Death of the bandit king liberates a village from fear

Robber terrorized southern Indian forests for more than 10 years

October 24, 2004|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

GEDASHALLA, India - After the bandit king died, the villagers lighted firecrackers and picked gooseberries in the forest. And they decided to reopen their temple shut 10 years earlier because people were so mad at their god.

The bandit king called himself Veerappan, which means "brave" in Hindi, and all of India knew him by this one name. He was gunned down by police last week, caught in an elaborate trap because he wanted cataract surgery. His death has freed the southern tip of India.

"We are very happy that he's dead," said Ramanna, of Gedashalla village, who has bullet and knife scars left by Veerappan and his men. "Now, we can go anywhere we want."

For more than 30 years, Veerappan, whose full name was Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, had a stranglehold on forests in this region, all 3,000 square miles of them. He is said to have killed 2,000 elephants and 124 men.

He started his life of crime by poaching ivory, moved on to smuggling sandalwood and eventually graduated to kidnapping for money. Veerappan gained worldwide attention in 2000, when he captured Rajkumar, one of the most beloved movie stars in southern India, and held him for 108 days, before being paid a hefty ransom.

Veerappan became the most wanted of the country's dastardly outlaws. As his reputation grew, so did his handlebar mustache, which he reportedly cared for with special oils and black hair dye and pulled on while he was thinking.

He cultivated his theatrical, larger-than-life image. At one point, he released a series of videotapes portraying himself as a messiah. At another, he offered to surrender if a movie was made of his life.

The criminal turned into a symbol of evil, an example of India's tendency to venerate its villains, a leading member of the bandit hall of fame. He was feared but celebrated, a psychopathic Robin Hood who stole a lot from the rich and gave a little to the poor, unless the poor betrayed him, in which case he would behead the poor or maybe cut them into little pieces.

Veerappan, who died at 52, eluded a police task force for 11 years. He was suspected of witchcraft, of turning invisible and deflecting bullets. He was described as part animal, part human. He was said to run like a leopard, know the language of birds and drink monkey blood. He was superstitious. If a quail crossed in front of him, it was a bad omen. If a woodpecker chirped from the west in the morning, it was a good omen.

"He's an animal, a fox with a sixth sense," said Police Inspector Mohan Navas, who like many police officers still referred to Veerappan in the present tense. "He can live like an animal and think like a man. That's my findings, the result of my investigation."

Navas belonged to the task force of 752 officers, dispatched to the forests in 1993 and charged only with catching Veerappan. The task force tried many ways to find him - even satellite technology. Police patrolled the forests, keeping snapshots of their attempts in photo albums. They wrote a 30-point profile of Veerappan, starting with, "He wakes up early in the morning," and ending with, "Often [inquired] about sorcerers."

Police put up signs throughout the forest villages, offering a reward of more than $1 million for information leading to Veerappan's capture.

Finally, police infiltrated Veerappan's gang and persuaded the bandit to leave the forest for cataract surgery. Last Monday night, undercover officers drove a fake ambulance and Veerappan into the trap.

Veerappan refused to surrender and opened fire, police said. He and three gang members were killed. When police opened the ambulance door, they barely recognized Veerappan. He no longer sported his trademark handlebar mustache or his trademark khaki uniform. He was out of shape. He no longer looked like the bandit king.

Last week, many people in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka celebrated.

The 752 members of the task force will each be rewarded with a promotion, $6,500 and a housing plot. Villagers found their own rewards. They walked in the forests again, and collected twigs to make brooms and gooseberries to sell.

"Now we don't have any problems at all," said Jaddayan, 49, the leader of Gedashalla village, who like many tribal people has only one name. "All of our problems are solved."

The problems came to Gedashalla in 1993, the year that the police task force formed and Navas, the police inspector, first visited. Navas asked villagers if they would side with a criminal or the police. The decision to support the police was largely theoretical, because no one here yet knew who Veerappan was.

But when villagers saw a large camp in the forest, with 150 people and 26 tents, Jaddayan told Navas. The camp was raided. And Veerappan vowed revenge.

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