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Veerappan village venerates victim

Palar (Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border), Jan. 28: About 20 kilometres into Karnataka along a muddy, pot-holed road from here stands Gopinatham — the village made famous by Veerappan.

Neat rows of concrete tiled-roof houses line the main street, but Veerappan’s ancestral house lies in ruins. His 30-acre estate has seen better days. So has a small Vishnu temple owned by his family.

Nowhere is the erosion of Veerappan’s aura — the villagers once called him Messiah of Gopinatham — more evident. The villagers’ pride now is a bigger shrine dedicated to Goddess Mariamma that was built by ‘Sincere’ Shrinivas, an Indian Forest Service officer who had fallen prey to the bandit’s trickery.

The temple was completed in early 1991. That was also the year when Veerappan was last seen near Gopinatham. He had lured the IFS officer to a meeting by sending word through his brother, Arjunan, that he wanted to surrender. But at the meeting, he killed Shrinivas and severed his head.

The brutality had shaken Gopinatham — the village the slain deputy conservator of forests had changed by initiating welfare and development schemes.

In a rare tribute to the IFS officer, who was also untiring in his efforts to reform the Veerappan gang, Shrinivas’ portrait adorns the outer wall of the temple’s sanctum sanctorum. A copy of the President’s citation given when the officer was posthumously awarded the Kirti Chakra in 1992 for his courage and devotion hangs next to it.

“Shrinivas built this temple in the larger interests of the people here; he wanted us to lead a good life so that another Veerappan would not emerge. But that ruthless criminal finished off Shrinivas himself,” regretted a villager.

Today, amid parched forests, this remote hamlet glows green with fields of mostly commercial crops (a sure sign of prosperity) grown with water from a small check dam on the hills. At least on the surface, Veerappan has no sympathisers here now.

The feverish build-up of the joint Special Task Force around the village on “specific information” that he is looking for a safe haven there after the uproar over the killing of former minister H. Nagappa hasn’t really touched the villagers.

“The police, press and Veerappan.... We are used to this cycle for more than 10 years now,” said A. Govindaraj, headmaster of the government primary school, where Tamil is the medium of instruction as most inhabitants here are Tamils. “This (STF build-up) is neither surprising nor shocking,” he added.

They are continuing with life, but not without hitches. The few telephone connections in the village have been cut and local fishermen have been disallowed from fishing in the Cauvery tumbling down from Hogenekkal.

Yesterday, the police top brass from both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka held a meeting with the villagers and tribals and appealed to them to “shun Veerappan” and help them nab him. Almost at the same time, 20 STF teams of seven to 10 members each trained in ambush operations trekked up into the thick hilly jungles around the village with three days’ provision.

“There is no problem from the STF now,” said the owner of a small eatery, aware of the force’s men in mufti roaming the village. “It was some 15 to 20 years ago, when as a small boy I saw Veerappan in person.”

Even the bandit’s family claimed to have lost contact with him. “We lost touch with Veerappan 30 years ago,” said Madamma, Veerappan’s aunt. “They (still) arrested several of our relatives under Tada and took them to Mysore jail,” she added with anguish. But she isn’t bitter with the bandit. “As long as Veerappan was here, he was not a bad man.”

Ponnusamy, Veerappan’s paternal uncle, vehemently denied that the brigand was using them as a conduit for the ransom he has been collecting. “It is rubbish that money was given to us,” he fumed. “I am willing to cooperate with the police to catch Veerappan.”

Yet, even a month after the S.M. Krishna government hiked the reward for information on the bandit and his associates, Sethukuli Govindan and Chandre Gowda, to Rs 5.50 crore, no leads have come from Gopinatham.

Posters and handbills with the announcement have been pasted on every bus plying between Mettur and Kollegal, on boulders, rocks and tree trunks along the forest route to Gopinatham and even in roadside tea stalls. But there are no takers.

“Who would want that kind of money here at their own peril'” asked an elderly villager. The fury Veerappan directs at informers is well known in these parts.

Nonetheless, the STF is pressing on. Much maligned, particularly after Nagappa’s murder, the 12-year-old force has much to battle for.

“Nobody understands how difficult and vast the terrain is,” said a senior STF official. The cruel irony is that the media flashes any information of STF movements, enabling Veerappan’s gang, who closely monitor AIR and the BBC Tamil service, to be forewarned, he added.

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