Bandit King: India's fearsome Robin Hood sets out his terms for surrender

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The Independent Online
The longest-running manhunt in Indian history lurched forward again this week when the police forces of Karanataka and Tamil Nadu states resumed their search for Veerappan, the Bandit King. The fugitive is held responsible for the deaths of 130 people and 2,000 elephants, but is seen by many as a hero. Our Correspondent in New Delhi describes the life and times of India's Robin Hood.

They have been trying to catch him for more than 10 years. Back in 1986 they had him briefly in their clutches, but thanks to grease which enabled him to slip out of the handcuffs, or perhaps a healthy bribe to his guards, he got away. He returned to his stronghold, 6,000 square kilometres of deciduous and sandalwood forest, full of deer, monkey, wild elephant and other wildlife, and resumed butchering elephants and poaching sandalwood.

The latest episode of the saga was played out last week. On 22 October, six hostages whom Veerappan had kidnapped a fortnight before, including two well-known wildlife photographers, were released unharmed, trekking 10 kms from where they had been dumped.

They brought with them a cassette tape on which Veerappan spelt out his latest terms for surrender, which for the first time included a profession of willingness to stand trial. Terms earlier accepted by the governments of Tami Nadu and Karnataka included cash for the rehabilitation of Veerappan's relatives and a minimal prison term for Veerappan himself in a special prison camp. Veerappan also wanted a feature film to be made about his life, and at one point he was insisting that he be the director.

The surrender date was set for 31 October, during the festival of Diwali - appropriate, as one official happily pointed out, as Diwali celebrates "the triumph of good over evil". But Diwali came and went with no word from the famous "forest brigand". By last Tuesday, the Special Task Force (STF) set up seven years ago by the two states specifically to catch him was again on the move.

No one is betting on their success. Short (5ft 6in) wiry, charismatic, an excellent shot, and possessed of a frighteningly ruthless streak, Veerappan has lived his whole adult life in the forest.

He was born about 54 years ago in a village on the forest's edge. While still a boy he was beaten up by forest rangers, trying to gather information about ivory poachers. This taught him something about the value of ivory. He shot his first elephant in his teens and became right-hand man to a notorious elephant hunter. When his master retired, Veerappan took over his domain.

That was more than 20 years ago, and for many years Veerappan was only one of many small-time poachers holed up in the woods. Then in 1986, the ban on ivory sales took a grip, and he switched his attention to a huge, protected area of sandalwood within the forest. Within a few years he had built a thriving business cutting and smuggling sandalwood, trucking it through the woods down roads his men had constructed to factories in Kerala.

But it was also from this time that the states which Veerappan's domain straddled began to take the threat he posed to their authority seriously. In 1987, after the murder of a forest ranger, teams of rangers began tailing him.

In 1990, the Karnataka government set up the STF to track him down. He met these challenges with brutality and contempt, killing police and rangers in large numbers. The government had its successes, as when in 1991, 100 suspected gang members were arrested. But Veerappan got his revenge, shooting dead and decapitating the architect of the assault on him.

Steadily the Veerappan myth began to grow. While lambasting him in editorials, the Indian newspapers could not resist printing large, romantic photographs of the man, striking defiant poses in the greenwood with his muzzle-loading rifle and his luxuriant handlebar moustache.

Tales of the landmines and bombs he deployed and the tortures he inflicted - rumours had it that he had boiled people alive, that he liked to decapitate his enemies and carry their heads around as trophies - struck fear into those who tracked him; but at the same time Robin Hood-esque tales about his philanthropy and kindness to humble villagers accumulated.

Sometimes he was called the Bandit King, equating him with Phoolan Devi, the bandit queen; but his apologists maintained that he was free from the caste-hatred that fired Devi, that he killed only those who wanted to kill him.

The long attrition with the forces of the states has depleted Veerappan's strength: from a peak of 150, his gang has shrunk to five or so men.

He himself suffers from asthma, and the rigours of the forest life have wearied him. Hence the repeated offers to surrender which he has made over the past two years, though each time he has thought better of it at the last moment.

Disgusted by their corrupt and scheming politicians, Indians cannot find it in their hearts to loathe Veerappan, despite all the blood on his hands. His latest hostages came back glowing with accounts of his good manners and hospitality and his softheartedness as well as of his alarming mood swings.

"He was so pleased with us," one recalled, "that he danced for us once." He is said to have wept when they parted. But although these sophisticated visitors persuaded Veerappan for the first time that he would have to stand trial, within days of their release he was back with more impossible demands: large cash compensation for all those who had suffered at the hands of the STF, an undertaking that he would not have to spend more than two years in prison. Then he vanished, as usual.

The only condition for surrender that seems certain to be met, whether he surrenders or not, is the one regarding a film about his life: Bollywood already has it in hand. Even Hollywood might be interested, though it is doubtful whether Kevin Costner could cope with the accent.