Friday, December 19, 2003

Veerappan and Israel

I have somehow always found myself in trouble spots. To explain- 4 yrs ago I was working for an ecological research organisation. After a year or so of pretty tame work counting birds and butterflies in the forests of the B.R.Hills area, i started doing pretty much the same in the adjoining MM Hills area. This place was the presumed hideout of the forest brigand and sandalwood smuggler, Veerappan, who has been high on the most wanted lists of both the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu state governments.

First of all the area was considered dangerous because of elephant activity; even the forest officials warned us against doing any research here because we might get attacked by the elephants. And lest anyone doubts, elephants may look cute and all that but they can be very unpredictable and liable to charge at the slightest provocation. One of the times when I have experienced absolute, distilled fear has been when an elephant chased me. Anyway, around the time when we started working in MM Hills, Veerappan, who had been lying doggo for many years made a move, and what a move! He kidnapped one of Karnataka's leading film actors and held him hostage. It is difficult to imagine the extent of outrage felt by the citizens of Karnataka at this unprecedented event; and it is important to understand what status film actors have over here. They are literally worshipped as gods. I even know of two or three temples dedicated to the worship of these film stars. And this guy who got kidnapped, Rajkumar, was the biggest one of them all in karnataka. So the entire state was in a frenzy, and there were riots everywhere and tremendous pressure on the state governments to do something about it. The state called in the army and established a special task force to comb the MM Hills and adjoining area. But Veerappan promptly disappeared, sending out his demands via tapes a la bin laden. The issue dragged on for many days, if i remember right, close to 4 months before some deal was made and the actor released.

During this time, we were busy laying transects and continuing our work observing birds and butterflies. We stayed right next to the police headquarters and meet them all the time as they ventured into the forests. They had an army of jeeps, but considering that there were hardly any roads in the hilly and forested terrain, it was almost a waste. We were warned every time we ventured into the forest, which happened to be everyday, but nevermind. Finally the actor was released and everything settled back to normal, but Veerappan was never caught, despite all the promises and the posturing of the politicians.

The reason all this suddenly came back into my mind was a news item in yesterday's newspaper: the government is seeking the help of Israel in catching Veerappan. I can imagine their logic: Israel has a reputation for gathering inelligence and apprehending suspects. In fact, going by the Israeli newspapers, every other person caught or shot seemed to be on a wanted list somewhere. So surely, their expertise will pay off here as well. But they do not take into account many things. First, Israel is a small country, and it's relatively easy to keep tabs on the entire population. Everybody has an identity card and the whole country is criss-crossed by roads, where they can set up checkpoints or whatever. Here even the voter identity cards have errors. Also, the bin-laden factor: the reason bin laden has avoided capture for so long is because he's obviously being helped by his fellow men. Veerappan has also a loyal following that give him shelter and food. And any Israeli style action by helicopters is bound to fail because of the terrain, which I can attest is quite hostile. What is necessary according to me is a massive combing operation, on a far greater scale than seen before, an operation that would undoubtedly hemorrhage money. But the Israelis can bring in their sophistication in data gathering and analysis, which may lead to potential hiding places. It remains to be seen what they will do, but I, for one, will be watching.

UPDATE: Deccan Herald had a section where they asked readers to submit opinions about the israeli effort to nab veerappan, but i couldnt find it on the website. They also had an interview with a supercop Sangliana, who was incharge of the operation, but i couldn't find that either. Here are his views about the veerappan problem from an interview when he retired.