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In Veerappan Country

VeerappanThe little girl stands in the doorway, a frail forlorn figure, diminutive in the pale morning light, a portrait of vulnerability set in a rugged landscape of scrub and stone. She stares impassively at the small crowd gathered outside the house, conscious of being the centre of attention.

Suddenly, a smile animates her fragile features and, in the universal gesture of all little children, she plucks a pair of sun glasses from a face in the crowd. Nervous laughter erupts all round.

It does not take long to realise that the frolicking child has the status of a mascot among the assembled villagers, who quickly form a protective cordon around her as she steps unsteadily on the cratered street with the air of a tiny conquistador.

The paradox is inescapable. The frail child on the doorstep, vulnerable in an elemental setting, had metamorphosed into a self-possessed entity cradled by public sentiment.

daughter VidyaConflicting psychodynamics play in the girl's mind, incompatable realities exert their pressures within her. As Veerappan's three-year-old daughter, she must cope with the stress of having as her filial focus a hunted fugitive of the law. And she must learn to reconcile that anguish with the aerie security of the collective goodwill of the rural populace settled along the banks of the Cauvery, straddling two states, hospitable soil for her bandit father.

The tensions of this duality will crystallise in adulthood. For now, Vidya is busy being a child. The State allows her much elbow room and Veerappan's legacy among the villagers ensures her sustenance. This functional arrangement has evoked little notice since the time Veerappan whisked the girl's mother, soon after her delivery, from under the noses of police guards posted outside her home in Nirpur village, 23 kms from the bustling junction town of Pennagram in Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu, South India.

Following that incident back in 1982, Nirpur, a backward village nestling on the shores of the Cauvery, has acquired the reputation of being a fortress of public goodwill for the desperado holed up in the hills. East of Nirpur, down the Cauvery waterway, lies Gopinatham, Veerappan's native village, snug amidst mist-wrapped hills. Falling within Karnataka and the focal point of frenzied police surveillance, the village wears a besieged look. Further south, two hours away by country boat, sprawls the tourist resort of Hogenakkal where the Cauvery waters flowing through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu converge close to the picturesque Hogenakkal falls.

The Cauvery is the ribbon that binds these places in an elaborate tapestry of water, hill and forest, defining the topography of a region eminently conducive as a sanctuary for Veerappan and his gang. The human settlements that flourish here represent his unwavering popular base.

This is the crux of the problem that besets police operations launched to track down the elusive poacher. The police are an unwelcome presence in the villages washed by the Cauvery, while Veerappan enjoys safe passage through them. A man walking up to a constable in a village square asking for a match could well be the brigand himself. Authorities set little store by the mug shots of Veerappan sporting his trademark walrus moustache. Clean shaven, the fugitive can lose himself in a crowd. Veerappan's survival on the run is implicitly linked to the active cooperation of the local population.

If the police see the village public as their lifeline to Veerappan, the villagers perceive Veerappan as their lifeline to prosperity. By a cunningly devised stratagem of inducement and terror, the bandit has forged a solid rapport with the village population of the Cauvery belt and the itinerant community of shepherds and tribesmen in the reserve forests. By engaging them in his criminal operations and offering a remuneration package that included a bonus in the form of chunks of sandalwood, Veerappan built up a highly motivated and loyal workforce among the impoverished villagers.

The police, by contrast, adopted the sledgehammer approach, routinely picking up villagers and stringing them from the rafters of police stations, a common third degree measure used to extract information about Veerappan's movements. The fallout was predictable. The villagers turned hostile and Veerappan seized the initiative. The audacious operation of May 20, 1992 when he stormed the Ramapura police station and shot five constables in their sleep was seen as a reprisal attack staged on behalf of the village public groaning under police oppression.

The police corroborate this, though by mutual recrimination. Remarked a police official based in Dharmapuri: "Veerappan has been attacking the Karnataka police because they use brutal methods on the villagers. Veerappan turned that into a public cause."

