Koose Muniswamy Veerappan: The Bandit King

He has been described as India's answer to Robin Hood. But Koose Muniswamy Veerappan was a ruthless killer who admitted to 120 murders before he died in a hail of police bullets on Monday. Justin Huggler tries to sort the facts from the fiction in a life that has already become legend
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A huge crowd gathered outside the hospital in the small, nondescript, southern Indian town of Dharmapuri yesterday. Nothing much of note has ever happened in the hospital before, but yesterday people streamed to the small town from all around, filling the streets and clamouring to see a body that was being held inside.

A huge crowd gathered outside the hospital in the small, nondescript, southern Indian town of Dharmapuri yesterday. Nothing much of note has ever happened in the hospital before, but yesterday people streamed to the small town from all around, filling the streets and clamouring to see a body that was being held inside.

The public were not allowed to see the dead man, but still they came. It became a sort of pilgrimage. For the name of the dead man inside the hospital was Veerappan and for 17 years he had been the most feared man in India. There were differing accounts of the price on his head yesterday. Some said 20m rupees (£250,000); others said 30m rupees (£360,000). At any rate, it was a staggering sum in Indian terms.

Veerappan was an ivory smuggler, a kidnapper and a murderer. He roamed 3,600 square miles of raw jungle, and hunted down and killed the police officers foolhardy enough to venture in and try to bring him out. He is said to have killed more than 2,000 elephants for their tusks, and later turned to the even more lucrative contraband trade in rare sandalwood from south India's jungles. He was wanted for more than 120 killings.

He boasted that he had cut his rivals into small pieces and fed them to the fish in the Cavery river. In 1987, he kidnapped Chidambaram, a Tamil Nadu forest official, and hacked him to death with an axe. He lured another official into his hideout with a promise to surrender, then beheaded him. The official's severed head was placed on a rock as a warning to all those who dared to defy Veerappan. Government forces did not recover the head for three years.

For 17 years Veerappan was the most wanted man in India, but no one could bring him in. A special police task force was even set up to hunt him down, armed like a military unit with assault rifles and night vision goggles. That was in 1993. It was not until Monday night, 11 years on, that they finally ran Veerappan to ground.

His body was exhibited to photographers inside the hospital yesterday. Their pictures show the lifeless wreckage of a face India feared and thrilled to at the same time: one eye missing, the lids hanging loose over the cavity of the eye socket, and a neat red bullet hole in the forehead. The huge handlebar moustache that had been Veerappan's trademark was, strangely, trimmed. Perhaps he knew the police were closing in and had tried to make himself look less distinctive.

With his moustache, his gaunt cheekbones and his insouciant stare, Veerappan was an image from a hundred years ago, like a gunfighter from the old American West. And India had as ambivalent an attitude to him as America has to Billy the Kid. In 2000, he kidnapped one of southern India's most popular film stars, Rajkumar, and held him for 108 days in the jungle before releasing him unharmed. The actor was 71 at the time, and while he was being held, his fans rioted in the city of Bangalore. Veerappan's fellow ethnic Tamils were attacked, and there was at least one death. But if Veerappan was India's blackest villain to some, to others he was a hero. He inspired at least two Bollywood films. He was able to survive in the jungle because villagers brought him and his men food. In his own heartlands, he was seen as a modern-day Robin Hood. When he sent a nine-hour videotaped interview to Indian television in 1996, it was broadcast.

He was born Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, but he came to be known by just one name - Veerappan, meaning "brave". He embodied India's curious relationship with the dacoits, or bandits, of whom Veerappan was certainly the most powerful and influential of modern times. Dacoity is alive and well on India's wilder fringes. The bandits terrorise society, robbing travellers and killing any who stand in their way. But they are also constantly glamourised in Indian culture. Phoolan Devi, the so-called Bandit Queen, had a film made about her life, and there were extraordinary scenes of grief at her funeral. Another female bandit serving a long jail sentence has just been given special permission by the courts to come out of prisoner to star as herself in a movie of her life.

But all the others were small fry next to Veerappan. At his height, he secured his jungle territory with landmines. When local politicians took advantage of a lull in activity from Veerappan to claim he had left the south and disappeared to Bombay, he carried out a bombing that killed 22 people just to prove he was still around. He was finally run to ground because he needed urgent medical attention for his eye.

At least, that was the official version. The Special Task Force (STF) said he had strayed far from his usual territory, and was on his way to get treatment for his eye. But police intelligence had infiltrated his organisation, and the ambulance he was travelling in, accompanied by four of his gang members, was reportedly driven by a STF officer.

Police surrounded the ambulance in the Pappireddipatti forest reserve and ordered Veerappan to surrender, but one of those inside the ambulance opened fire. In the ensuing gun battle, Veerappan and three of his associates, including his right-hand man, Sethukuzi Govindan, were killed.

The operation was a "joint operation meticulously carried out by both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu STF," said Vijayakumar, joint director-general of Tamil Nadu state police. Jyothi Prakash Mirzi, head of the Karntaka STF, said the operation was planned two to three weeks ago. After the vehicle was surrounded, the STF twice ordered the gang members to surrender, he said. "But the gang opened fire, forcing the STF to retaliate. A grenade was thrown into the vehicle and the STF also started firing."

