End to India's brutal 'Robin Hood'
After eluding capture for decades by winning over villagers, India's violent bandit was killed this week.
MAMALLAPURAM, INDIA — Just outside this country's version of Sherwood Forest, they're not exactly sure what to make of Robin Hood's death.
"They killed him? Oh, my God, I must check the papers," cafe owner Shuresh says upon hearing the news, before running from his storefront to a nearby newsstand.
Five minutes later he returned with a bemused expression, his friend Balusubramaniaum ("call me Balu"), and a copy of an English-language daily newspaper with a banner headline: "Veerappan shot dead."
"It has finally happened," Balu sighs. But it's hard to tell if the breath he heaved was one of relief or sadness.
Maybe it's just amazement, because after decades and a $218 million manhunt, India's most notorious outlaw, a man who eluded authorities for years by hiding among villagers who depended on his handouts, finally met his end 250 miles from here in a police sting on Oct. 18.
Most locals concede the saga of Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, better known as just Veerappan or the "the Jungle Cat," was more like notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly than Robin Hood - more a tale of a cold-blooded killer than a man of the masses. But many of the same Indians insist one of the world's largest ivory and sandalwood smugglers avoided capture for so long because he could rely, like his antihero predecessors, on the sympathies of people who rarely count on their own government.
"He was helping those guys in those villages because they had no other way of earning money. What can they do, but chop some trees and make some money? The people in the towns, they may not have had many ideas on Veerappan one way or the other. But the adivasis liked him," says Jottisavavanao, a local businessman.
Adivasis are the tribal populace of India. Many are marginalized hunter-gatherers or dirt-poor agriculturalists who rely on government-issued education or employment certificates, which guarantee jobs with public employers and slots in state schools.
In towns like Dharmapuri, where Veerappan was ambushed by police while sitting in an ambulance driven by an undercover policeman, adivasi livelihood was largely dependent on the whims of outlaws like Veerappan or mid-level Indian bureaucrats who control the distribution of certificates. Many adivasis opt for the outlaws.
"There are very few people who try to understand the adivasis, and there are very few options for an adivasi without a certificate," said Dr. V. Sudarsen, head of the anthropology department at the University of Madras. He points to the 2001 census when thousands of Indians tried to claim adivasi descent and gain certificates. The government's response: cut back certificates - even for bonafide tribals, who were forced to fall back on eking out a sustenance level of living.
In a land where the law is often viewed as incompetent, the lawless become the heroes, especially to those who are oppressed the most. It was Veerappan's ability to sympathize with the plight of poor villagers, coupled with his habit of bucking a government many blamed for their poverty, which kept him a folk hero in many south Indian circles.
His physical appearance played to his rebel image. Veerappan sported an extravagant 'Kattabomman'-type mustache, a facial hair style named for a hero of India's 1857 revolt against British colonial rule. He played the local populace for support by doling out illegally earned money to poor villagers who would shelter and abet his gang, and he used raw muscle when cajoling and bribes didn't get him his way.
Veerappan was born on Jan. 18, 1952, in Gopinatham village in the state of Karnataka. In the thick forests connecting the south Indian states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu he married his shepherdess bride, beheaded forest officials, held Indian film icon Dr. Rajkumar captive for 100 days, poached endangered elephants and tigers, and illegally logged and smuggled large amounts of sandalwood lumber worth millions of dollars, according to Indian newspaper accounts of his life.
When he was 10, he killed his first elephant for its ivory. In 1969, at the age of 17, he killed his first human. Roughly 119 more victims (and an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 elephants, in a country where 24,000 remain the wild) would follow.
Veerappan's estimated ivory haul was 88,000 pounds, which may explain how he paid a $2,000 police bribe that secured his release from jail in 1986, at a time when the average Indian earned $1,000 a year.
"The people liked him because he was killing so many police and taking so much money, and giving it to them," says Balu. But when asked about Veerappan's civilian murders and elephant poaching, Balu's reconsiders his opinion.
"Yes ... he did these things, too. And cut quite a bit of sandalwood. Well, what can you say about him?" he replies, nervously.
Despite the divided feelings here, there's no doubt South Indian politicians are patting themselves on the back for catching a criminal that many believe the politicians themselves were associated with.
Tamil Nadu state minister Jayaram Jayalalitha's official statement on Veerappan's death drips with all the melodrama of an Indian crime thriller.
"It is with a sense of great pride and fulfillment that I wish to announce the good news that the notorious forest brigand bandit, murderer, and dacoit [an Indian term for bandit] Veerappan, along with his entire gang, has been shot dead ... in a daring and intrepid operation.... My unwavering stand, patience, and perseverance in the relentless pursuit of the dreaded bandit has now been completely vindicated," she said.
In Shuresh's opinion, killing Veerappan was politically expedient. Many believe that the notorious outlaw was connected with corrupt Indian politicians and if he was taken alive he would have exposed many of the politicians on his payroll.
"He could not be arrested. If he was, too many people, powerful people, would be arrested with him," he says. "By showing that they have killed him, politicians will win votes in the next election and that is all they care about."
But if Shuresh is hard on his politicians, he is ambivalent about Veerappan. "He was a good man," Shuresh said, and after a pause, "And a bad man."