Finally, some plain speaking

It took the Supreme Court to highlight the plain truth about the Veerappan crisis: too much has been done to pander to a vicious criminal, says MUKUND PADMANABHAN.

IN THE end, it took the Supreme Court to highlight the plain truth about the Veerappan hostage crisis: too much has already been done to pander to a vicious criminal. The indefinite stay ordered by the Court on the release of Veerappan's associates by the Karnataka Government has altered the rules for freeing the Kannada matinee idol, Mr. Rajkumar, who was kidnapped a month ago.

To begin with, it will take a while for the Court to dispose of the Special Leave Petition (SLP) which challenged the associates- for-hostages swap. But time is not the only relevant factor. From the scathing observations by the Supreme Court, which castigated the Karnataka Government for ``succumbing'' to Veerappan's demands, it would seem that the judicial door has been firmly slammed on those who hopes to trade in Veerappan's criminal friends for Mr. Rajkumar and his relatives.

As the Nakeeran editor, Mr. R. R. Gopal, launches into a third round of meetings with the sandalwood smuggler turned serial abductor, the question is how Veerappan - or those extremist groups which seem to have great influence over him - will react to this new development. Those connected with the negotiation process are aware that many of Veerappan's other demands (example: unveiling Thiruvalluvar's statue in Bangalore) are a political or ideological cover for the principal one - the unconditional release of his longtime associates and his relatively new-found Tamil extremist friends in the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil Nadu Retrieval Troops (TNRT).

Given the nature of the SLP, it was natural that Karnataka should have borne the brunt of the Supreme Court's fury. But since the Court's objections revolved around ``succumbing'' to his demands (thereby ``compounding negligence upon negligence upon negligence''), the observations are, by implication, just as relevant to the Tamil Nadu Government, which had initiated steps for freeing five Tamil extremists. After the DMK came to power in 1996, the Tamil Nadu Government has displayed a singular and worrying lack of political interest and will to catch Veerappan and has been responsible for scaling down the operations.

How the hostage crisis will end is anybody's guess. But, the Supreme Court's critical observations have reinforced a growing body of belief that once the two Governments are free from the restrictions imposed by the hostage situation, they had better wake up and really do something to end the Veerappan menace. Over the past few years, the end of every kidnap operation by the forest brigand has been followed by a typical pattern. After sighs of relief all around and mutual congratulation, it is back to business as usual and Veerappan becomes a distant memory until he pulls off the next kidnap.

After the present crisis is overcome, two things will have to be considered and acted upon. First, decide on a better method of nabbing the bandit and his associates. Second, work out an agreement between the two States which forbids either from considering any demand under threat of blackmail.

On the first question, opinions vary dramatically. Although there are those who continue to maintain that the Special Task Force (STF) constituted by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in 1993 is still the best option to catch Veerappan, this line of argument is beginning to sound jaded and unconvincing. There may be some truth in the view that the STF's failure is not so much a reflection of its incompetence but a result of the lack of the necessary political support/will. But even if this were true, the case for investing public faith in an organisation which has failed to deliver for seven years is extremely thin. If the operation continues to be in the hands of the STF, it must - at the very least - be hinged on a totally different strategy.

This leads to a question that is being considered with a great deal of seriousness today. Is a commando operation the best way to nab the bandit? In other words, should we just leave this exercise to a small group of specially-trained well-armed people (say a dozen or more men) who operate independently and whose only brief is to enter into the forests and get Veerappan, dead or alive?

A cogent argument for this kind of operation was recently advanced in the columns of this newspaper by a former IAS official, Mr. M. G. Devasahayam (TheHindu dated August 22, 2000). While he favoured Army commandos to carry out such a venture, the basic idea of handing over the job of apprehending Veerappan to a small group on a hunt- and-kill mission has been around for more than a decade.

It was a few months before MGR's death in 1987 that the Tamil Nadu Forest Department mooted a proposal which it has subsequently discussed with the Government on many further occasions. The Forest Department, of course, wanted the operation to be conducted under its control but differing proposals about commando operations agree on some fundamental matters. Namely, that such missions have the advantage of stealth and are not hampered by the relatively obtrusive manner in which a force like the STF conducts its operations: fleets of vehicles, wireless communications, senior officers accompanied by large groups of policemen.

Even while some kind of commando force is deployed to nab him, the other thing in the post-crisis situation that must be considered is an agreement not to entertain Veerappan's demands ever again. If anything, the Supreme Court's stinging remarks ought to push the Karnataka and the Tamil Nadu Governments in this direction. A demonstration that both States are bound not to do business with Veerappan will go a long way towards deterring him from engaging in the politics of kidnap.

If the Supreme Court's observations can get Mr. S. M. Krishna and Mr. M. Karunanidhi to take effective steps to end the Veerappan menace, then judicial intervention will have achieved what public opinion over the years could not.

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