". Forest officials first laid hands on him in 1965, but he managed to escape. In 1980, he took over operations from his mentor and formed his own gang and plundered the forest for sandalwood, thus earning him the nickname "sandalwood smuggler" from being just a poacher.

"Murder" he said...
With the government agencies coming down hard on his exploits, Forest officials were on the lookout for him all the time to restrain him from continuing his illegal activities. Between the years 1984-86, he shot dead four official of the Forest Department and for the first time, he now became wanted for murder as well. The message from Veerappan was clear - "back off or die". He was arrested for a second time during the SAARC conference in Bangalore but once again, he managed to escape. He didn't have to use any special skill; he just escaped. Much later, the officers under whose charge Veerappan was in custody were promoted for "meritorious services". As a reminder of his earlier warning, he kidnapped the forest department chief, beheaded informants; shot down an official who intercepted a truck transporting sandalwood, holds hostage three forest officials and 19 days later tosses their bodies into the jungle - he went on and on till it dawned on someone that this was getting to be uncomfortable.

Special Task Force formed...
In April of 1990 - 6 years after Veerappan first got his hands bloodied in1984 the Karnataka government decided to set-up a Special Task Force (STF) to nab Veerappan. Within months the STF rounded up more than a hundred tribals from various areas believed to be Veerappan supporters. For sometime things remained calm. One thought that perhaps, Veerappan might have shut shop with the deployment of such a major thrust to capture him. He surfaced again in November 1991 after a long period of hibernation and what is generally considered to be the most ghastly of his crimes so far, he beheaded the Deputy Conservator of Forests. In 1992 he shot dead 5 Karnataka policemen near Kollegal which prompted the government to call in the Border Security Force (BSF) to assist the STF. Within the next 2 months, in a shootout at MM hills, 8 Veerappan men are killed along with 6 police personnel. For the next 8 years the Veerappan vs. the Task Force duel continued with people getting killed from both sides. And yet, despite the might of the government and the Special Task Force comprising of police from Karnataka, Tamilnadu and for the temporary period of 14 months or so, the Border Security Force, Veerappan eluded capture.

But why can't we capture him...
Veerappan is "Monarch of all he surveys". The thick forests he holes out is like his childhood backyard - he knows each and every valley, ravine and trail of this dense area. He can smell the air and alert himself of any threat. He can hear and recognize sounds or any odd movement with his ear to the ground. His movements are stealthy be it day or the darkest of nights. At the first sign of lurking danger, he slithers through the thick bushes and vanishes without a trace. Such is his mastery over the terrain and his instinct for survival. Most important is the fact that he thinks ahead of his pursuers.

Now the question is, in this vast country of ours do we not have the competence to trap this animal in his own lair? Of course we do. It's just that someone, somebody, somewhere doesn't want it to happen? Simply because there have been many - and at fairly top levels, mind you - who were involved in this large scale racket connived by Veerappan. Or did he? The other question that has baffled all sane and intelligent minds is…how can one supposedly illiterate, smuggle something as precious as ivory and sandalwood by the tons from a forest and sell crores and crores of rupees worth of the stuff without partners involved? Hasn't someone being buying it? So who is this someone or a group of "someone's"? Ah, that's the Catch-22 situation. Long ago, Veerappan is reported to have said something on the lines of "catch me and I'll blurt out names of those involved". Suddenly, everyone froze. Even honest and dedicated officers who knew about Veerappan's whereabouts and who almost came close to capturing him were thwarted in their attempts.

And yet, one man - Gopal, editor of the Tamil magazine Nakeeran - has met Veerappan half a dozen times in the forest, spent days with him as though he was on vacation in a resort, photographed him and conducted interviews for his magazine. He's locates him like the postman drops letters in your mailbox. In a population of close to a billion, one-man…repeat…one man knows how to get to him.

So, now we all know why Veerappan is still at large.

And now, this new situation...
Kidnapping for ransom isn't Veerappan's new ideology. He's been doing it for sometime now. He needs money to survive. Buy arms and ammunition. Keep the kitchen fires burning. At least on two occasions he's asked for amnesty in return for hostages, plus of course money. The money is supposed to have been paid but amnesty wasn't granted. Veerappan has no house of his own where he can spend a quiet evening watching TV or some such thing. He's always on the move and his shelter is the jungle. He's been doing the grind for over 20 years, which means he's ageing and is looking for a place to settle down. He's sent feelers to this effect in the recent past. But none have paid heed to his call. He lay low for sometime but it seems he has gained strength and if his recent demands are some indication, he's tied-up with militant outfits and presenting a hard bargain for release of his new hostages. Surprisingly, there's no ransom. Or is there and no one has been told about it? Be that as it may, what Veerappan has done in the current episode is he's had two State governments eating out of his palm. And the governments are nibbling. Setting a precedent that could have disastrous effects in the future. All because the hostage is an icon to Kannadigas world over. Veerappan's demands are political in nature and coming from him shows the man is turning senile. Also shows how governments can cow down so easily. One wonders, where lies the real weakness?

So, where is the legend of Veerappan...
None whatsoever. Here is a multi-faceted personality (if one can call him that) whose life has been one of dedication to crime and all of it for gain, with no other real cause of any sorts. He wasn't forced into crime because of circumstances. He chose it to profit. True, the villagers brandish his name as a sort of "Robin Hood" and that he's helped them during times of distress. True, he's generally considered harmless but at the same time he has killed nearly 130 persons, many of them being for personal reasons. True, he did want to turn a new leaf, but he didn't. However, when we look at Veerappan's life in a broader perspective, there's no real "people's cause" or "for national honour" or "real revenge".

One cannot imagine a "Veerappan Festival" 100 years from now or perhaps a "Veerappan Museum" showcasing "Veerappan Memorabilia". One cannot imagine busloads of tourists landing at M.M. Hills or wherever, to take a trip down memory lane and hear the guide narrate "Veerappan heroics". And while returning, buy "Veerappan Souvenirs" from the curio shops with a miniature "Bust of Veerappan". Or have national level ministers inaugurating "anniversary celebration" in his honour. Most certainly, not a chapter on Veerappan in school history books.

What a shame if this should ever happen. Because if it did, we ought to slipper our senses. Veerappan is but a petty criminal pampered and sheltered by our own weaknesses. We built this creature, allowed it to prosper and now we run helter-skelter.

Yes, legends ARE indeed made of sterner stuff.

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