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.
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.
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.