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Sunday, Oct 20, 2019

Book excerpt: How a hitman sent to kill Veerappan ended up befriending him

IPS officer K Vijay Kumar, who led the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force operations to nab Sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, traces the rise and fall of the dreaded bandit in his new book Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand.

books Updated: Feb 25, 2017 09:05 IST
K Vijay Kumar
K Vijay Kumar
New Delhi
K Vijay Kumar’s new book talks of his experiences in dealing with Sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.
K Vijay Kumar’s new book talks of his experiences in dealing with Sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

But the bigger question was: Who would lead the infiltrators?

In keeping with the time-honoured dictum of setting a thief to catch a thief, Nataraj and Kannan identified a much-wanted don of the Chennai underworld, who agreed to take on the assignment in exchange for clemency for some of his other crimes. He was powerfully built, but his face was a curious mix of the cruel and comic—his right eye had a scar above it and he had a squint, which made him resemble an oldworld pirate.

The STF gave him the call sign ‘One-eyed Jack’.

Negotiations proceeded without much trouble. An STF team arrived in Chennai to escort One-eyed Jack back for final parleys with Nataraj. But when the STF team was barely 100 metres away from the rendezvous point, they were stunned to see a team of the Chennai crime branch swoop down and arrest him.

The STF’s dealings with Jack were conducted in such secrecy that the Chennai police had been unaware of the operation. I was then Chennai commissioner and rue the fact that I was not kept in the loop. Otherwise I would have ensured the mission’s success.

But I don’t blame the STF. Intelligence-sharing has always been the bane of agencies across the world, each keeping its undercover operations as well as other logistical details a closely guarded secret. This has, perhaps, allowed criminals and terrorists to literally get away with murder several times.

It was an extremely unfortunate coincidence that even as the Chennai police celebrated the arrest of a dreaded gangster, the STF regretted the loss of a potential major asset.

Nataraj and Kannan had to come up with another option on short notice. They settled on Hidayatullah, who was brought in hurriedly from Kanyakumari, along with some friends. While Hidayatullah had committed many crimes, his résumé was quite colourless, compared to Jack’s. It was this lack of ‘experience’ that would prove to be a huge disadvantage much later. Contrary to suggestions in films, ‘dead or alive’ hunts are not easy, especially when the ‘alive’ option shrinks. But at that stage of the operation, the STF had little choice.

IPS officer K Vijay Kumar was the chief of the Special Task Force that killed Veerappan in an encounter in 2004.
IPS officer K Vijay Kumar was the chief of the Special Task Force that killed Veerappan in an encounter in 2004. ( Twitter/AFP )

Hidayatullah and his men entered Veerappan’s camp and were greeted warmly. They expected to be put through a gruelling routine. But to their surprise, their stay resembled a picnic.

The gang stayed mostly in the Tamil Nadu side of the Cauvery near Hogenakkal Falls, where the forest cover was relatively thin. Their stay was largely uneventful, but for one dramatic incident, when Govindan spotted some movement in the vicinity. He whipped out a pair of binoculars and gestured frantically. It was an STF party of eleven men. The gang hurriedly took cover.

Hidayatullah and his men were in a fix. Several thoughts raced through their minds—What if the STF attacked? Should they reveal their identities and surrender? Would they be believed? Only Nataraj and Kannan knew of the plan. Was fighting the STF an option? Could they risk getting killed in the bargain?

Even as the men tried to make up their minds, they saw the STF men settle down under a tree, barely a hundred yards away. They sat there for about an hour, ate and then walked away.

Hidayatullah and his men heaved a sigh of relief. The SI leading the team was hugely embarrassed later when it was brought to his notice that he and his men had been a few yards away from Veerappan, blissfully unaware that they were being watched by the very man they were tasked to nab.

Veerappan took a liking to Hidayatullah, who was always punctilious about praying five times a day and did all his chores meticulously. One day, he told Hidayatullah he had been cheated out of some money by the chief of a fringe political group that was later banned for being pro-LTTE.

‘I gave him Rs 2 lakh for an ambulance. I believed he was an ideologue. But no ambulance came. He ran away with the money,’ said Veerappan through gritted teeth, his voice a mixture of anger, vendetta and helplessness.

‘That’s sad,’ commiserated Hidayatullah, but pounced on the keywords.

‘But why did you need an ambulance?’

‘Oh, nothing,’ said Veerappan hastily. As he got up and began to walk away, he seemed to stumble over a root. He hurriedly straightened up and looked around to check if anyone had noticed.

Hidayatullah saw it out of the corner of his eye, but pretended not to notice anything.

