Veerappan was probably the last of the bandits. Shot dead in 2004 by the security forces that he eluded for a good few decades, he is back in the news. The Supreme Court has stayed the death sentence of his four associates.
It again raises the question about whether the mental agony and physical confinement due to delayed execution is humane. Besides this, the courts must ask themselves whether the severe punishment to deter further such acts of crime serves its purpose. The Veerappan gang survived in the jungles across three states – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. It started with poaching, and went on to smuggling of ivory and sandalwood available in the forests.
How he and his band of dacoits survived for this long has spawned many stories, including the complicity of certain forces and the romantic notion of him being protected by the villagers.
I mention this in the context of how the legal pattern of the mercy petition on behalf of his aides is being dealt with. Gnanprakasam, Simon, Meesaikara Madhaian and Bilavendran will have to wait until tomorrow to know whether the amended version of their plea will alter the punishment.
It is frightening to think about the political games that might play themselves. Afzal Guru’s case has already showcased how fast-tracking is done with ulterior motives. There are other precedents, all waiting for the noose. Sandalwood smugglers do not matter as much as an attack on Parliament in the general scheme, but now that the government has displayed brawn it cannot turn wimpy. If it flexed muscles in Kashmir, will it be forced to do the same in Kanya Kumari?
What is particularly intriguing is the Attorney General G E Vahanvati’s reasoning about denying that mercy in this case:
He said Veerappan’s gang members had committed a crime against the state by triggering a landmine blast that killed 22 people— five policemen, 15 police informers and two forest guards. Opposing the petition, the AG said, “These are crimes against the state and must be distinguished from crimes against society.”
A chief minister is killed. Does he constitute the state? Does the state not include society? One understands the validity of symbols, but without wishing to sound insensitive how are policemen, aware of the dangers of their job, more important than others? Going by the AG’s statement, is it not the business of the state to protect society and, therefore, crimes against the latter could also make the state responsible for laxity?
Where was the state when Veerappan was committing the crimes? People might recall that the police went full force only when Kannada superstar Rajkumar was kidnapped and held captive for over three months. This gave the Centre enough ammo to get Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to fight it out.
Elephants, sandalwood, ivory may be state property, but they are also about business. Whose business? How did the dacoit manage to have an army with him? Had he not been shot dead, he and his men would still be on the run, continuing with their activities.
It is important to understand Veerappan a bit. At the age of ten, he picked up a gun and killed his first elephant. Was it for a lark or were these the makings of a criminal? One suspects it was pathological, for there were instances where he did not just snuff out a life, but beheaded the victims and even choked a six-month old lest its cries alert the police. And he never expressed remorse for any of his actions.
Yet, he remained in touch with those in power. He offered to surrender on the condition that he got a presidential pardon, the right to continue to hold arms and a movie to be made on his life. Part of it could be attributed to his close observing of Phoolan Devi whose post-dacoit ‘mainstream’ life he was beginning to be inspired by. His numerous video cassettes were less about communicating to the outside world than to project himself as an invincible man; it was the trailer of the film he hoped would one day be made by a director of international standing.
Veerappan decided he was a messiah of the whole region. When he sent his list of demands, there was nothing for himself. What he said sounded like a politician’s manifesto – a solution to the Cauvery dispute, Tamil as the administrative language of Karnataka, and an ensured daily wage for the Manjoloi estate workers in Tirunelvelli. He wanted to portray himself as the king of Tamil Nadu, a real-life version of the celluloid MGR.
He even compared himself with Jayalalitha, saying that if she could be chief minister with cases pending against her, why could he not be set free? The fact is he would never get any credence as a free man. His appearance was geared to cause fear as a bandit. In the urban jungle, he would become a part of the history of thuggery. So he ensured he remained in the news every few months, and propped up his image as a folk hero.
He often said he respected women and hated the security forces who raped them under the ruse of trying to find him. It is true that women were arrested for helping him, for providing him information and food. Then there were his aides. It is possible that he captured them and they worked for him under duress.
The government and police forces that rely on informants ought to know how they use their powers to keep such people safe. It is barter. What applies to them would apply to the criminal too.
These people constitute society. They could well be victims, of the bandits/terrorists and the state, and one cannot with certainty tell anymore what comes first.
The killing of Veerappan was justified because it was a case of one force against another. But getting four aides executed now reeks of political opportunism. For argument’s sake, if the state is convinced that capital punishment is the best way to deal with criminals (it is not and it will have to face the music by right-thinking citizens), then instead of looking back in anger, it ought to immediately address recent cases of terror against the state and announce the death sentence. Only then can it afford to take a high moral ground.
Justice seen to be done is not always justice. It is sometimes a coverup con job by those in charge of booking cons.
© Farzana Versey