VEERAPPAN

Twelve years af­ter Veerappan’s fi­nal en­counter, for­mer spe­cial task force chief K. VI­JAY KU­MAR de­liv­ers a fas­ci­nat­ing mem­oir of the epic 20-year con­test be­tween the brig­and of the san­dal­wood forests and the law. Here is an ex­clu­sive eye­wit­ness ac­count of

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An ex­cerpt from the mem­oir of for­mer Spe­cial Task Force chief K. Vi­jay Ku­mar on his fi­nal en­counter with the brig­and

Oc­to­ber 18, 2004, 2200 hrs T mi­nus 60 min­utes

It was the fourth night af­ter the new moon. Poor vis­i­bil­ity was wors­ened by the four mas­sive ta­marind trees near the lo­ca­tion. If this both­ered the well-drilled com­man­dos, they cer­tainly didn’t show it. Wait­ing in the dark for long hours in the hope of get­ting a sin­gle shot to be taken within sec­onds was part of their ex­per­tise. In the past, they had lain in am­bush in far worse con­di­tions.

Kan­nan and I stood next to the one-room school in Padi, around 12 km from Dharma­puri. The school over­looked the road. Its roof pro­vided a per­fect field of fire. Six of my crack com­man­dos were squeezed to­gether on the school’s roof, weapons at the ready. An un­der­cover po­lice ve­hi­cle, mas­querad­ing as a sug­ar­cane-laden lorry, was parked in the mid­dle of the road. It was named ‘Sweet Box’, as it was full of sug­ar­cane sup­pos­edly head­ing to­wards the sugar mill nearby.

The lorry was ac­tu­ally meant to block the path of the on­com­ing Co­coon. It also housed three tech ex­perts, who would re­ceive signals from the sur­veil­lance cam­era con­cealed in­side the am­bu­lance. It was their job to con­firm that the tar­get was in­side the ve­hi­cle be­fore we in­ter­cepted it.

An­other lorry—co­de­named ‘Mo­bile Bunker’—packed with sand­bags and armed STF com­man­dos was parked on the other side of the road, at an an­gle of about 45 de­grees to the school, par­tially con­cealed by a tree. If all went off well, the am­bu­lance would be trapped, hemmed in from all sides by the Sweet Box, Mo­bile Bunker, the school and Tiru’s team. An­other DSP waited in the east to­wards Dharma­puri town. His job was to cut out all in­com­ing traf­fic. We needed a ster­ile zone to en­sure no col­lat­eral dam­age. Un­usu­ally for him, Veerappan was not very alert that day. In fact, his mind seemed pre­oc­cu­pied with memories and re­grets. But his nat­u­ral op­ti­mism seemed to resur­face de­spite these dark thoughts. As his mind hatched plans, his gaze fell on the 7.62 mm SLR ly­ing near his feet. Many of his com­rades had moved on to the dead­lier AK-47, but he still liked to carry the weapon, which he had per­son­ally taken from a po­lice­man killed dur­ing the am­bush with SP Gopal Ho­sur. Veerappan smiled at the mem­ory and glanced out of the am­bu­lance...

A few me­tres down the road, Ku­mare­san, a seem­ingly non­de­script STF old-timer, sat in a shack. He half-heart­edly picked at some food, try­ing to make sure he was well within the shad­ows. Ex­cept for the driver, Durai, Kan­nan and I, he was the only other per­son who was aware of the tar­get’s iden­tity. As the am­bu­lance passed by, Durai non­cha­lantly stretched his arm out of the win­dow, flat­tened his hand against the side of the ve­hi­cle and moved his thumb very slightly. The tar­get, lost in his reverie, didn’t no­tice. But Ku­mare­san did so in­stantly. He also spot­ted two other things—the blue re­volv­ing light of the am­bu­lance was on, which meant that the en­tire gang was in­side. So was the fog light, which meant all the gang mem­bers were armed.

T mi­nus 10 min­utes

Kan­nan glanced at me and gave a thumbs-up. Just then, we heard a slight click­ing sound on our muf­fled wire­less set. It was a sig­nal from Tiru that our prey had come into view. Kan­nan ut­tered the words, ‘Co­coon in ten min­utes.’ My AK was dan­gling on its sling from my shoul­ders. With all the teams watch­ing, I stretched both my arms, turned 360 de­grees and chopped the air to mark the ex­act arcs of fire for all three teams...

The lights of the am­bu­lance ap­peared to come closer and closer... ‘Would they stop at the des­ig­nated spot?’ I asked my­self. It was cru­cial that they did, since a mov­ing tar­get is much harder to hit than a sta­tion­ary one. ‘Brake hard. Switch on the rear cabin lights. The pas­sen­gers must not catch sight of any­thing, but must be seen,’ Sar­a­vanan re­cited the in­struc­tions to him­self one more time. Then, with fum­bling fin­gers, he flicked on a switch and Co­coon’s three cabin lights came on. He si­mul­ta­ne­ously stepped on the brakes with all the force his right leg could muster. Co­coon lurched hard and screeched to a dead stop right in the mid­dle of the des­ig­nated slot. The smell of burn­ing tyres filled the air. Even as Co­coon shud­dered to a halt, a ve­hi­cle came up rapidly from be­hind. Tiru had been trail­ing Co­coon dis­creetly, keep­ing out of sight to en­sure he didn’t arouse any sus­pi­cion. But with Co­coon trapped, he moved quickly into po­si­tion to block the exit...

T mi­nus 5 sec­onds

In the heat of the mo­ment, Sar­a­vanan had for­got­ten to douse the head­lamps and the re­volv­ing blue lamp on the roof. The burn­ing lights en­gulfed Co­coon’s front in a soft halo. It stood there in the mid­dle of the road in all its majesty, still rock­ing like a boat tossed by waves, its dou­ble beam of lights bob­bing up and down. Two men shot out of Co­coon with the speed of dis­charged bul­lets—the cap­tain and the nav­i­ga­tor had aban­doned their ship. Sar­a­vanan’s voice car­ried clearly, his left hand point­ing back­wards.

