Decade-long hunt for Veerappan ends in 20 minutes: STF cop who chased bandit details hunt
On October 18, 2004, Veerappan — kidnapper, elephant poacher and sandalwood smuggler — was killed.
Lured out of his forest stronghold in Tamil Nadu, Veerappan had unwittingly climbed into an ambulance that undercover police officers from the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force had arranged. They had planted Mr X, a mole, in his ranks, and through him, learned that Veerappan had needed to visit a hospital in Salem for his eye.
That day, Veerappan didn’t notice that the name ‘Salem’ had been misspelt as ‘Selam’ on the ambulance (in their haste, police had made the spelling mistake). The decade-long manhunt for the country’s most notorious bandit ended in the following 20 minutes. The Special Task Force (STF), which had been constituted to nab him, fired 338 bullets at the ambulance, and three of them hit the 52-year-old poacher.
At 11:10 pm that night, the police file on Veerappan was closed. Operation Cocoon had been successful.
This is how retired police officer K Vijay Kumar’s new book, Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand, ends. “File on Koose Muniswamy Veerappan closed,” he writes with what seems like relief at the end of a fast-paced last chapter that describes Operation Cocoon down to the last second. “If Veerappan hadn’t come on the 18th, I don’t know what would have happened. It would have just been one of our serial flops,” Kumar says. He believes that unusually, the hitherto elusive Veerappan wasn’t very alert that day.
Vijay Kumar was the head of the Tamil Nadu STF, and was running Operation Cocoon. He had been given the job in 2001 by then chief minister J Jayalalithaa; before that, he had been a part of the elite Special Protection Group for Rajiv Gandhi, and in the Border Security Force in Kashmir. He admits that his book, which almost reads like a thriller, is biased towards the STF. It closely retells the details of the hunt for Veerappan, beginning with the formation of the STF in 1990 – a joint force constituted by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – to capture him.
The structure of Kumar’s book adds to its pace. Each chapter begins with a description of Kumar interviewing somebody in the police force about Veerappan and the STF’s numerous attempts to capture him before Kumar joined. What he learns from the interviews reads as flashbacks, written as though it is all happening in the moment. The book has several gripping scenes, of the time when Kumar was in a part of the jungle full of mines laid by Veerappan’s gang, and an entire section is dedicated to the kidnap of Kannada icon Rajkumar, the actor with a cult following who remained in the brigand’s custody for 108 days, albeit unharmed. Kumar’s pride over various STF operations is evident. What is also palpable is his anger over the many police and forest officers Veerappan killed. Particularly disturbing is his description of senior Indian Forest Services (IFS) officer P Srinivas’ murder in 1991. Srinivas was shot and decapitated. “Srinivas’ head wasn’t recovered until almost three years later,” Kumar writes.
The book, in many ways, is an attempt to sift through fact and fiction about Veerappan, and throw light on lesser known details of the hunt for him. How Veerappan died, for instance, has been a major point of contention, as have the smaller facts of other failed operations that nobody, other than those involved, really know.
Kumar’s book appears like an attempt to respond to the criticism the STF faced after Veerappan’s death. Back then, activists and several media organisations argued that not only had the bandit not been given a fair chance to defend himself before a court of law, but also, disturbingly, that he had been tortured to death in police custody. One such claim was that Veerappan’s eye had been gouged out; in his book, Kumar writes that one of the three bullets had gone through his eye. For those who have lived with these accusations for decades, like NK Senthamarai Kannan, Kumar’s then colleague, this book has been a closure. “Those stories aren’t true. What Kumar has written is what happened,” Kannan says.
Others don’t agree. R Gopal, the editor and publisher of the Tamil investigative journal Nakkeeran, who once described Veerappan in an interview with Tehelka as “a murderer who wanted to correct himself”, believes that Veerappan was tortured and murdered in police custody. He says the police were waiting to settle scores with Veerappan — “Police-ku thanni kaatinaan avan (to escape from someone right under their nose). They were seething.”
“This book is written from the police’s view; it’s their record, but the truth is different. Whatever happened in the forests is what we [Nakkeeran] have reported,” says Gopal, who is dismissive of Operation Cocoon. He has extensively covered the story of Veerappan and was also an emissary between the smuggler and state governments in carrying out a successful mission in rescuing actor Rajkumar. “I don’t want to talk about whatever they called it, but Veerappan did not die, like they claim, in an encounter. He was caught alive and tortured for two-three days and killed. They had to embalm the body before photographing — his face was swollen.”
