Ruling against smugglers hits film star's hopes of freedom

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The Independent Online

The southern Indian film star Rajkumar, kidnapped by the "jungle brigand" Veerappan on 30 July, has now spent 100 days in captivity in dense forest, and two developments yesterday suggest he will stay there for considerably longer.

The southern Indian film star Rajkumar, kidnapped by the "jungle brigand" Veerappan on 30 July, has now spent 100 days in captivity in dense forest, and two developments yesterday suggest he will stay there for considerably longer.

In New Delhi the Supreme Court overturned earlier rulings by courts in Mysore, Karnataka, and Madras, Tamil Nadu, that cases pending against 51 former associates of the ivory-and-sandalwood-smuggling outlaw could be withdrawn and the accused men released on bail. The men's release was one of Veerappan's demands for securing Rajkumar's freedom. The governments of the two states involved, Karnataka (home of the film star) and Tamil Nadu (home of the brigand) were ready to do Veerappan's bidding, and the regional courts, too, hastened to obey. But Abdul Kareem, whose only son Shakeel Ahmed was one of 28 police officers shot dead by Veerappan's gang in 1993, appealed, and yesterday the Supreme Court backed Mr Kareem's complaint in the clearest possible terms.

Among several other acid remarks, the three-man bench asked rhetorically: "Was there any material to suggest that after the accused respondents had secured their discharge... Veerappan would release Rajkumar?" So the gang members remain behind bars, and Rajkumar remains in the dense jungle at Veerappan's pleasure. At the end of September one of the three other people abducted with the actor escaped, after which word reached the outside world that Veerappan's attitude to the remaining hostages, whom he had formerly treated hospitably, had turned "cold" and that they were desperate to return home.

But on 16 October another hostage, Rajkumar's son-in-law, S A Govindaraju, was set free, apparently for health reasons. There have been no positive developments since.

Meanwhile the new emissary of the authorities to Veerappan, an extreme Tamil nationalist politician named P Nedumaran, was due to return to the jungle with three other negotiators today, but last night he implied he was throwing in the towel.

Apparently piqued by a description of himself in Tamil Nadu's state assembly as "anti-national", Nedumaran told reporters at his home in Madras that the politician who had made the offensive remark should be sent to negotiate with Veerappan in his place.

Aged 72, Rajkumar is the unrivalled demigod of the regional cinema of Karnataka, and in 200 films made over 40 years he has become a sort of embodiment of the state's identity. When he was kidnapped, riots broke out in the state capital, Bangalore, and shops and property of the Tamil minority were attacked. If the actor was to come to harm or die in captivity, the governments of both states fear there could be widespread unrest and violence between the two communities.

In Karnataka, supporters continue to stage anguished hunger strikes in solidarity with their idol, and there is concern that yesterday's Supreme Court ruling could provoke another bout of rioting. Some of Rajkumar's devotees, however, believe that no harm can befall the star. His yoga teacher, for example, a retired policeman called Honappa Fakirappa Naikar, who began teaching him yoga in 1979, told a weekly magazine this week, "Annavaru [big brother] has reached that yogic plane where nothing can affect him. Everything in the material world is imagination ... Annavaru has understood this."

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