BOOK EXCERPT

How the police learnt to think like Veerappan before they could capture him

A book by the man who led the Special Task Force that killed the bandit in 2004 tells the full story.

In less than two decades, the Veerappan saga had assumed global dimensions. From Time magazine to a Chinese daily that reported the incredible story of “a law-breaker who managed to hide from the law for twenty years”, Veerappan grabbed headlines all over. Some Indian dailies also placed him in the league of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, christening them the “three most wanted”.

But despite his global profile, Veerappan was like a general without a division. He desperately needed troops and an escape strategy.

A flurry of audio tapes was sent from his hideout. While in one tape he raved and ranted about a possible partnership with the Peoples War Group (PWG) of Andhra Pradesh, in another he talked about his dream of a car ride with his wife and two daughters. In yet another he spoke of his grand escape to Russia. The STF members laughed hysterically on hearing this.

His innate political aspirations came to the fore in a tape in which he expressed support for bandit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi, who was shot dead in New Delhi outside her MP’s bungalow. “Has she done more harm than the ruling political class?” he thundered.

But the most important tapes were reserved for two persons – [former] Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Walter Davaram. In the tape meant for the [former] chief minister, he likened M Karunanidhi to the demon Bhasmasura for launching the Semmandhi raid. In Davaram’s tape, Veerappan took back his earlier unsavoury references. Both Jayalalithaa and Davaram were clear that the ops against Veerappan would continue. Expert analysis of these tapes, however, proved futile.

Meanwhile, Nedumaran, Kalyani and Kolathur Mani raised their demand for the withdrawal of the STF. Posters condemning the past “atrocities” of the STF appeared. The Tamil Nadu Police then arrested Kolathur Mani yet again (he had been out on bail following his previous arrest by the Karnataka STF).

Before I left Chennai to join the STF, I called on the CM. Despite all the media reports, she wished me luck and assured me of her full support. I knew she meant it. In my previous stint with the STF, I recall that all demands made by Walter Davaram, including satellite phones and Bolero jeeps, were approved immediately by the state administration.

The CM ensured that red tape never hindered the STF. Just as it should be with any special force anywhere. Elite groups are typically created to handle crisis situations. They need mission-focused troops, rigorous training, inspiring leadership at all levels and the best possible gear. The last thing they need is to deal with bureaucratic queries about why special rations in place of standard rations, or “2,000 ammo 7.62 cal” when “2,500 ammo 9 mm” is in stock. It is for this reason that the “tail” (quartermaster/ storekeeper) must look at the “teeth” (fighter in front).

Despite her generosity, the CM never put any pressure on us to deliver results.

Only once during an election campaign in May 2004 near the STF headquarters in Sathy did she ask, “How is it going?”

“We’re doing our best. We should have some good news soon,” I assured her.

She nodded and left it at that.

The news of my posting to the STF provided fodder for the media. Some reported that I was being “shunted to the jungles”. Many well-wishers in the media and police sympathised with me.

This show of sympathy stunned me. I knew it would not be easy to catch Veerappan, but it is precisely such challenges that make life worthwhile. After all, poring over musty files in an air-conditioned room wasn’t exactly my USP.

My extremely supportive wife, Meena, shifted to Sathy to provide me moral support, leaving our daughter behind in Chennai to pursue her master’s. Luckily for us, some trusted friends agreed to take care of our daughter.

While we were packing our stuff for the move, Meena told me, “You have eight years of service left. Even if it takes that long to get the job done, don’t worry.”

“You think it will take me eight years to catch Veerappan? Thanks for your touching faith,” I teased.

“Well, considering that you can’t even find your own slippers at home, it would be quite an achievement if you could actually nab Veerappan,” was her quick retort.

Touché!

But her witty reply belied the enormous faith she reposed in my abilities. For months, she refused to speak to a revered relative who insisted that Veerappan would never be apprehended.

K Vijay Kumar (centre). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
K Vijay Kumar (centre). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

I stepped out of the bridegroom’s chamber, my office at the wedding hall that now served as the STF’s headquarters in Sathy, and smiled. Maps with pins of many colours dotted all the walls. It was good to be back.

“I can see many forty-plus bachelors waiting to enter the marriage market. When the happy day arrives, you may even consider this hall.”

My ice-breaker caused smiles all around. The men knew I was referring to the vows taken by many in the STF to remain single until Veerappan was nabbed.

“We have to get this done. How much terrain are we talking about logistically?”

It was Hussain who answered. “Veerappan could be hiding in an area of almost 14,000 sq km – about 6,000 sq km each in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and another 2,000 sq km in Kerala. A lot of this terrain is under deciduous and semi-deciduous forest cover. The forest is full of thorns, rocks and shrubs. In some parts, like the Udutorai Halla gorge, you can hardly see 10 feet below. Plus, there are 400 small villages. It is impossible to keep an eye on all of them at once, but Veerappan can go to any of them for food and shelter, and often does.” The others in the room murmured in agreement.


“Also, I think some of our SOPs (standard operating procedures) are wrong. We move in large teams, which can be spotted easily. Whenever a raid is planned, we buy rations in bulk from the market. Veerappan has a well-oiled network of informers, so he gets to know of our plans,” Hussain added.

“Let’s take care of that issue immediately. Start buying rations in large quantities and store them here. Be ever ready with five days’ rations issued directly from our stores,” I said. I then moved on to my next concern:

“How many men are there in Veerappan’s gang now?”


The answer was prompt. “Sir, four to six.’”

Though Veerappan had many sympathisers and informers all over, his core group had dwindled to a handful.


“Why can’t we have six-men teams too?” I questioned.


I wasn’t being facetious, but was just drawing on the theory of Colonel John McCuen, a renowned American expert on counter-insurgency ops, who insisted that one should first mimic the foe, then go one better.

“Sir, if you recall, the STF had fifteen-men teams with LMGs when we first started patrolling,” someone said.

That was true, but the STF had since shrunk the patrol size, as it was hard to conceal big teams in the jungle.

I was instantly reminded of the tactics instituted by Brigadier Russell W Volckmann, a founding member of the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and one of the leading authorities on counter-insurgency and guerrilla operations. As a young colonel, he had led a guerrilla resistance against the invading Japanese army in the Philippines.

The Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita later insisted that Volckmann’s tiny bands of intrepid guerrillas gave him more trouble than the big armies he had faced in conventional battles. Volckmann’s and his men’s heroism earned him a place at the table when the Japanese finally surrendered, though he was quite low down in the food chain. Volckmann’s exploits had convinced me about the power of small units.

I asked my boys if they could attain the standards set by Cuban military leader and insurgency guru General Alberto Bayo.

“Most of you have been in the jungle for a long time. Can you march for fifteen hours with short breaks?”

Since the jungle’s undergrowth, poor visibility and general disorientation made night and day virtually the same, I insisted that we train harder at night, using simple techniques. “Just tie a handkerchief on your eyes right here in class and day turns into night. Walk on dry leaves to enhance the element of stealth,” I asserted. The idea was to bridge the forty-year head start that Veerappan had acquired over the STF, owing to his longer presence in the jungles. It could only be achieved by tougher training and more discipline.

“But first, we need to get smart and small,” I said.

Excerpted with permission from Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand, K Vijay Kumar, Rupa Publications.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.