PUCL Bulletin, March 2001

Letter to the Editor

Jungle Raj Vs. The Rule of Law: The Veerappan Affair

From - Mahi Pal Singh, C-105, DDA. Flats, Sindhora Kalaan, Delhi-110052,

22.12.2000

Sir, Apropos of Shri K.G. Kannabiran's two articles on the Veerappan issue in the October, 2000 issue of PUCL Bulletin, I wish to express my views on the subject as given below. I hope you will consider them for publication in the PUCL Bulletin and oblige

A lot of discussion has been going on for the last 4-5 months on the Veerappan issue in the print as well as the electronic media. Whenever the forest brigand kidnapped some VIPs or killed policemen or other citizens in the past, he became the topic of the talk for some time and then the people as well as the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka forgot about him. There have been talks of joint task forces to arrest him but they have never taken off or fizzled out after some time. All this time, the sandalwood smuggler made the forests poorer by, as per an estimate, one thousand crores worth of the precious scented wood and nearly 2000 mighty tuskers for the sake of their tusks, the cost of which will again run into hundreds of crores.

The environmentalists and lovers of fast depleting wild life have hardly ever raised a finger. And the successive governments at the centre, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have every time chosen to be silent after some time, to hide their inability to arrest him, or due to the involvement of some political leaders, or bureaucrats in the whole matter, for it can not be that he has been running a multi-crore business without the active partnership of powerful people living out of the forests. In the process 134 people, including 34 policemen, have lost their lives at his hands. The numbers sound like the casualties of a battle fought on the borders of the country. But the enemy in this case was not an army from across the border but a gang of something like a dozen and a half of criminals who have chosen forests for their illegal business.

It became a hot topic once again with the kidnapping of Raj Kumar, the famous actor of Kannada films who was ultimately released after 108 days after long sessions of parleys between the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka on the one hand and the forest brigand on the other, carried out through people who were sent as emissaries of the two governments but looked more like his supporters than disinterested emissaries. And the kinds of demands that were put forward by the outlaw for releasing Raj Kumar looked like the political demands of the one of the warring countries, after the war is over, for the release of POWs. It was no surprise to anyone, therefore, when the Supreme Court came out with a rebuke to the two governments that if they could not arrest a killer and ensure the safety of the people, they had no right to rule and should abdicate power.

After the safe return of Raj Kumar the two governments must have heaved a sigh of relief, as all the people across the country did, though for different reasons, as the latter were really worried about the safety of the film actor (as well as angry at the inaction of the two governments over the years, making the state look like a pigmy in front of a small group of criminals), whereas the former saved from the ire of the judiciary and the public alike. And as on the such occasions, the exercise of setting up the joint task force to arrest, which is already much overdue culprit of the law of the land.

Now a new debate has started on whether the army commandos should be involved in the planned operation (as per reports a special task force consisting of commandos of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu police has been set up and a BSF battalion from the Eastern Sector has been sent to Coimbatore to join the camp at Bannari in Erode district as reported by BSF inspector general K Vijaykumar), which Julio Reberio, the former Punjab Director General of police, feels to be the right course of action as the army is un politicized" (besides, who can know the weakness of the police force better than a veteran police officer like him?). On the other hand are people like Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, presently Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi who do not agree with him because "that would erode public confidence in our police" (The Sunday Times, November 26), as if people really ever had that confidence in the police in view of the long history of the criminal-politician collusion in this country.

The ongoing talk of pressing into service the most powerful and efficient force, provided the two concerned governments are sincere in their efforts this time, seems to be focused on eliminating the forest brigand from the face of the earth. But in his two articles in the PUCL Bulletin (October 2000), which is a leading magazine devoted to the cause of civil liberties and human rights in the country, K.G. Kannabiran, National President of PUCL has put forward an "innovative approach for resolving the problem". In the editorial, 'Appeal to Veerappan and the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka he has suggested some steps which he feels the governments of the states should take. He writes: "It is imperative for both Governments to recognize that the present crisis (referring to the kidnapping of Dr. Raj Kumar) is mainly due to the failure of institutions more specifically the administrative structure, the political system and also the judiciary. Increasingly it may be noticed that private redress is resorted to because institutions of governance, polity and justice have failed and do not inspire any confidence among the people. We would like to stress the fact that abductions and resort to private justice are the consequences of such failure. It is also necessary for these governments to recognise that without the connivance and, very often, active participation of government officials, it would not have been possible for Veerappan to commit capital crimes with impunity and rise to such enormous and unmanageable size. Hence both the governments cannot wish away the fact that they are primarily responsible for the crimes committed by Veerappan".

And, he goes on to say, "Therefore it is not just sufficient to brand Veerappan alone as a criminal." So he pleads, "Assuming that Veerappan is likely to be convicted in more than one case, the sentences imposed on him may be ordered to run concurrently, all the trials should be completed within a pre-specified mandatory time frame," and, "Both governments should assure Veerappan, that in case of conviction they will not argue for imposition of death penalty and they shall take steps to get the sentence committed in the event of the court imposing the same."

Whereas all human rights activists will agree that the penalty of death should be abolished completely, nobody expects the prosecuting authorities not to argue for its imposition for killing more than 125 people, most of whom where absolutely innocent. And why should any government assure him with any such promise? Even if the government agreed to do so under the threat to the life of Dr. Raj Kumar and the other three hostages held by Veerappan, would the judiciary not be free to impose the sentence it thoughtful fit for the killer? To quote Mr. Kannabiran again, in the other article entitled 'Reel Life in Real Life' in the same issue of PUCL Bulletin, he writes: "The system operating in this country gives predators great opportunity and Veerappan seized it by its horns to emerge as a political leader and as a totally free men. For achieving this he kidnapped a very proper person, a darling actor of Karnataka State." And, "the demands appear trivial and totally uninformed. The obvious effort of his ventriloquist is to help himself and his friends and to provide a political image to Veerappan".

