Bracing a brigand

After accusing the DMK regime of colluding with Veerappan, Ms. Jayalalithaa knows it is important to not only be different but to appear to be so, says SURESH NAMBATH.

GOVERNMENTS MAY come and Governments may go, but Veerappan stays on in the forests. This, surely, is the popular, albeit cynical, view about all efforts so far to nab the brigand. And, it is this view that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Ms. Jayalalithaa, wants to change within the first few weeks of her Government taking over.

Thus, there are more high profile officers with more guns. And more powers to use them. More vehicles, more incentives. Mr. W. I. Dawaram, known as a toughie during his years in service, was brought back from retirement to head the combined Tamil Nadu- Karnataka Special Task Force operations against Veerappan. And, the Inspector-General, Mr. K. Vijaykumar, was recalled from the Border Security Force as Commandant of the Special Task Force.

These measures were intended to reflect a renewed seriousness on the part of the new AIADMK Government in the efforts to capture Veerappan. After having accused the previous DMK Government of having ``colluded'' with Veerappan, Ms. Jayalalithaa knew it was important to not only be different, but to appear to be so.

Immediately after the end of the Rajkumar kidnapping episode, the DMK Government initiated an offensive against the brigand and met with some success in the capture of the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army leader, Maran. But the DMK never managed to live down accusations of ``soft handling'' Veerappan.

During that period, Ms. Jayalalithaa had even asked for the Army to be sent to the forests to shoot Veerappan dead. She had deliberately built for herself the image of an Iron Lady ready to crush extremists of all hues. Now, she has no choice but to act accordingly.

Without doubt, the actions of the AIADMK Government reveal an earnestness never seen before in Veerappan-related operations. The decision to actively involve Karnataka appears to have cleared some of the apprehensions of the officials of that State about the seriousness of the operations against Veerappan.

Now, everyone agrees a new beginning has been made. But, the longer it takes for the operations to yield results, the harder it becomes to win support for sustaining ``tough'' measures.

Already, concerns have been raised about possible human rights violations by the STF in the tribal areas. Mr. Dawaram is known for his ``excesses'' whether it be in dealing with Veerappan and gang or the naxalites. Organisations such as the Tamil Nadu unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties are opposing his appointment as STF chief on this count. As PUCL State secretary, Mr. V. Suresh, puts it: ``There have been numerous complaints against the STF during the earlier period when he was the chief. Some of these complaints have been taken up by the National Human Rights Commission.''

In favour of Mr. Dawaram, he commands great respect from police personnel. Indeed, there is a personality cult around him in the force. But, this again is on account of his readiness to back his men against accusations of human rights violations.

The problem for the State Government is that the need to maintain tough measures feeds apprehensions of State oppression against innocent villagers. Although Ms. Jayalalithaa has promised to ensure that there will be no harassment of tribals, this is easier said than done. Without help from villagers, there can be no intelligence on the movements of Veerappan. As the villagers are deeply distrustful of them, the police personnel find coercion the best way to ferret out information.

Of course, Mr. Dawaram says he is trying to win the confidence of the villagers rather than force information out of them. The Government has increased monetary incentives for police informers. But, as STF personnel point out, the important thing is to make the villagers realise that this is not another short- term ``hit or miss'' action against Veerappan. That there is no escape from the presence of the STF. And that it is more beneficial to befriend the STF than Veerappan and his men.

Unless the villagers are convinced that the police are in for a long drawn-out battle, they would rather trust Veerappan than those on his trail. Veerappan too has a network in the villages which allows him to enjoy some of the comforts of civilisation. In the eyes of the STF personnel, this is Veerappan's strength as well as his weakness. While the brigand holds a great advantage by drawing on the support from the villagers, all that the STF needs to do is turn the villagers against him.

As Ms. Jayalalithaa sees it, if there is a political will, then there is a practical way. Of course, Veerappan eluded the Government dragnet even during the previous AIADMK regime. But, this time, the stakes are higher for the AIADMK and Ms. Jayalalithaa.

Caught as she is in legal tangles, Ms. Jayalalithaa is working within a compressed time module. She needs to make political gains from her term of chief ministership within the space of a few months. All efforts are directed towards obtaining ``immediate results.'' The operations against Veerappan fall in this category.

But, in contrast to her earlier statements, Ms. Jayalalithaa has instructed the STF to capture Veerappan alive or make him surrender. There is no ``shoot to kill'' order. However, it is unlikely that police personnel who dread Veerappan will be able to do anything more than match him in his ruthlessness. After all, the history of the STFs has been the history of failure.