How do you summarise a manhunt that went on for over two decades? Especially the one that stayed in public eye throughout, with hair-raising episodes making the news regularly? And one that centred on a secretive man, with no previous public life?
Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, popularly known as Veerappan, remains an enigma to the public at large. Dreaded dacoit, sandalwood smuggler and celebrity kidnapper, with over a hundred murders committed, Veerappan eluded police forces in two states for nearly three decades, while being able to cultivate the image of a ‘Robin Hood’ for the poor folk in the jungles. Veerappan was finally killed in a shootout in late 2004, through an STF exercise codenamed Operation Cocoon.
The chief of the Tamil Nadu STF (Special Task Force) during those last few years was K Vijay Kumar, who has chronicled Operation Cocoon and the preceding history in his book, Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand. This book is as close an account of the event as we will ever get.
In true thriller style, Kumar opens the book right before Operation Cocoon is kicking off, and then moves into flashback mode, chronicling the years and decades that led Veerappan and the STF into this final encounter.
Kumar talks of the many times the STF and other police forces crossed paths with him, and the meagre information gained from undercover informers and affected villagers. All of it still adds to very little known about the actual man—a testament to how well Veerappan protected himself and his gang.
The perception has been that the force bungled the hunt, unable to find a prominent man in a known area. Kumar seeks to correct that impression, explaining how Veerappan was a wily, coldblooded foe, who got lucky several times. Also, that the intervening years were spent in making slow but steady progress: whittling down the gang, cultivating informants, and reducing the impact the dacoit had on the area.
Technology and the Indian economy also played a part: from foot patrols and basic guns in the nineties, the STF went to attack helicopters and portable mobile towers in the 2000s, giving them the edge.
An important distinction needs to be made about the genre of this book. It’s easy to label as a “biography” of Veerappan, but it most definitely isn’t. For one, Kumar is not on Veerappan’s side, with at most a grudging respect. For another, the meat of the book is the various encounters between the STF and the smuggling gang.
There are barely a handful of scenes about Veerappan by himself, those being the more reliable folklore about it. Nor does Kumar spend much time talking about himself or his colleagues in the STF. No, the book is about the chase specifically, and the various ups and downs on the way.
The closest genre label we can apply here is “true crime”. And given the conventions of that genre, Kumar has done an exemplary job. The tension of the chase feels real, the characters drawn just enough to make them stand out. At a compact 246 pages, the book can be finished in a sitting. Definitely worth a read.