But the Tamil Nadu police are no less alienated from the local villagers as seen from the fact that very little information is forthcoming from them on Veerappan's movements. One thing is clear: the vaunted co-ordination between interstate forces in the hunt for the brigand is confined to the movement of men and materials and hardly a reflection of exemplary teamwork. Indeed, inter-force relations appear to be cold and mutually unresponsive.

On the other hand, a distinct homogeneity exists in the pattern of popular support for Veerappan in the countryside flanking the Cauvery. Scrutiny of a cross-section of this support base, which extends from Nirpur to Hogenakkal in Tamil Nadu and on to Gopinatham in Karnataka, reveals the interplay of specific determinants adding up to a conscious manipulation of the rustic psyche and shrewd exploitation of the village ethos acting in complement with the drawbacks and inadequacies in police operations. The factors derive from the social chemistry of the region, general economic deprivation, entrenched caste compulsions and an adverse public perception of the police.

Nirpur The village of Nirpur, where Veerappan's daughter lives, is a cluster of around 750 thatched homesteads surrounded by fields of corn and groundnut. The population consists largely of backward class Vanniyars who back the vociferous politics of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). Veerappan, a Vanniyar-Gounder, is a natural receptacle for the community's goodwill. The image he evokes of a Tamil fugitive on the run from the Karnataka police fits in nicely with the politics of sub-nationalism propagated by the PMK.

The villagers have proven resilience to police pressure. In the days when police camps sprung up in remote interior villages suspected of sheltering Veerappan, Nirpur residents weathered the crackdown and kept their portals open for the bandit. His cop-killer stigma across the border is simply shrugged off.

Most villagers are closemouthed on the subject of Veerappan's visits to the village. The police camps have been withdrawn but plainclothesmen abound. Local residents resort to a form of doublespeak that denounces the brigand in public in a hectic exercise to mask their private approval. It is an exercise aimed at hoodwinking the cops in plainclothes and informers hanging around the village.

The public flagellation of Veerappan, by its very deliberateness and vehemence, does not ring true. Cornered in private and once barriers are downed, Nirpur residents speak from the heart overwhelmingly in favour of the dacoit across the river.

Father-in-law PoojariPoojari is no exception. As veerappan's father-in-law and guardian of the bandit's only child, Poojari has plenty to worry about from the cops. He goes about the business of running down Veerappan with beleboured zeal : "This marriage does not have my blessing. He had his eye on my daughter every time she went to work in the fields. One day he approached me and said he wanted to marry her. I said no. Even if you burn me alive I will not give you my daughter, I told him."

Poojari, a short slightly-built man in his fifties with the dark chiseled features common in these parts, speaks with discernibly feigned conviction and a distinct histrionic flair. He continues : "My daughter Muthu eloped with him. Later she came back pregnant. I took her to the police and said that they could do with her what they wished. I have disowned her, I said. When the baby was born, the police left it in my care and put guards outside my house. One night my daughter slipped off to join Veerappan."

A small farmer and PMK activist, Poojari claims he and his wife bring up the child on the proceeds of his modest paddy holding. Inquiries at the village suggest, however, that Veerappan finances the girl's upkeep and has bought up land around the village in his father-in-law's name. Significantly, Poojari's home is one of the few tiled and cemented structures visible in a locality dominated by hutments.

The suggestion of squalor that hangs about the village is a portent of its covert nexus with the brigand. It has two schools but no dispensary (a health services mobile clinic wheels in once a month). There are no industries for miles. The crops are seasonal. In short, the village is primed to embrace the illicit prosperity peddled by Veerappan. He involved the village folk in his sandalwood operations, paying more than the wage commanded by unionised labour in the agricultural sector. The scented fragments he gifted them fetched a pretty price in the market. The villagers shunned the scarce mainstream options and turned to Veerappan as children look to Santa Claus. The police were out to spoil their long happy Christmas.