And further, "we are of the view that you, Veerappan, should seriously consider release of Dr. Raj Kumar and the other three hostages abducted by you forthwith without any further conditions. This release is important in the interest of peace and harmony between the two linguistic communities on both sides of the border. We recognise the fact that right from the beginning you have not made any demand beneficial to you… Any negotiation with the State is possible only at the end of the prosecution in the cases." (Appeal to Veerappan…' as cited above)
Does he not appear to give the impression that Veerappan is a social activist who did what he did just for the sake of Tamil People, and the kidnapping of Dr. Raj Kumar was fully justified? And an attempt is made to portray Veerappan as a social and political reformer when Kannabiran says, "If you interview him he will tell you that we should not vote for the corrupt and that we must opt for clean politics. He will give you acceptable reasons for some of the crimes he committed" (Reel Life in Real Life-cited above).

It hardly needs to be emphasized who the 'ventriloquists' are who are trying to provide a 'political image' to the brigand and trying to portray him as 'a political leader'. Thanks to the release of the Kannada actor that 'peace and harmony between the two linguistic communities on both sides of the border' was not jeopardized, though in my opinion it was a far -fetched concern. He says, 'Veerappan is a Tamil and Language riots are not new to Karnataka. If the attempts (to get Raj Kumar released) failed the attack on Tamils cannot be ruled out … Innocent Tamils should not be made to pay for the deeds of a corrupt set-up which allowed Veerappan to grow to this unmanageable size and for his deeds of brutality (Reel Life…). But this concern can also be understood'. To quote once more, "An ordinary criminal by a simple act of abduction is asking you to pay minimum wages, to grant bail to undertrial prisoners who have been detained for long periods without trial, to tell governments not to use preventive detention as a substitute for punitive detention and to settle your river water disputes equitably and without rancour."

And compare these demands which supposedly made earlier by the outlaw for the release of Dr. Raj Kumar (though even at that time it was said that these demands also included Rs. fifty crores) with what is supposed to have been paid to secure his actual release - Rs. 10 crore as ransom amount, telecommunications equipment like walkie-talkie sets, pagers and cellphones and arms cache for the TNLA, assurance that Veerappan and his men will not be hounded and the money reportedly owed to Veerappan by Raj Kumar's son has also been returned. (The Price of Freedom - Kidnap Drama, Outlook, Nov. 27, 2000)

While nobody can deny the justifiable demands of Tamils, these demands do not gain a higher validity if Veerappan starts voicing them. We also share Kannabiran's concern for those detained under TADA and the abrogation of black laws like TADA from this country forever. At the same time we also feel that Veerappan's support base in TNLA or LTTE should not deter the governments of Tamil Nadu or Karnataka from making attempts to arrest Veerappan and to proceed against him as per the law and it should be left for the courts to see that justice is done to him because if the State starts hesitating to act merely in view of the support base of criminals, no action could ever be taken against Laloo Prasad Yadav, even if held guilty of charges leveled against him, and the whole ongoing exercise of conducting an inquiry into the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya will be futile, because the people who are likely to be found guilty for the crime, if the inquiry is fair, unbiased and bold, are far more powerful and could arrange far bigger number of people to stand up in their support. Justice demands that the wrong-doer should be apprehended and produced before the court of law for judgement, whoever the wrong-doer be.

What people like Mr. Kannabiran, and for that matter, all human rights and civil liberties activists, should be particular is that the law takes its own course in accordance with the highest traditions of democracy. The special task-force should concentrate on arresting the brigand and produce him before the court of law. There should be no attempt to take the law into its own hands and to kill the culprit. He should also be given a chance to defend himself before the court of law, to narrate his tale of why and how he chose, or was forced to choose, the way of the jungle. That will also give the country a chance to recognize the faces of those who were his accomplices, even though they were sitting in the safety and comfort of their homes in cities away from the jungles. He should be allowed the full protection of this human and fundamental rights because this is what democracy is all about - to give even the hardest of criminals the right to self-defence. If that is not guaranteed to every individual in the civil society there will no difference between the law of the jungle, which Veerappan has followed throughout his life, and what we are supposed to follow as members of a democratic and civil society.

So the police should act with an open mind and a clear heart to arrest the brigand, and be as firm in their mission as possible and without at all having any sympathies for the killer, and I repeat, to arrest him. However, if in the process the brigand gets killed, or if circumstances force the task force to kill him, it should not bring any sense of guilt or remorse in their hearts, for it will be the death of none other than a killer himself. But it should not be the result of a deliberate or vindictive action, based on the principle of an eye for an eye and a head for a head, on the part of the task-force. It should be remembered that the award of capital punishment even by a court of law is not considered justifiable by most civil societies today, and the consensus of the speakers at The National Conference Against Death Penalty, held on 22nd and 23rd of July, 2000 at New Delhi was against the award of capital punishment, Gandhiji, the father of Nation, also did not favour death as a penalty when he said, "Destruction of individuals can never be a virtuous act. The evil doer cannot be done to death. Today.. attempts are being made to convert prisons into hospitals as if they are persons suffering from a disease." And what else is Veerappan if not a mentally sick person? We also have the opinion of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Indian Constitution, who observed, "This country by and large believes in the principle of non-violence. It has been its ancient tradition, and although people may not be following it in actual practice, they certainly adhere to the principle of non-violence as a moral mandate which they ought to observe as far as they possibly can and I think that, having regard to this fact, the proper thing for this country to do is to abolish the death sentence altogether." (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar - Writings and Speeches, Vol. 13, page 639, Govt. of Maharashtra Publication).

The task force will be well advised to keep that in mind. -

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