Over the next few days, Hidayatullah observed that Veerappan always walked behind everybody else whenever the party moved—which was always at night. Initially, he thought this was just a security measure. But he also noticed that Veerappan always used a prop—often a tree branch— while walking. Many a times, he would walk into a bush or branch.

It soon became clear to Hidayatullah that Veerappan had a serious problem. This was confirmed when one day, he approached Veerappan to serve him some tea. He overheard him telling Govindan, ‘Somehow, we should get a doctor.’

The conversation came to an abrupt end when Hidayatullah reached the scene.

Hidayatullah had gone into the forest expecting to meet a demon. But the Veerappan he saw was a far cry from the indestructible bloodthirsty image that was projected over the years. Instead, he met an ageing, fumbling fugitive. A megalomaniac overpowered by bouts of melancholy.

A doting father, especially fond of his second daughter, whose photograph he showed all infiltrators. Late at night, he would fondly identify his birthplace, pointing out the village lights.

Hidayatullah realized that though Veerappan was in charge, his advancing age had compelled him to delegate many of his responsibilities to Govindan, who was every bit as wily and paranoid as Veerappan in his prime.

By now, Veerappan trusted Hidayatullah completely.

One day, when Govindan and the others went into the forest on a hunting trip, Hidayatullah and his men were left alone with Veerappan.

Though it was broad daylight, Veerappan lay down and pulled a sheet over his head. Within minutes he was fast asleep. His snores resounded through the clearing.

Hidayatullah walked up to Veerappan’s prone form, his mind racing and heart pounding. There was a big stone nearby. ‘I just have to pick it up and bring it down,’ he thought. ‘It will all come to an end and I will be a hero.’

His throat and mouth were totally dry. He swallowed, then bent down and picked up the stone.

A debate raged in his mind. He was faced with the unenviable choice of killing a sleeping defenceless man or sparing the life of somebody who had snuffed out hundreds of innocent lives. As Hidayatullah weighed his options, Veerappan stirred in his sleep and turned to one side. A series of images flashed through Hidayatullah’s mind—Veerappan showing his daughter’s photo, pointing to his village with childish uninhibitedness.

Slowly, with trembling hands, he lowered the stone and walked back to his bed. His mate looked at him quizzically. Hidayatullah shook his head silently and gestured to the other man, asking if he wanted to perform the grim task instead. The man thought about it briefly and shook his head.

A still from Ram Gopal Varma’s film Killing Veerappan  where Sandeep Bharadwaj, an NSD student, played the bandit.
A still from Ram Gopal Varma’s film Killing Veerappan where Sandeep Bharadwaj, an NSD student, played the bandit.

I have no doubt that One-eyed Jack’s presence in the clearing that day would have brought Veerappan’s story to an end right there. But Hidayatullah and his men had never committed murder and were unable to bring themselves to do so that day. One can hardly blame them for showing compassion, even though Veerappan had not done so for any of his victims.

Shortly after this incident, a tall young man came to meet Veerappan.

The brigand was overjoyed and hugged him warmly, but paused when he saw a serious expression on the lad’s face.

‘Is something troubling you?’ he asked.

The boy nodded. ‘I met Madhaiyan mama in jail yesterday after a couple of weeks. He wanted to know why you hadn’t replied to his recent letters.’

Veerappan raised an eyebrow.

‘I went on visitors’ day, both last week and the week before, but I was not allowed to see him. The jailor apparently told Madhaiyan mama that there were no visitors for him. Madhaiyan mama doubted these four, and wanted to confirm from his friend in jail. But he was unable to meet him.’

Veerappan was now on the verge of a panic attack.

Even as this interaction took place in the jungle, Madhaiyan had managed to get across to Damani. The latter informed Madhaiyan that the four boys with Veerappan had not been sent by him. But the nephew was unaware of this development. So Veerappan’s dilemma about the identity of the four men continued. He was not willing to take any chances.

After a quick chat with Govindan, Veerappan walked up to Hidayatullah. In a measured tone, he said, ‘Some urgent work has come up. We will have to split up. We’ll meet again after a few days.’

He then mentioned a rendezvous point. Throughout the conversation, his demeanour was absolutely normal.

Govindan guided them west of the Cauvery, only 3 km away. As usual, Veerappan brought up the rear.

At the riverbank, Hidayatullah turned back and saw Veerappan still standing there, as if rooted. He waved warmly and left. He would never see the bandit again.

Excerpted with permission from Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand, K Vijay Kumar, Rupa.

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First Published: Feb 24, 2017 19:00 IST

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