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Chasing Veerappan & his Lanka Dreams - India's Most Famous Bandit Manhunt

A fake plan to get him safe passage to Sri Lanka for cataract treatment was what lured slain forest brigand Veerappan out of his safe spots in the Mudumalai forests into an 'ambulance' decoy of the police, says former chief of the Special Task Force K Vijay Kumar who has now come out with a tell-all book Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand.

Deepa Balakrishnan | CNN-News18deepab18

Updated:April 1, 2017, 2:03 PM IST
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Chasing Veerappan & his Lanka Dreams - India's Most Famous Bandit Manhunt
Country's most wanted bandit Koose Muniswamy Veerappan was killed on October 19, 2004, in a shoot-out with police. (Photo: Reuters)

Bengaluru: A fake plan to get him safe passage to Sri Lanka for cataract treatment was what lured slain forest brigand Veerappan out of his safe spots in the Mudumalai forests into an 'ambulance' decoy of the police, says former chief of the Special Task Force K Vijay Kumar who has now come out with a tell-all book Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand.

And, interestingly, the final Operation Cocoon that killed Veerappan in 2004 used the trust built by several local informants who had infiltrated his gang and kept track of the problems with Veerappan's gang, which had been reduced to just four members. This, recalls NK Senthamaraikannan, who was second-in-command to Kumar during the operation, took six painstaking months before the force could build enough ground to lure him out.

STF-cop

NK Senthamaraikannan (left) was the second-in-command during the operation, while Saravanan (right) was the constable who drove the ambulance during the op. The latter is now a sub-inspector.

Kannan, as he is known, was SP (Intelligence) and one of the last three men to see Veerappan alive. The brigand kept the police forces of two states on their toes for at least two decades, and continues to be a mystery that invokes fear in the Mudumalai forest range that spans the boundaries of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

"Veerappan was suffering from 70 percent cataract. He was struck by this idea of a separate Tamil 'Eelam' based on LTTE's ideology. He also wanted to go to Sri Lanka to access treatment. He had been assured by the 'extremists' we had infiltrated into his team that he would get help in more men and weapons. So he agreed to come out. The ambulance was driven by STF men in disguise. They were told that if Veerappan suspected something, they are to dash against a tree and immobilise him — do anything but not let him escape," said Kannan, in an interview during the book's launch in Bengaluru.

A fake route plan — from the forests to Salem to Trichy to Pudukottai and the coastal town of Adirampattinam and then on to Sri Lanka — including a fake plan to change drivers in different places to ward off suspicion — were all made as part of the trap. Veerappan, who emerged from the forest with his three gang members, was carrying an AK-47 self-loading rifle and boarded the van wearing white, having shaved off part of his famous handlebar moustache to avoid being recognised.

ALSO READ: Chennai's Supercop Senthamaraikannan Finds Himself Nowhere to go

If he had, indeed, escaped to Lanka, Veerappan hoped to come back with good eyesight and better equipped to resume sandalwood smuggling and poaching.

Saravanan, the constable who drove that ambulance, is now a sub-inspector. He was armed and accompanied by another officer, SI Velladurai, who had recently joined the team and was chosen for this operation as his face was little-known.

And above all, Saravanan was deeply conscious of how this was, literally, a do-or-die situation, considering how many policemen had earlier been killed by Veerappan. "I was told not to talk to him at all. Not a single word. I drove to the pre-decided point, waited for the cargo as we called it and drove out by the route decided," he said.

Most of these officers can recall the events of October 18, 2004 as though it were yesterday — the day Operation Cocoon to kill Veerappan was carried out. Kumar even says in the book's prologue that he kept wondering on that fateful night whether he was sending two more policemen to their deaths. And decided to reassure himself by what an astrologer had told him —18th October would be a special day.

"Yes, we did try to get him (Veerappan) alive, we gave him one opportunity to surrender when we had him surrounded. Then once more. He started firing and we retaliated. We had already lost enough men, anything could have gone wrong. We would have lost more of our men, we did not want that," said Kumar at the launch.

Recalling that nothing shakes a commander of a force like the STF than seeing bodies of his men being brought out repeatedly, Kumar recounted that the STF often used caricatures of the bandit as their target boards during shooting practice.

The bandit, who continues to capture the imagination of many in the region, was easily one of the most-feared ones in the country, with hundreds of crores having been spent by successive governments on the manhunt launched to find him. Veerappan had kept the police forces of three states on their toes, having killed nearly over 180 people — at least half of them police and forest officials.

But the tell-all book is perhaps just 20 percent of what went into catching the brigand, says Shankar Bidari, former DGP of Karnataka, who led the STF briefly.

"I remember two of my officials went to a temple in Kumbakonam (in Tamil Nadu) to consult an astrologer to ask how long this operation will take. When they came back, they didn't tell me what the soothsayer told them. I egged them on, they let out that the astrologer had told them it would take 10 years... 2004, they were told," Bidari recalls in a lighter vein, adding that he was all the more determined to bring down Veerappan's strength when he heard this.

Bidari is credited with decimating Veerappan's gang from 300-plus to merely a handful in the mid-90s.

"The crux of how we got Veerappan to believe our decoys, and how he came out — that hasn't been told," agrees Kannan.

And some stories, as they say, will perhaps be taken by these officers to their graves and never make it to print. But this book, undoubtedly, is the most authentic version of the real-life thriller that Veerappan's manhunt was.

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