A true-crime docuseries in its basic sense, Netflix’s The Hunt for Veerappan is a thrilling presentation of almost an aura, a mystery who resided in forests all over Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in India. Despite being a dacoit, a smuggler, and a cold-blooded killer, Veerappan was hailed by many in the neighboring villages as an angelic figure, as someone who raised his voice against oppression and for their welfare. Directed by Selvamani Selvaraj, The Hunt for Veerappan charts the life and notoriety of the infamous bandit, as well as the many police operations conducted at the time to somehow stop his crimes.
Who was Veerappan?
Born in the small village of Gopinatham in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Koose Munisamy Veerappan’s life was to be based in the forested areas around his village. Growing up amidst terrible poverty and a lack of resources, not just in his own family but all over the village, the likes of Veerappan are perhaps very naturally inclined to go against the laws and the system, which anyways cares so little for them. The lush green forests all around could definitely earn him a livelihood, and despite the laws against hunting and cutting trees, Veerappan decided to target this nature for his survival. The man apparently killed his first elephant quite early in life, a feat that even adults aren’t able to achieve. By 1990, Veerappan had reportedly killed over 1000 wild elephants for poaching their ivory tusks and other body parts and had made a trade out of this.
Despite the horrible butchering that nature had to face, Veerappan was not one to take such effects into consideration. Throughout his entire life, the man claimed and genuinely believed that he had a spiritual connection, a special bond, with the forest. Among many other facets of his that have become very interesting in popular culture, Veerappan’s ability to survive in the forest and co-exist among wild animals is one. He and his group of men and women would communicate with each other through noises, just like animals and birds, warning each other of any threat or new activity in the jungle where they would be operating.
Based on the many accounts of people who directly knew and worked under Veerappan sometime in the past, which are all presented in The Hunt for Veerappan, the man was almost unnaturally courageous. While nobody dared to approach the front legs of a tusker, Veerappan would do so and kill the majestic beasts with no hesitation or fear of retaliation. The guns he would use were muzzle-loaders, which increased the risk of not firing at necessary moments, but Veerappan did not fear such occurrences, and it was almost like he had no fear at all in the jungle. Tracking and killing elephants, especially the aggressive tuskers, became a profitable business for Veerappan, and as he himself once admitted, he had left no tuskers in the entire forest range alive. Like some of his men from the time stated in the documentary, they were never thoughtful of the lives of elephants or the effect of their actions on nature. The men and their families, all deprived and desperate, believed the nature and forests around them to be their own and therefore carried out any operation that could bring them profit.
It was because of his poaching crimes that Veerappan had his first run-ins with the law, in the form of forest guards and officers, but instead of taking this as any warning, the man perceived this as the authority unfairly meddling in his business. Veerappan responded with his gun and soon turned from a smuggler into a lawless dacoit who did not hesitate to kidnap and murder forest guards who tried to stop him. The forest officers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu tried their best to stop the elephant killings, and they even sought help from the state police departments, but no such help came. It was almost like the higher authorities did not care much about the destruction of nature that was going on. This stance, however, very quickly changed when Veerappan himself changed his business strategies.
Building his business as a poacher, Veerappan knew of the high value of ivory and perhaps other body parts of slain elephants, along with the demand for wood. But when he learned of the tremendous value of sandalwood and realized that the forests he was living in were filled with sandalwood trees, the man did not hesitate to enter this business. Because of the rich fragrance and also the oil that sandalwood secretes, sandalwood trees have always been legally under the state’s property in India, meaning that only the government can decide to cut them down and sell off the wood for monetary resources. Therefore, when Veerappan started to illegally cut down sandalwood and earn money for himself and his gang, the governments of both states decided to finally take action.
By this time, Veerappan was already the leader of a notorious gang of dacoits who committed numerous acts of violence, mostly against forest guards and the police force. However, and quite crucially, the common people of these villages and areas were extremely fond of Veerappan. To them, the man was bringing in job opportunities and livelihood for the families of the villagers, and the leader would often distribute wealth equally as well. Therefore, whenever police forces were sent to the forests and surrounding villages, it was an incredibly difficult task to track Veerappan down and identify his gang. The police did eventually find the hideout, though, and an attack was launched in which all of the gang’s trucks were burned down, and all the sandalwood in their possession was confiscated. Enraged by this act, Veerappan decided to completely abandon any law from here on, becoming a feared bandit who would kill many more and remain untouchable as long as he was in the forest.
How did the police’s efforts to catch Veerappan repeatedly fail?
Around 1992 and onwards, the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments formed a joint Special Task Force, or STF, to find Veerappan and either nab him or execute the criminal. This was following a gruesome attack that the dacoit had launched on a police station in a village, killing seven policemen mercilessly. Now finally seen as a threat, Veerappan was sought by the STF, but this was not an easy task, as thought by numerous police officers and personnel. The forested areas, especially in the MM Hills, were starkly different from the conditions and resources found in most other parts of the state, from where these police forces were coming. The summers were terribly dry, with no source of water in the forests, and the winters were treacherously cold. Numerous police forces came to the place at the time, lived there for a few months, and then left, unable to withstand the forces of nature.
