24th September 2000

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Veerappan - bedfellow with LTTE for homeland cause

If not physically, Veerappan is ideologically a hostage at the hands of militants.
He now hopes to be a political hero taking up the Tamil homeland cause.

By N. Bhanutej/Bangalore

Koose Muniswamy Veerappan and Che Guevara have little in common. Yet, the forest brigand, who has engaged the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments in hectic parleys since abducting Kannada actor Rajkumar on July 30, talks of the legendary Latin American revolutionary and a Tamil cause he is fighting.

Less than three years ago, the poacher-turned-sandalwood smuggler and kidnapper was on the run. Most of his gang members had been either arrested or killed and his vital links in villages had been cut off. The gang was at its weakest and Veerappan was even planning to surrender; in the bargain he was hoping for mannippu (pardon).

Pardon is the least on his agenda now. He has donned the garb of a Tamil nationalist, hoping to be the founding father of a 'Vishala Tamil Nadu', and his demands are purely political. Among his charter of demands for Rajkumar's release is the freeing of five men of the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA), jailed in Tamil Nadu under the National Security Act.

How did this hard-boiled outlaw who had earned himself a Robin Hood image in a few villages on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border suddenly become the champion of the Tamil cause?

By mid-1998, Veerappan had abandoned his hopes for amnesty. Prof. Krishnaswamy, a legal expert whom he had taken hostage that May, had impressed upon him that his crimes could not earn him pardon. Krishnaswamy, who was an adviser to Tamil magazine Netrikan, accompanied its editor M.S. Mani and two journalists to the forest to persuade Veerappan to surrender. Veerappan took them hostage and sent back the editor with a demand for Rs 8 lakh and the release of a person, reportedly an LTTE supporter. The Special Task Force later rescued the three men.

That was also the same time when ten masked men, believed to be extremists belonging to the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA), Tamil Nation Retrieval Troops (TNRT) and Tamil National Liberation Force (TNLF), were seen in Veerappan's company. Essentially it is the same organisation; the TNRT is the political wing, the TNLA the military wing and the TNLF, the social wing.

The organisation finds its philosophical roots in the Dravida Kazhagam movement in Tamil Nadu. Its ideology is focused on forming an independent Tamil homeland comprising Tamil Nadu, the Tamil-speaking areas of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and the Tamil-speaking provinces of Sri Lanka. Armed rebellion, its members believe, is the way to attain that 'homeland' and in pursuing this goal, they indulge in propaganda, looting banks and kidnapping for ransom.

The founder of this three-wing organisation, Tamilarasan, an engineering student, was earlier a member of the People's War (PW) of Andhra Pradesh. He rose to be its provincial committee member when he was expelled from the organisation in 1986. Apparently, his views on nationalism were unacceptable to the party.

Tamilarasan launched the TNRT. His advocacy of a casteless society and elimination of the stranglehold of landlords drew a reasonable following from the jobless youngsters of Dharmapuri, Perambalur and Cuddalore districts in Tamil Nadu. Its military wing, the TNLA, shot into limelight with a bomb blast at the Kudamurutti bridge just before Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Thanjavur in 1986. It continued with such minor bomb blasts; about 86 of them over 24 years, mainly Central government establishments, TV towers, radio stations, banks, the Railways and statues of national leaders.

In September 1987, Tamilarasan and his men targeted a bank in his own village, Ponparappi. But before they could escape, Tamilarasan and four gang members were lynched to death by the villagers. Maaran took over as leader and built up a following among articulate Tamil youth, mostly from lower middle-class backgrounds.

In 1997 Maaran established links with Veerappan, who was lying low in the jungle. From night-vision devices to literature on Che Guevara's guerrilla warfare methods, Maaran supplied Veerappan the equipment that would transform the brigand.

The relationship was symbiotic to begin with. For Veerappan's depleted gang Maaran's militants were much-needed manpower. Veerappan even trained them in jungle tactics. For Maaran's outfit the forest was a safe base to hide. Taking a leaf out of Che Guevara's book, Maaran split the gang into small groups to indulge in armed outbursts.