‘Gang yulla irukaan­goe (The gang­sters are in­side).’

“The CM has re­tired for the night,” Jay­alalithaa’s sec­re­tary told me. “Is it ur­gent?” “She’ll like what I have to say,” I replied. An in­stant later, she was on the line. “We got him, ma’am,” I told her.

Kan­nan’s warn­ing rang out over the mega­phone, ‘Sur­ren­der. You’ve been sur­rounded.’ Then, the un­mis­tak­able sound of an AK-47 emerged from the rear of the ve­hi­cle... If the four men had come out of the ve­hi­cle with their weapons raised, we would have ac­cepted their sur­ren­der. But the mo­ment they opened fire, they closed that win­dow for them­selves... Our re­sponse was in­stant and over­whelm­ing. Brass hosed down on Co­coon from ev­ery di­rec­tion. Bul­lets zipped all around along with the rhyth­mic flashes of guns... I shuf­fled to my left, flicked my gun to burst fire mode, and let go. Af­ter a few bul­lets, I paused briefly, as did the oth­ers. An­other cou­ple of re­ports of a self-load­ing ri­fle and a shot­gun came from Co­coon.

Kan­nan re­it­er­ated the terms for sur­ren­der. There were few more shots, fol­lowed by a vol­ley of the STF’s re­sponse. I sig­nalled the teams to stop. An­other pause. This time, there was no return fire... Co­coon was en­gulfed in smoke and dust. I sig­nalled to Ra­jara­jan and Hus­sain. An­other stun grenade was lobbed into Co­coon. There was a flash and a bang. Ra­jara­jan flashed on a torch, which he held be­low his gun’s bar­rel, as did Hus­sain. The two beams of light con­verged. The two men ap­proached Co­coon war­ily. They heard a gur­gle, fol­lowed by a hiss—like air es­cap­ing from a cy­cle tube. It is a sound typ­i­cally made by air trapped be­tween the lung tis­sue and the chest. Some­one wounded was try­ing to suck in air. Then, si­lence.

The still­ness was fi­nally bro­ken by the cry of ‘All clear’. The en­counter had started at around 10.50 pm and was over in twenty min­utes—a rapid cli­max to a twenty-year wait! Hus­sain and Ra­jara­jan saw blood and bod­ily flu­ids splashed all over—the walls, floor and seats, food pack­ets and the stretcher. They picked up two AKs, a 12 bore Rem­ing­ton pump ac­tion gun and the in­fa­mous 7.62 mm SLR. Three per­sons were hud­dled to­gether—their fi­nal con­clave be­fore go­ing down. Men in their death throes, clutch­ing each other! One, later iden­ti­fied as Govin­dan, was a lit­tle dis­tance away. The four men were speed­ily re­moved from Co­coon and laid on the ground. I beck­oned to Kan­nan and, ig­nor­ing a cramped mus­cle, hob­bled over to where they lay.

It was my only face-to-face mo­ment with Veerappan, if it could be de­scribed as such. He was un­able to speak and was clearly dy­ing. I no­ticed that a bul­let had gone through his left eye, just as it had with Senthil in Sorgam Val­ley al­most 10 years ago. With his mous­tache trimmed and in civil­ian clothes, rather than his trade­mark green dress and brown belt, he seemed a stripped-down ver­sion of his for­mer self. He had been a wily and wor­thy foe, with mastery over both strat­egy and tac­tics. Even at 52, he was sinewy and ex­tremely fit ....

I took stock of the en­counter. There were no ca­su­al­ties or se­ri­ous in­juries among my boys. I sent up a quick prayer of thanks... A to­tal of 338 bul­lets were fired by us. Later, seven were found in Govin­dan’s body; two had pierced Veerappan’s body and ex­ited from the other side, while one stayed in­side. Grad­u­ally, I sensed a grow­ing mur­mur from the boys. Since the iden­tity of the men in­side the ve­hi­cle had not been re­vealed to them ini­tially, they be­gan to mut­ter in dis­be­lief when they recog­nised the fallen men...

There was a spon­ta­neous erup­tion of de­light and high-fiv­ing. I was hoisted on the shoul­ders of my men and ef­fort­lessly passed around. I no­ticed that Kan­nan had been sim­i­larly hefted. As soon as the boys brought me to the ground, I bounded up the school’s steps, two at a time. Sit­ting on the para­pet with my feet dan­gling to­wards the road, I made the call. ‘The CM has re­tired for the night. Is it ur­gent?’ asked Sheela Balakr­ish­nan, Jay­alalithaa’s sec­re­tary. ‘I think she will like what I have to say,’ I replied. An in­stant later, I heard her voice on the phone. ‘We got him, ma’am,’ I said. Then I quickly re­counted the op­er­a­tion and in­formed the CM that Veerappan was on his way to hos­pi­tal, but sur­vival seemed un­likely. I replied in the af­fir­ma­tive to her brief query on the STF’s safety. Though she was her usual dig­ni­fied self, the ela­tion in her voice was un­mis­tak­able. ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions to you and the STF, Mr Vi­jay Ku­mar. This is the best news I’ve ever had as CM,’ she said, be­fore hang­ing up.

A to­tal of 338 bul­lets were fired by us... Two had pierced Veerappan’s body and ex­ited from the other side, while one stayed in­side

Veerappan: Chas­ing the Brig­and by K. Vi­jay Ku­mar Rupa Price: Rs 500 (hard­back) Pages: 263

GIREESH G.V.

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