18th October 2004: Indian bandit and smuggler Veerappan was killed

His crime file was as thick as his legendary moustache: more than 160 people murdered, half of them cops; many more kidnapped; ivory and sandalwood worth at least Rs. 130 crore smuggled; hundreds of elephants hunted down.

Operating from deep within the forests of South India, smuggler and bandit Veerappan evaded for decades thousands of policemen and teams created specially to nab him. He was finally killed in an encounter on 18 October 2004.

Koose Muniswamy Veerappan was born on 18 January 1952 in Gopinatham, a village in Karnataka. As a child, Veerappan looked up to Mammattiyan, a bandit from Tamil Nadu’s Salem district who was killed in an inter-gang fight.

Veerappan took to a life of poaching and tree-felling when he was 12 or 13 years old, and was initiated into killing elephants and sandalwood-smuggling by a relative, a smuggler himself. Over the years he got into serious crime, including murder and abduction. It is believed that Veerappan announced his entry into violent crime by murdering Mammattiyan’s--his childhood inspiration--brother.

With the illegal ivory trade proving very lucrative, killing elephants for their tusks became a major source of income for Veerappan and his aides. Before he turned 20, he had started sandalwood smuggling. Anyone standing in his way—forest officials, police officers, informers—became his enemy and next victim. In 1965 the forest officials arrested him for killing an elephant but he escaped, one of the first such escapes in his long life of crime. He eventually formed his own gang which operated in a forest area of 6,000 sq km, spread across parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  

The murder of several forest officers in the mid-eighties by Veerappan’s gang made the bandit a nationally-known figure. At one time he was arrested from Bangalore in 1986, but he again escaped from the clutches of police. Killing of forest guards and even villagers, continued along with abductions through the 1980s.

In 1989, a special police wing was set up to catch Veerappan. But he grew more brazen, and committed a series of high-profile murders that made headlines in national newspapers. His victims included the Karnataka Deputy Conservator of Forests, Srinivasan, in 1991, and the Karnataka Superintendent of Police, Harikrishnan, in 1992.

Following a landmine attack on the police near Mettur town in Salem district, a Special Task Force was constituted to deal with Veerappan in 1993. This was also the time when he took to abduction in a big way, not only for ransom money but also to prove he could act at will. In 1997, he kidnapped nine forest officials in the Burude forests.

As it often happens in India, identity politics began to play a role, though limited, in creating an aura around Veerappan in the last decade of his life. Fronts like the Pattali Makkal Katchi, an outfit dominated by the Venniar caste to which Veerappan belonged, provided political support to him. Other fringe groups such as the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army also extended their support.

On a night of pouring rain on 30 July 2000, Veerappan and his men abducted Kannada film icon Rajkumar from the actor’s ancestral farmhouse at Gajanur, 4 km from the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border. Rajkumar, his wife Parvathamma and other friends and relatives had just finished dinner when around a dozen armed men stormed into the house and took the Dadasaheb Palke Award-winning actor away. They later re-entered the house and rounded up Rajkumar’s son-in-law S. A. Govindaraj, and others.  

The abduction sent shock waves across Karnataka and much of South India. Rajkumar spent 108 days in Veerappan’s custody, triggering conspiracy theories and straining relations between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Some media reports suggested that a secret group of negotiators who met Veerappan in the forest helped secure the actor’s release. A pro-LTTE leader was reportedly part of the team that negotiated his release.

After the Rajkumar saga, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments revived the Special Task Force (STF) operations against Veerappan. The team began to put more pressure on the gang, which by now had dwindled. Extra forces were deployed in forest areas known to be frequented by the bandit and his men, forcing him to move to areas with less forest cover.  

After K. Vijay Kumar took over as head of the STF in October 2003, a covert operation was planned to trap Veerappan. According to the police version--and that’s the only one available--members of the team, posing as petty traders, contract workers, drivers and conductors, mixed with villagers in the area, some even managing to infiltrate Veerappan’s gang.

They got crucial information about his medical condition, including the fact that he suffered from eye ailments. An STF mole in the gang is said to have arranged an ambulance to take an unsuspecting Veerappan for treatment. The ambulance would, of course, be driven by a cop in disguise. On 18 October 2004, the STF plan worked according to script. The vehicle was ambushed and Veerappan and his three aides killed, a triumphant STF later said. “One aim, one goal and one mission of both the STFs [of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka] led to the accomplishment of the task,” K. Vijay Kumar said.

While questions were raised on the nature of the encounter, 18 October brought down the curtain on the saga of one of India’s most notorious bandits. With his death, inevitable but uncomfortable questions about links between politicians as well as Tamil extremist groups with Veerappan have remained largely unanswered. However, it is also important to resist the temptation, prevalent in some quarters, to romanticise the forest outlaw who brutally killed and plundered without remorse for more than 40 years. This ‘Robin Hood’ and his men brought no merriness.

Also on this day:

1928 — Roshan Shodhan, Indian Test cricketer, was born  

1948 — Om Puri, Hindi film actor, was born

1976 — Viswanatha Satyanarayana, Telugu writer, passed away

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