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Review: Veerappan; Chasing the Brigand by K Vijay Kumar

13 years after his team eliminated poacher and sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, the former Tamil Nadu STF chief K Vijay Kumar has written an insightful book on the 20-year-long operation

books Updated: Aug 23, 2017 21:08 IST
Pradhuman Sodha
Pradhuman Sodha
Hindustan Times
Veerappan,K Vijay Kumar,Operation Cocoon
An undated file photo of Veerappan. (AFP/Getty Images)

Just as in Sholay, Gabbar measured his terror by the fact that parents frightened their children to sleep by mentioning his name, kids of the 1990s were often terrorised into sleeping by a mention of Veerappan. However, the people who lost the most sleep in anticipation of the moustachioed brigand’s moves were the men of the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka Special Task Force (STF). 13 years later, the then Tamil Nadu STF chief K Vijay Kumar, responsible for leading the team that terminated the Veerappan saga in 2004’s Operation Cocoon, has come out with Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand, a compact, insightful, and carefully constructed chronicle of the 20-year-long fight.

Incidentally, the only child to have died at Veerappan’s hands was his own newborn daughter. Apparently, Veerappan was shaken after a close shave with the authorities and was not about to let anything compromise his location in the jungle. To a man with such motives, a newborn baby with 110-decibel cries is a complete liability. A simple gesture to the midwife, who delivered the child, did the job. This ruthless sacrifice is said to have stunned his gang of 100 or so jungle dwellers and ensured their utter loyalty.

Kumar, at several points in the book, calls himself a man of action wasted on desk work. He confesses that the most boring part of his job was to write reports. In the decade following Operation Cocoon, the police officer who disliked paperwork has managed to author a non-fiction book that reads like great fiction.

The long fight between the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka Special Task Force (STF) and their A-1 (accused-1/ Veerappan) ended with Veerappan’s killing in 2004, but the story in the book dates all the way to the poacher and smuggler’s early days. Koose Muniswamy Veerappan was born in the village of Gopinatham bordering the deciduous forest over which he would later reign. Being introduced to guns at a very young age, he became a perfect shot and was charged with poaching when he was just a boy. Fleeing the authorities, he took refuge in the jungle and, as Kumar writes, “The rest is history”.

The book narrates every incident in the fight between Veerappan and the STF, which was formed to terminate the ‘Sandalwood smuggler’. Most chapters start with the STF setting out into the jungle to find him and end with Veerappan getting away yet another time. Even after years of repeated disappointment, the STF kept up their morale and never gave up. By the later years, it had become a bachelors’ collective with most of the members having vowed not to get married until Veerappan had been punished.

Since his start in the Indian Police Services (IPS), Kumar’s career had been everything a ‘man of action’ could ask for, with postings everywhere from Tamil Nadu to Kashmir, and all the way up to Rajiv Gandhi and J Jayalalithaa’s security detail. But it was in the June of 2001 that he got the job he had long wished for. Kumar writes that he had followed Veerappan’s escapades since they began. Reading about the STF’s advances and setbacks from afar only made him want to join them in their hunt for the brigand, who had killed “forty-four cops and foresters and no less than eighty civilians”. On J Jayalalithaa’s return as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in 2001, Kumar was recalled to head the Tamil STF along with Walter Davaram as the Joint Chief of both the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu forces.

Kumar has dedicated the book to J Jayalalithaa. The late Tamil Nadu chief minister seems to fly through the pages as the commander of a shining army fighting the darkness of the jungle, and it is hard not to hear her authoritative voice when you read her lines. In his book and in interviews since Jayalalithaa’s passing, Kumar has called her a great professional who knew better than to interfere in the work of the armed forces. Jayalalithaa was famous for ruling her party with a firm hand and her resolve in putting an end to the ‘sandalwood smuggler’s menace’ was just as firm. When the former Karnataka minister H Nagappa was kidnapped by Veerappan, the minister’s wife visited Amma to urge her to accept Veerappan’s demands and stop all STF operations. Of course, Jayalalithaa refused, only assuring Mrs Nagappa that the Tamil STF unit would not cross the state’s border but continue operations inside the state.

Author K Vijay Kumar ( Picture courtesy Rupa Publications )

Along with being a guide to a historic event of the recent past and explaining the workings of the internal security forces, this book is a testament to the courage of STF officers who lost their lives fighting Veerappan’s gang. Every chapter brings out a tale of heroic bravery under the most desperate situations. The book chronicles several spine-chilling yet inspiring episodes.

Kumar’s book also gives a fresh angle to some notorious events. Veerappan had managed to cultivate a fan base during the height of his fame, when the media covered his every move, and his followers thought of him as a Robin Hood. Kumar’s balanced and mature analysis of Veerappan’s life and choices shows him for what he really was, a poorly literate yet cunning outlaw with great survival tactics and leadership qualities.

A record of one of the longest running police operations in the country, the book elaborates how the STF, faced with battling their enemy in his own lair, began thinking like the brigand himself. Kumar explains every operation in the most vivid, detailed and entertaining way. Reading about Operation Boston and Operation Cocoon, the two major undercover operations involved, is almost like watching a top-notch thriller.

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

Though the world is now struggling to deal with external terrorist threats, the Veerappan episode showed how an internal threat can shake a state to its core. Kumar, currently a senior security advisor in the Ministry of Home Affairs, knows how battles within are different from those being fought at the border. While, in a battle at the border, the alien is clearly the enemy, law enforcement walks a tight rope when it comes to fighting their own. This book is as much a commentary on the Indian media’s sensationalism as it is a case study of how to fight an internal threat. Veerappan, in his later days, grew more political and his affiliations with Tamil radical groups grew stronger. Around the same time, the media began empathising with the outlaw and questioned the STF’s methods.

Featuring a ruthless villain chasing and being chased around by honest officers, jingoistic political leaders and industrialists, and hapless victims caught in the line of fire, all set against the background of the dark, dense and treacherous forest -- this book has everything that makes for a compelling and entertaining read.

Pradhuman Sodha is an independent journalist.

First Published: Aug 23, 2017 21:03 IST