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THE END OF forest brigand and serial killer Veerappan comes as a great relief to the Governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka whose police resources were put to a tough challenge, on and off, during a 20-year manhunt. Starting his infamous career as an elephant poacher and graduating into a sandalwood smuggler, Veerappan rose to become a challenge to the rule of law and constitutional authority when he extended his sphere of influence from within an extensive forest area to the doors of important personalities and celebrities. In the last few years, he demonstrated that he could strike deep and kidnap significant persons for big-time ransom, or sometimes for the thrill of flaunting his power. In 2000, during the 108-day drama when he held the Kannada film star Rajkumar captive, he marked out the forest as his exclusive domain. The two Governments were reduced not only to negotiating the release of the film star but also looking the other way when ransom was being arranged. Despite the elaborate manhunt launched after the release of Rajkumar, Veerappan not only evaded capture but also struck again by kidnapping and killing a popular leader and ex-Minister of Karnataka, H. Nagappa. Without exaggeration, Veerappan could claim to be beyond the reach of India's law. Not only the police, even the Border Security Force personnel seemed clueless on how to track him down.

In these circumstances, the success of the joint Special Task Force of the two States comes as a major boost to the morale and image of the police. In playing a waiting game and luring the brigand out of his jungle hideout, the STF, led ably by the Additional Director General of Police, K. Vijay Kumar, seems to have learnt from past failures. In contrast, Veerappan appears to have been felled by his own strengths. The ransom payments he obtained encouraged him to stay in touch with the world outside the forest. Unlike his early years as a struggling outlaw, when the forest directly sustained him, the rich and successful Veerappan required the comforts of the civilised world. Even in the jungle, he was seen with modern gadgets and audio players. Moreover, his affluence enabled him to build a network among villagers who reached him food and other provisions. In fact, he ran a mini-economy. The larger the brigand's network, the easier it was for the STF to recruit informers. Moreover, with the kidnapping of Rajkumar, Veerappan probably bit more than he could chew, and swallowed more than he could digest. The high-profile kidnapping was done with the help of extremists from the Tamil National Retrieval Troops, a group that grew out of the support base of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army, a small-time naxalite outfit. While contacts with these organisations gave Veerappan an ideological camouflage, and encouraged him to project an image of himself as a semi-political figure, there was added pressure on the establishment to capture him dead or alive.

A lot of the credit for bringing the Veerappan saga to an end must surely go to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, who redoubled the efforts to capture the brigand after she returned to power in 2001. She roped in more high profile officers into the hunt. She gave the STF not only more guns but also more powers to use them. However, there are some questions surrounding the killing of Veerappan and his associates that need answers. Why fewer than half-a-dozen outlaws travelling in a passenger vehicle could not be captured alive requires some explaining on the part of the STF. But few will shed tears over the killing of a man who not only shot elephants and chopped sandalwood trees, but also ruthlessly put to death more than a 100 people, many of them forest and police personnel, for crossing his path.

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