"They have imaginary grievances which they want to achieve through adventurous armed strikes," said an intelligence officer who has worked in anti-Veerappan operations. "They hold the state to ransom and when it is compelled to meet the demands, they tell their followers that it is a major victory for their movement."

When the government comes down heavily on them and kills some of their cadre, they portray these deaths as sacrifices. "From then on, they build their movement on issues like martyrdom of their colleagues," he said.

Compensation to the Tamil victims who died in 1991 riots on the Cauvery issue or making Tamil the medium of instruction in schools , as Veerappan has demanded in his charter, were never Veerappan's causes. Now they are, because they are Maaran's causes.

"If not physically, he is ideologically Maaran's hostage," said a veteran STF officer. "It is completely believable that Veerappan himself is a captive at the hands of the Tamil militants." Rajkumar's kidnap is seen as a larger plan to achieve an independent Tamil nation.

Maaran is known to be a brilliant operator. It is entirely possible that he has made Veerappan believe that he will be a hero like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro (Cuban president, who teamed up with Guevara in the revolution) if he takes up the Tamil homeland cause. For the brigand whose demands used to be money and amnesty, the new cause was worth risking a kidnap. The image of a political leader could earn him a way into the mainstream.

Wanted men

Who are the five men whose release Veerappan is so adamant about? While Muthukumar, Manikandan and Sathyamoorthy belong to the Tamil Nation Retrieval Troops (TNRT), Venkatesan and Ponnivalavan belong to the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA). All five were arrested about a year ago.

Along with Veerappan, Muthukumar, Manikandan and Sathyamoorthy attacked the Vellithiruppoor police station in Erode district on December 20, 1998. They decamped with nine guns, a revolver and money. The three extremists were arrested in Thanjavur in February 1999 and detained under NSA in January 2000. Following Veerappan's demand for the release of these five, the Tamil Nadu government has decided to drop all charges against them.

Muthukumar, 33, who hails from Palani, is said to be in charge of the TNRT. He used to smuggle petrol to Sri Lanka; there, he got LTTE training and even fought battles at Palali and Jaffna. A good athlete, he was the first among the Tamil extremists to establish contact with Veerappan.

He was first arrested for smuggling goods to the LTTE at Manamelkudi in Pudukottai in 1997.

Sathyamoorthy, 29, also of TNRT, is from Kamarajarpuram in Pudukottai. He was a Dravidar Kazhagam activist and good orator. Jobless after obtaining a diploma in textile technology, he joined TNRT and had once taken a doctor to the jungles when Veerappan was wounded.

Radio' Venkatesan, 36, of TNLA is regarded as the most dangerous of the five extremists. He owes his nickname to his penchant for carrying a transistor. He is also an expert bomb maker. Son of a retired tehsildar, he hails from Kudanthai in Tanjavur. Involved in various attacks on police stations, he was arrested in connection with the murder of a policeman. A graduate, he entered the jungles in March 1998 and is believed to be the key person who infused Tamil extremist feelings in Veerappan. He is also said to be a close friend of TNLA leader Maaran.

Ponnivalavan, 35, is from Sethiyathope in Cuddalore district. Considered close to Maaran, he is the second-in-command in TNLA and he was involved in the Andimadam police station attack and the April 1999 bomb blast near Sterlite copper plant in Tuticorin. In December 1998, he and two others waylaid two jewellers of Jayankondam and decamped with jewels valued at Rs 12 lakh.

Manikandan alias Gopal, 31, hails from Kamarajarpuram in Pudukottai. He started out as a member of the Pattali Makkal Katchi's student wing and went on to become the second-in-command in TNRT. He got training from the LTTE in the Vanni jungles and was one of those who raided the Vellithiruppoor police station. Before his arrest, the business administration and law graduate was running a clinical laboratory. He addresses Veerappan affectionately as periyavare (the elder one).

Courtesy : The Week

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