Enroute from Nirpur towards the tourist resort of Hogenakkal lies the bustling town of Pennagram, the commercial hub linked by bus lines to a network of interior villages scattered across the rambling countryside. The town has a linear profile with a single potholed main street that lolls out like a long frayed tongue.

Sooty tea stalls and shops selling medicines, textiles and food grain line the street. The town is no haven for the weary traveller. There are no hotels, lodges or rooms to let, not even a decent eating place. The only bank was the target last year of an abortive raid by Veerappan and his gang in which a constable was shot dead.

The town's nucleus is the bus terminus with its torrential flow of commuters headed for distant villages or for Dharmapuri, the district headquarters 30 km away. At one end of the busy main street is the police station, a squat tiled structure surrounded by raised walls, where a team of overwraught cops keeps vigil over the area.

Veerappan's name haunts the collective unconscious of the Pennagram police since the night of the attempted bank heist. The snap of a motorcycle exhaust is enough to jolt them. On September 1992, the Pennagram police had genuine cause for worry. Gunshots reverberated through the night along the route to Hogenakkal, 16 km from Pennagram. Word reached the  office of the Superintendent of Police at Dharmapuri that the Veerappan gang had struck. The SP rushed to Hogenakkal with a police posse.

A van carrying a bevy of Lions Club members from Salem, headed for Hogenakkal, had been waylaid by an armed gang. The driver had refused to stop and sped past the interceptors. A bullet smashed through the rear glass and caught him in the shoulder.

with brother Arjun Police scoured the forests around Hogenakkal and mopped up a gang member. It turned out that the highwaymen were led by a Veerappan protégé who had broken away and formed his own gang and begun to operate in the Hogenakkal forests. The modus operandi of the Muthu gang was to stop vehicles headed towards Hogenakkal and extort money invoking the name of Veerappan. Quipped a cop only partly in jest: "If Veerappan finds out what Muthu has been up to, which he soon will, he will do the job of tracking him down and finishing him off."

Following the incident, the route to the falls was sealed off after dusk. Police said the captured gang member had once served as Veerappan's valet. The muzzle loader found on him, a standard gang weapon in these parts, was procured at Natrapalayam near Anjetti in Dharmapuri district from an underground arms dealer.

The implications are easy to see. Veerappan, with his underworld cult figure status, has set off a criminal subculture in the very areas of his operation, spawning parasitic gangs that feed on the myths that surround him. The springing up of pocket gangs, a relatively recent trend, has confounded matters for the police whose single-point focus on Veerappan is now distracted by the movement of intermediate gangs within the same theatre of operations.

Hoggenakkal is a patch of unspoilt nature threatened by human despoliation. Ringed by thickly-wooded hills that throb with many species of natural life, the village is a sordid picture of unsound tourism promotion practices. It offers little to the wayfarer in terms of amenities. The solitary hotel, run by the Tamil Nadu Government, is prohibitively priced for the average tourist. Seedy lodges beckon the visitor. Public utilities such as toilets and telephones are totally absent. Ramshackle sheds masquerade as restaurants serving substandard fare. The village square, colonised by dogs, pigs and cattle, is plastered with dung. Only the roar of the waterfall muffles the squalor.

It is a setting detrimental to tourism, but not the charisma of Veerappan. Years ago the gun slinging poacher descended from the hills and interacted with the local villagers. It was a turning point in their lives. He inducted the subsistence wage labourers of neighbouring Oottamalai village, dominated by the backward Saviyur community, into his lucrative forest operations. At Hogenakkal he won over the settler community of shopkeepers with his big spending style and offer of protection. In return he sought rations and confidentiality.

A cop at the Hogenakkal station substantiates this : "If Veerappan needed to buy a cake of soap he would pay twice the price. He kept the shopkeepers happy." There were more decisive ploys in his public relations kit. Veerappan took up the cause of the forest community, such as the Irula tribesmen, and helped them combat the pressure from belligerent police and forest officials who hounded them for gathering forest produce for their livelihood.