Asking author Kumar about whether he would have rather caught Veerappan alive only provokes a more defensive answer. He seems more used to answering the question of whether the STF could have caught him alive. “If we had caught him alive, perhaps we’d have got to interrogate him for tactics. But we had given him a fair opportunity by law,” Kumar says.
After Veerappan’s death, there were a large number of people who reportedly came to see his body at the Dharmapuri hospital, curious to know if he was really dead, despite knowing that they wouldn’t be allowed inside. Of course his death didn’t end the spread of his legend — there have been at least six films and a TV serial on the man, including Ram Gopal Varma’s Killing Veerappan, released in 2016. Varma alone has made three films on Veerappan, one in Kannada and two in Hindi. Killing Veerappan was a Kannada docudrama and its protagonist was NK Senthamarai Kannan, ironically played by Shiv Rajkumar, son of Veerappan’s most famous kidnap victim Rajkumar.
“So much mythology has sprung up around Koose Muniswamy Veerappan that is it practically impossible to weed out fact from fiction,” Kumar writes in his book. “There is so much hype around [him] that facts are becoming misty,” he says, adding, “He had an image of invincibility that has been played up time and again.”
The huge controversy around how Veerappan died is the best example of this blurring of lines between fact and fiction. But stories about Veerappan, all riveting and often wildly contradictory, usually fall into two distinct categories. The first kind of narrative comes from those who were enamoured by him, remaining loyal to him throughout his long reign over the forests, and the second from those who have never talked about him without calling him ruthless and terrifying.
“People would fall at his feet when he was walking by. They were extremely scared. But Veerappan was also a hero,” Kumar admits. It was a most understandable fear — Veerappan was superstitious, and known to take decisions about killing somebody based on just rolling stones like dice. In 1994, in Geddasal, a village in Tamil Nadu, Kumar writes, he and his gang shot men whom he thought had become police informers, hacking their necks with machetes, and then setting their houses on fire.
Kumar talks of how he decided he wanted to take what he calls the “human angle” with the book. “I wanted to talk about how he (Veerappan) was as a father, and as a team leader. I wanted to look at what happens in a ‘generalship’ when weaknesses come in, and how power plays out.”
To do this, he even attempts to write from Veerappan’s perspective occasionally. He does this when he describes the brutal Geddasal killings, writing in Veerappan’s voice, first threatening a shepherd for the names of informants, and then furious when he finds them. Unexpectedly, Kumar also does this when he is writing about Operation Cocoon, making Veerappan “preoccupied with memories and regrets” just before his death.
But Kumar also clarifies that the only important personal facts that he does know are about Veerappan’s eating habits, how he moved through the difficult terrain, his ability to hide, and his ambushes — things that ultimately led the intelligence-based Operation Cocoon to him. For the book, often, Kumar has had to rely not only on STF accounts but also on very limited police reports and differing oral stories. Media accounts were not always reliable in piecing together the story. “A small part of the media had glorified Veerappan no end. It was like a trial by media (for the STF), with constant questions about why nobody had been able to catch him.”
According to Veerappan’s horoscope (which Kumar adds as an appendix to his book), he was bound to be “red-eyed, less educated, ungrateful, egoistical, fond of women, petty-minded and short-tempered”. He was fated to run away from home and live in another state in vanavasam (exiled in the forest). If he had crossed the age of 65, he would have gone on to live until he was 78. But Veerappan, whose horoscope was charted out by a trusted member of the Valluvan community (hereditary priests who preach and practise astrology), was also to receive rajadandanai — punishment by the state.
The STF had got their hands on the horoscope in 2001, when their intelligence sources found it for them. It was this last detail about rajadandanai that kept several force members going in their long and often frustrating hunt for the man who knew the Sathymangalam forests like the back of his hand. “When you live a dangerous life with an uncertain future, every bit of optimism helps,” Kumar writes. But would he have done anything differently? He says firmly, “Now that this has ended, no.”
With inputs from Apoorva Sripathi
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)