That was the official version. But Indian police are notorious for what are called "false encounters". Wanted fugitives are not given any chance to surrender, but are cornered and shot down. The police then concoct lengthy cover stories of how the criminals were given the chance to surrender but chose to go down fighting.

Mr Mirzi did not even bother to deny rumours that Veerappan's death had been a "false encounter" yesterday, saying: "I cannot react to that. You have every liberty to come to any conclusion". There are those who allege many local politicians had good reason to want Veerappan silenced, thus avoiding any revelations from the dock.

Nobody is exactly sure when Veerappan was born, but they say he was around 60 when he died on Monday night. His birthplace was Gopinatham, a Tamil village in Karnataka. He killed his first elephant at the age of ten, so the story goes, and his first man at 17, but it wasn't until the mid-eighties that he came to national attention, following the killings of several Karnataka forest officials. In 1986 he was briefly imprisoned, but he escaped, killing four policemen and an unarmed forest official in their sleep.

He remained a mythic figure until some brave Tamil journalists went into the jungle to meet him and came out with photographs and an interview. By 1990 he was major news. The killings had become frequent and he had ambushed and killed a police unit that was hot on his trail. The Special Task Force was set up with a single goal: to hunt down Veerappan and bring him in, dead or alive.

The story is not completely one-sided. The police were accused of using brutal methods in their efforts to track down their man. R Gopal, one of the journalists who interviewed Veerappan, said that if the jungle villagers helped the police, "Veerappan killed them". Then he added: "The saddest part is, if they do not help the police, the police will kill them." In later life, Veerappan became increasingly political and is believed to have become involved with two extremist Tamil nationalist groups. Whereas in his youth his motives had been purely financial, he later started to make demands for the release of imprisoned Tamil activists and militants in exchange for the release of hostages.

He also repeatedly offered to surrender in exchange for an amnesty, something the southern state governments were not prepared to agree to. At one point he is even believed to have offered to serve a short prison sentence.

Veerappan was renowned for his cruelty, but was said to have a tender side where his wife, Muthulakshmi, was concerned. (When asked what attracted her to him, she replied: "His moustache and his notoriety".) But he is also said to have strangled his own new-born daughter because he was enraged at having a third girl in a row without a son.

Veerappan was bad to the bone. But the likelihood is that won't stop him becoming an even more romantic figure to India in death than he was in life. As the crowds gathered around the hospital in Dharmapuri yesterday, a new myth was already in the making. The body wasn't wearing Veerappan's trademark green fatigues. And what about the missing moustache? Some in the crowd were convinced that, somewhere in the jungle, Veerappan was still out there, raising hell.

My chilling encounter with a jungle killer

R Gopal, editor of the Tamil magazine "Nakkeeran", had a series of meetings with Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, which resulted in the freeing of a number of hostages. Here, he recalls their first encounter in 1996:

We trekked to Veerappan territory and let it be known that we would like to meet the man. He had many informers who then spread the word through various checkposts. Finally, Veerappan got the message.

I had a problem because of my moustache. The police in the area thought I was a Veerappan follower and were ready to shoot me on sight. On the other hand, Veerappan's men thought I was a policeman in disguise and were also prepared to kill me. In the end, I covered my face with a towel in order to hide the moustache.

Once the contact was established, we had a walk of about 15 miles. Suddenly a man materialised in front of us with a levelled rifle. I yelled that I was R Gopal, the Nakkeeran editor, and not to shoot. He lowered his gun and led me to his chief.

Veerappan and I established a simple relationship. He was a hardcore criminal, a killer. I am a journalist. Going in there for the first time, seeing at first hand the precautions he took to hide his presence, I said it would be near impossible to trap him. I was not justifying the tactics Veerappan employed - merely stating a fact.

Suddenly he told me to turn off my video camera. He then called some of his followers and sent them out to search. After a while they came back and said: "It was a stag." At that, Veerappan told me I could turn the camera on again. I asked him how he knew there was something in the forest. He said: "I saw a bird flying."

He went on to describe the five different types of flight a bird uses: from the way it flies in search of food, or to return to its nest, to the way it flies when it is frightened. "And this particular bird," he said, "flew in fright so I sent someone to check." I could go on giving such examples. He was a master of junglecraft.

Veerappan told me his biggest fear was being put in jail. Prison, he said, would endanger his life. However, he later appeared to contradict himself by declaring that, under certain conditions, he might agree to being taken into custody for a short period of time.

On video, Veerappan openly admitted to 120 murders. He then revealed that he wanted to produce a film based on his life. He said the film should not be censored - because he wanted to expose his real story, talk of the links between himself and politicians and others and tell the true story of what happened.

We were accused of giving Veerappan the oxygen of publicity - of making him a hero. That is not how to see it. We were merely trying to highlight his real story, show how he became the killer he was, in a bid to inform the public about the true facts. To my mind he must be the only hardcore criminal publicly to confess to so many murders - and in the process of telling that story, a section of the public chose to view him in larger-than-life terms.