Veerappan blended with life in the local villages, giving doles to needy families for medical treatment or to conduct weddings and donating lavishly during festivals. At the Panchayat level, he involved himself in the process of dispensing justice and settling land disputes. During the tamarind plucking season, he ensured fair wages for village workers from private contractors.

In the tumultuous period of the Cauvery riots, when a mass exodus of hundreds of Tamilian families started from Satyakal Zaagir to Hogenakkal, Veerappan paid local boatmen to ferry them across the river and actively aided in their rehabilitation.

In a more brazen populist exercise reminiscent of the Naxalites of Andhra Pradesh, Veerappan organised landless villagers at Alambadi, near Hogenakkal, and spearheaded a drive to take over several hundred acres of reserve forests for cultivation. Scores of families benefited and set about raising fields of corn, ragi and  groundnut. Forest officials ignored the event.

To bolster his image among the villagers in such flamboyant style, the bandit needed to dip into his vast cash resources built up over the years by plundering the forest, first of its population of male tuskers and then of its sandalwood trees. Veerappan has now switched to trading in elephant tongues, said to fetch around Rs.1000/- a kilo in the clandestine export market.

Villagers who have encountered Veerappan are invariably reticent. A culture of silence gags them. Those who can be coaxed to talk reveal the man's persona in snatches.

A profile of the man etched from hearsay, inevitably a fusion of fact, fiction and myth, is at best spotty. One is faced with the task of fleshing out an enigma that feeds on silence. Villagers attest that Veerappan is a man of few words who does not look you in the eye when he speaks. His eyes, they vouch, have a mesmeric quality. He is snug in the role of benevolent despot, dispensing favours with gusto but visiting harsh penalties when gripped by rage. Police informers are particularly odious to him.

He is devout to the point of being superstitious and is known to change course or modify plans at the trill of a lizard. Villagers extol his abstemious nature, shunning alcohol, tobacco and non-vegetarian food. They describe him as monogamous, a point vigorously disputed by the police who say Veerappan has a known weakness for women.

In the elements of his lifestyle, his fugitive status, his reclusive bent, his rapport with the villagers, as a fiendish fringe radical colonising the forests with a band of followers, Veerappan recalls Conrad's fictional character Mr. Kurtz. Indeed, the two-hour boat ride up the Cauvery to his native village evokes a sense of journeying into the heart of darkness.

The river is dead calm this time of year. The craft, a wide-rimmed bamboo basket coated on the outside with tar, pushes ahead solely on the sinews of a single oarsman, a common means of plying the river in this area. The boatmen generally are residents of Oottamalai village who pursue an ancestral vocation that is promising when the tourist inflow is good. In the dull season they take to fishing.

Crossing the Cauvery (author in boat) As the boat moves upstream, the din and bustle of the tourist zone gradually wane, the thunder of the rapids subsides into a distant echo. Soon a thick curtain of silence settles on the river. Human habitations fade from view, reappearing fitfully in lone thatched clusters along the shore. Not the mildest breeze ruffles the surface of the still green water. A verdant wilderness of hill and forest looms on either side, deepening the eerie quietness.

Violence overwrites the landscape. The boat passes clusters of abandoned broken down hutments, rubble strewn on the shore bearing mute testimony to the police crackdown on settlements perceived as potential shelters for Veerappan. The inhabitants were evacuated, no one knows where. Further up river, a tiny hamlet on the Tamil Nadu side emerges hesitantly into view. The community of impoverished fisherfolk barely looks up at the passing boat. The boatman explains the people here have to cross three hills before they can hail a bus to take them to Mettur or MM Hills to hawk their fish and ragi. In earlier days they could take the short route across the river

The shores of the Cauvery tell a sad story, a saga of displaced humanity, of dismantled settlements, of mass migrations and new beginnings in alien settings. This is the grim sub-plot in the pursuit of Veerappan; these are the unsung casualties caught in the crossfire between the State and the outlaw.

