Bandit king frees film star hostage

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The south Indian film legend Muthuraj Puttaswamiah, better known by his screen nameRajkumar, was released early yesterday after more than three months of captivity in dense jungle.

The south Indian film legend Muthuraj Puttaswamiah, better known by his screen nameRajkumar, was released early yesterday after more than three months of captivity in dense jungle.

The hero of 210 films in the Kannada language spoken in Karnataka State, revered by his fans as a sort of living demi-god, was taken hostage on 30 July by a notorious "bandit king" Gopinath Muzhukkam Veerappan, who has held sway in the forests spanning Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for more than 20 years, since his mid-thirties.

India's most sensational kidnapping in living memory provoked rioting in Bangalore, the Karnataka capital, by the star's fans who attacked property of the Tamil minority, causing at least one death.

Rajkumar's kidnapping sent the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu into a panic. Businesses and schools and cinemas were closed, and the disruption to trade and industry caused losses estimated at 1.2bn rupees (nearly £18m).

The brigand, who shot his first elephant as a teenager and who survives by smuggling ivory and sandalwood, dispatched the star's wife to Bangalore with an audio-cassette containing his demands, and the chief ministers of the two states hastened to do his bidding.

In other hostage-takings, Veerappan's demands were straightforward, even quaint: cash for relatives who had been imprisoned, a token prison term for himself in a special prison camp. Three years ago he demanded that a film be made about his life, with himself as director.

But recently, Veerappan appears to have made new friends in the jungle, and this time his demands were overtly political, straight from the manifesto of Tamil Nadu's extreme nationalists, who are allied to the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Veerappan's 10 demands included freedom for five members of an extreme group called the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army and the freeing on bail of 51 alleged guerrillas awaiting trial. He also wanted statues of Tamil and Karnataka culture heroes to be put up in Bangalore and Madras respectively.

Both state chief ministers, alarmed by the possibility of ethnic pogroms if 73-year-old Rajkumar was to die in captivity, dispatched a journalist called R R Gopal into the jungle to negotiate, because he had successfully interceded with Veerappan during another hostage crisis in 1997.

Gopal told Veerappan most of his demands would be met: the men under trial would be set free, even the statues would be erected. But this spineless response apparently stiffened Veerappan's determination to get a better deal.

Now he wanted all charges dropped against the 51 men facing trial. The High Courts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were happy to go along with this outrageous demand, but the infuriated father of a policeman murdered by Veerappan's men (he is said to be responsible for at least 100 deaths) went to the Supreme Court in Delhi to challenge the decision.

Last week the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the regional court. The men under trial would stay in prison, and the charges against them would not be dropped.

In Madras, there were more problems. Another negotiator had been appointed to augment Gopal, a man called Nedumaran, a veteran Tamil nationalist and close friend of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran. He had already undertaken one mission to Veerappan's jungle hide-out, but refused to go again after he was described as "anti-national" in the Tamil Nadu state assembly.

For the ageing Rajkumar, walking long distances every day to confuse would-be rescuers and surviving on rice and sambar (a spicy sauce) things were beginning to look grim. But at the weekend, Nedumaran swallowed his injured pride and set off for the jungle, although there was no obvious hope of success.

Most Indians have come to regard the whole affair as farcical, and the news ofRajkumar's release yesterday came as a bolt from the blue. So far, there has been no word about any concessions that may have been made to secure the release.

The Supreme Court also delivered a stinging rebuke to the two state governments for failing to end Veerappan's reign in the jungle. Whatever he may have gained from his latest exploit, India's sanguinary Robin Hood remains as free as a bird.