Profiling a Poacher: The Rise and Fall of Veerappan

29 Oct, 2004    ·   1547

N Manoharan gives a short profile of Veerappan, an elusive bandit, who was killed recently

The Rise…

While Phoolan Devi was 'Bandit Queen', Veerappan was 'Bandit King' in India. A master of jungle-craft, Koose Munusamy Veerappan (Veerappan in Tamil means 'brave') was born in a poor Tamil-speaking family at Gopinatham village in the Kollegal Taluk of Karnataka, situated on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border. His exact birth date is not available, but he was around 52 when he was killed. He was apparently inspired by Malaiyur Mammatiyan, a notorious bandit of Salem district during the 1950s, and took to crime at the early age of 12. Not surprisingly, his first recorded murder was Pramasivam, brother of Mammatiyan's killer, Karuppan.

He groomed under Sevi Gounder, a local sandal wood smuggler and poacher, and successfully led the gang after Sevi's 'retirement' in late 1960s. At one point, there were 150 men in his pay roll. Initially his focus was on poaching elephants for their ivory tusks. The number of pachyderms that fell to his bullets is estimated around 200, fetching him 40,000 kgs of ivory worth Rs 12 crores. Later, with India banning ivory trade, the less risky and more lucrative sandal wood smuggling lured him; and he stayed on in this trade for many years earning over Rs 100 crores. His area of operation was the 6000 sq kms of forest area bordering Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.


He was not noticed until he killed Chidambaram, an honest Tamil Nadu forest officer, in July 1987. Later, Veerappan brutally murdered Karnataka Deputy Conservator of Forests, P Srinivas, who was aiming at "reforming" the brigand. As a reaction, in 1992, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka Governments constituted Special Task Forces (STFs), involving around 2000 personnel and costing Rs 20 crores annually; the STFs were led a wild goose chase for 12 long years. Two attempts by the BSF (Border Security Force) to nab him also failed. At one point, involving even Indian Army was contemplated. But the silver lining in persistent STF operations was the reduction of the Veerappan gang from nearly 150 to around eight. At the same time, human rights violations by the STF turned the villagers in the forest area against the security forces.

Only once in his life time Verappan was imprisoned by the Karnataka police in 1986 in Mysore jail, but managed a daring escape. He remained elusive due to his practiced survival tactics in the jungle, excellent information network and support among the villagers, political patronage, and lack of proper coordination between the police forces of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

There are 176 police cases (106 in Tamil Nadu and 70 in Karnataka) against him. According to their records he killed 120 people over a span of three decades. His main victims were forest and police officials, who stood in his way. No wonder a reward of Rs 5.5 crores was announced on his head. He remained an enigma till Sivasubramanian of Nakeeran obtained an exclusive interview from him in April 1993.

…the Fall

As he was growing old and the size of the gang was reducing, Veerappan took to kidnapping to make easy money. His first hostage was Chidambaranathan, deputy superintendent of police in Coimbatore district, to press for medical treatment of his brother Arjunan. Arjunan was treated, but imprisoned on various charges. This enraged Veerappan. In 1997, he kidnapped 10 forest department personnel, demanding amnesty. But, he released them unharmed despite his demand remaining unfulfilled. Kannada film icon Rajkumar was his most high-profile hostage. The hostage-drama that lasted for 108 days ended after payment of several crores of ransom and release of Rajkumar. In 2002, Veerappan kidnapped Nagappa, former Karnataka minister in a similar manner, but killed him. It has been revealed that Kanchi Acharya Jayendra Saraswathi and Tamil film star Rajnikanth were on his list of future hostages.

It was at this stage that he came close to Tamil nationalist forces like the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Tamil National Retrieval Troops (TNRT). The caste configuration of their cadres (majority of them belong to Vanniyar caste like Veerappan) played a role in his supporting them. He also nurtured political ambitions in case his pardon/amnesty offer was accepted by the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka; Tamil nationalism, he thought, was suitable for demagoguery. He had also demanded resolution of Cauvery water dispute. It was, nonetheless, a marriage of convenience that brought the cadre-starved brigand and moneyless militants together.

Unfortunately for him it was this Tamil nationalist dimension which became his Achilles' heel. STF personnel infiltrated his gang posing as Tamil nationalists. Four decades of hiding ended in 10 months of planning and 45 minutes of action by 'Operation Cocoon'.