The boatman points ahead to a hill in the distance. "Gopinatham," he pants. Thick dark clouds lie bunched over the village, lightning slices the air and raindrops begin to patter on the surface of the river. The boatman pulls ashore. Veerappan's village is a two-kilometre trek from this point. The dirt track crosses settlements close to the river bank and then links up with a stretch of tarred road that leads into Gopinatham.

The hush over the village as you enter testifies to the claustrophobic presence of the police. This is clearly no setting for a freewheeling chat on the forbidden topic. People are insular here, seeking to deflect attention rather than invite it.

Veerappan's deserted house in Gopinatham The village has the look of an archaeological relic, shut off to the present, over-conscious of its pernicious history. Veerappan's blood ties are here but most of his close relatives have moved out. His house is deserted, his fields lie untended. Yet he occupies the consciousness of the village.

The police occupy the school building on the village fringe. Caught in a conflict-of-interest relationship with the villagers, they fight a lone battle. The police perceive the local residents as diehard Veerappan allies; the villagers view the police as an occupation army.

Gopinatham represents an oasis of goodwill for Veerappan, a major reason being that most residents derive their livelihood from the forest, the poacher's traditional domain, and are unlikely to be readily weaned out of the ambit of his control or influence.

There are other ground realities. The cops in the camp appear fresh-faced and somewhat naïve to their task. "None of us here has seen Veerappan or knows what he looks like," said one official. "If he turns up at Gopinatham, someone will have to point him out to us."

Pointing Veerappan out is precisely the problem. No one in Gopinatham will volunteer to do it. The sandalwood smuggler has a well-oiled information network that helps him stay several steps ahead of the police. It also helps him zero in on police informers with ruthless efficiency.  The several hundred families  residing in the village are sworn to an oath of silence.

Police informants are apt to play double games. They lead the cops to a jungle campsite vacated by the brigand on a tip-off in advance of the team's arrival. The single frustrating dilemma facing the police is the paucity of timely authentic information on Veerappan's movements. They acknowledge that the bandit still pays sneak visits to his home village, though infrequently and never staying too long. A single bus service links Gopinatham to the world outside. Each morning it pulls out of the village full to bursting and threads its way to MM Hills and further onwards to Mysore.

Posing for the camera MM Hills, the base of the Special Task Force, has the look of a garrison town. At the bus stand, the market place, the snack joints - khaki is ubiquitous. Part of the problem for the cops is that they are used to moving on open terrain while the forest is Veerappan's natural habitat. The jungle patrols usually follow charted forest paths, often walking past the concealed gang.

Perhaps time will prove to be Veerappan's nemesis. The forest is no place to retire to after a career in crime. The Japanese World War Two soldier who survived alone in the Phillipine jungles for three decades was reduced to a berrychewing human animal. Veerappan will need to emerge from the undergrowth for his periodic shopping sprees in the villages. Not propelled by ideology, he lacks the spirit of the revolutionary. Yet he nurtures a sense of martyrdom born of religious fervour. Villagers quote him as saying that he will never surrender, that death is an option he has reserved for the last.

The forest is a twilight zone where uncertainties acquire a deeper tint. Veerappan could be immobilised by disease; or the glue that binds the criminal gang may come unstuck and provoke betrayal. Food and ammunition stocks will need to be replenished. Attrition appears to be the more feasible option before the authorities.

Provided, ofcourse, that Veerappan does not strike first, either as reprisal or out of megalomaniac zeal. The official body count has risen steadily over the years.

At the moment, Veerappan oscillates between equivocal perceptions. The Establishment view of him is marked by moral outrage, while the social underclass defines him as its benefactor. To the uniformed forces, Veerappan is nothing more than a cop killer and an outlaw. To the villagers in the Cauvery belt, he approximates a folk hero. 

Veerappan is still at large.

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