That there was no surprise element in Nagappa’s abduction is clear from the fact that he was atop Veerappan’s hit-list and had been provided armed security. There should also have been enough lessons learned from Veerappan’s last kidnapping. But this time too the reaction of the STF in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka ran to a familiar script. Many curious facts have emerged in the Nagappa kidnapping which show up police and STF complacency:
- Nagappa, who has been on Veerappan’s hit-list, was provided with three armed guards for round-the-clock duty but none were around when it mattered.
- After grabbing Nagappa, a 66-year-old diabetic, Veerappan and his men walked two km, hijacked a government bus, abandoned it when they sighted a police jeep with Kollegal circle inspector Sashikumar on the Chennalinganahalli road, and disappeared into the jungle. Instead of firing in the gang’s direction or giving chase, the seven policemen searched the bus and reported their findings to higher authorities.
- When Chamarajnagar SP Harishekaran reached the spot, passengers told him which way Veerappan had taken the bus. But the SP drove off the opposite way.
- The STF’s Gundal Dam—a ‘headquarter’ camp with a strength of 150 commandos—is five km from Nagappa’s Kamagere farmhouse. Yet, the STF did not spring immediately into action but was "waiting for orders from above".
Says Nagappa’s wife Parimala: "We alerted the police at 10 pm, five minutes after the kidnap. But they came only around 1.30 am to ask us how it happened. Had they come immediately, perhaps my husband could have been rescued."
Till Veerappan strikes, the STF claims they are hot on his heels. On June 2, Walter Isaac Dawaram, chief of the joint STF operations, had asserted: "Veerappan has only two men with him now—Sethukulli Govindan and Chandra Gounder. The separatist activities of the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil Nadu National Retrieval Troops (TNRT) in the forest have also been wiped out." But when Veerappan descended on August 26 with eight or more men, the STF was quick to conclude that members of the banned groups were still with the brigand!
All this, according to intelligence sources, points to the gross inefficiency, if not deliberate neglect, on the part of the police and STF. Now, the latter claims it has zeroed in on Veerappan in a 10 sq km area of the 6,000 sq km Sathyamangalam forest and are hopeful of trapping him. Veerappan left behind a 40-second taped message, saying he’d been cheated by the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments which had reneged on their promises following actor Rajkumar’s release in November 2000.
As in the Rajkumar episode, the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu CMs demanded paramilitary forces and "technical intelligence support"—surveillance aircraft, interception equipment, helicopters and remote-sensing equipment. The only thing they perhaps stopped short of asking was India’s nuclear arsenal to smoke out Veerappan. "Veerappan came and picked his man right under the STF’s nose. So what’s the point of all these technical gizmos?" asks a senior TN police officer who has served with the STF.
Both the states have also been guilty of interfering with the functioning of the STF. With the sudden transfer of igp P. Kempaiah as commander of Karnataka STF on June 15, the post was downgraded. (Kempaiah was appointed after Rajkumar’s release.) When DIG R.P. Sharma volunteered to replace Kempaiah, he became the fourth Karnataka STF commander in two years. But Sharma himself is under a cloud: the CBI is keen to nail him and his IAS wife Neelambika on charges of corruption and owning assets disproportionate to income. The CBI’s request for permission to prosecute the couple has been sitting with the Krishna government for six months.
On the TN side, while the retired Dawaram was rehabilitated as STF chief soon after Jayalalitha came to power, Vijay Kumar, who’d been specially drafted by Jayalalitha from the BSF to lead the STF’s field operations, was abruptly summoned to Chennai as city commissioner last December. The reason, according to sources, were differences between Dawaram and Kumar over anti-Veerappan operations.
Two key officers—Tamizhselvan and Periaiah, veterans in anti-Veerappan operations—were also transferred. Tamizhselvan, who’d lost two fingers in a 1996 operation, was given a medal on Republic Day and posted as Salem DIG. Periaiah was rewarded with a Dharmapuri SP posting. The DSPs in the Tamil Nadu STF too were down to five from nine, and the strength of the force came down from 1,600 to 900. Jayalalitha, however, was quick to cite Kempaiah’s transfer as the sole reason for the latest kidnapping. Despite scaling down the STF, TN has spent Rs 15 crore on STF operations in the current financial year compared to Rs 4.4 crore last year. In 10 years, the two states are said to have spent some Rs 100 crore on chasing the elusive brigand. Since it’s crisis time again, the STF is being "strengthened".
But such has been the lack of faith in the STF that Nagappa’s wife Parimala preferred to appeal directly to Veerappan over radio to ensure her husband is taken good care of. She reminded her husband—and Veerappan—that the brigand was known to be a "good man". But Nagappa hasn’t exactly been in Veerappan’s good books. Hanur, the constituency that was wrested from Nagappa (Janata Dal-United) by Raju Gowda (Congress), has been under Veerappan’s shadow for 15 years. While Nagappa has been an outspoken critic of the smuggler and the illegal quarrying in the area, Gowda did not speak against Veerappan even during Rajkumar’s abduction. Gowda, who was inducted into Krishna’s cabinet only a few months ago, has been talking of reviving the quarry industry in the Kollegal taluk. Keeping the quarrying industry alive ensures Veerappan access to dynamite used to break rocks.
A day after Nagappa’s abduction, TN STF’s ADGP Natraj said: "If we sight Veerappan, the STF will shoot him down." And Nagappa? The two governments, and hence the STFs, seem to be working at cross-purposes. Having told Krishna she’d extend all cooperation to Karnataka to procure Nagappan’s release in Delhi, the next day Jayalalitha declared that Veerappan would be caught dead or alive and ruled out negotiations or release of anyone in exchange.
But while Jayalalitha can afford to talk of a storming operation, the mood in Karnataka is different. Krishna is under pressure to worry more about Nagappa’s well-being than nabbing Veerappan. The state thus is likely to consider an offer by Venugopal, a Mysore-based advocate who represented the 51 TADA detainees whose release Veerappan had demanded after abducting Rajkumar. Says law and parliamentary affairs minister D.B. Chandre Gowda: "We’re keen to negotiate. We’ll think of operations only after this phase." Two wildlife photographers, Kripakar and Senani, abducted along with 10 others by Veerappan in 1997, are also being considered as negotiators. Rajkumar’s ordeal dragged on for weeks, now to see how long this drama lasts.
S. Anand with B.R. srikanth