As the STF was trying to find out about their target by using direct threats and police methods against the villagers, none of it worked. At this time, a forest officer from Karnataka named P. Srinivas stepped in with a reported intention to reform Veerappan and get him to surrender to the police. In order to achieve this, Srinivas established his office and settled in the village of Gopinatham, where he gradually became very popular among the villagers. All the help and amenities that Veerappan had once provided them were now being provided by the forest officer himself, and therefore the villagers rallied their support for him. Around this time, though, there was a rumor that Srinivas was having a romantic relationship with a young woman named Mariyamma, who happened to be the younger sister of Veerappan. This rumor soon reached the brigand leader himself, and he wrote a letter to Mariyamma asking her not to be associated with Srinivas, who was his enemy. It was the young girl who found herself in a fix and committed suicide. Enraged by this death, Veerappan lured Srinivas to the forest with the promise of surrendering and instead shot the forest officer dead.
Over the next many years, ambushing and killing people, especially police officers, became a common act for Veerappan and his gang. After shooting dead high-ranking police officers, he also blew to bits a notorious police official with the help of explosives fitted at the spot of an ambush. In this part of The Hunt for Veerappan, the documentary also throws light on the sheer torture and violence that innocent villagers were subjected to by the police force, who were growing frustrated at not being able to find the dacoit. In the later years, there were also numerous attempts to find Veerappan, especially when the STF shifted to more psychological and indirect operations instead of violence.
One such example was when Senthamarai Kannan, an officer of the Tamil Nadu STF, planted an informant close to Veerappan’s wife, Muthulakshmi, who had already been captured by the police by that time. Muthulakshmi was kept at the house of a young woman named Priya, who was Kannan’s informant, and the latter expressed her wish to meet with Veerappan, stating that she was proud of his actions and activism. A meeting spot was fixed too, and the police force lay ready to ambush the brigand, but in the very last minutes, Muthulakshmi got suspicious and warned her husband not to come.
Why had Veerappan kidnapped Dr. Rajkumar?
In the year 2000, Veerappan gained utmost notoriety in the country, with the state governments of both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu directly willing to negotiate with the man because of a single kidnapping. Veerappan had apprehended a famous Kannada film actor and revered figure in society, Dr. Rajkumar, from his house. This hostage situation continued for more than 100 days, and even though Rajkumar was never harmed by the brigand, this led to some very tense months in both states. The residents of these two neighboring states, the Kannada people and the Tamils, have always had strife and animosity between them because of ethnic reasons. Along with this, there have been direct disputes between the two states over the sharing of the Cauvery River, a major water source for both states. Therefore, when a Tamil-speaking Veerappan kidnapped a Kannada superstar, there was tension that all Tamils would face the wrath of the common masses.
In fact, Veerappan’s reason behind this kidnapping was also linked to this very animosity, as the man had turned political and towards activism at the time. Since Veerappan and his gang’s resources and wealth were running dry after having to hide across the forests, he was approached and helped by the Tamil militant activist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE. It was under the guidance of an LTTE leader that Veerappan got to know about guerilla warfare and various such leaders who had waged militant revolutions all across the world. When the man finally kidnapped Rajkumar and then met with a negotiator sent by the government, Veerappan sent a list of ten specific rule changes to be made. Among these was the demand to free all the innocent villagers who were still imprisoned on charges of being associated with Veerappan, and the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments would only accept this demand, at least for some time. The other demands were all about the welfare and betterment of the Tamil people, such as resolving the Cauvery dispute, making Tamil a state-recognized language in Karnataka, and establishing a statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar in Karnataka’s capital city, Bangalore.
It was evident that Veerappan was encouraged by LTTE ideology at this time, and neither side tried to hide this partnership either. However, an eleventh demand had also been made by the brigand, that of cash money, and it was ultimately cash that convinced him to let Dr. Rajkumar go free. Sometime later, his phase as an activist also came to an end, as Veerappan wanted to settle down with his wife and daughters into a peaceful life.
How was Veerappan finally stopped by the police?
A couple years after the turn of the century, Veerappan’s notoriety was gradually waning. Instead of being able to conduct any more terrorist operations, the man was getting limited to hiding around in the forests. His eyesight was reportedly getting much weaker, and it was for this reason that he wanted to receive some treatment. Veerappan was also, by this time, interested in the idea of fleeing India with Muthulakshmi and their two daughters to Sri Lanka and settling there for the rest of his life. But the police authorities had not given up on their intentions of getting hold of the man yet, and STF officer Vijay Kumar came up with a secret plan with Senthamarai Kannan.
Along with food supplies, Veerappan had also been searching for weapons for his gang at the time, and Kannan stepped in to take advantage of this situation. Very intelligently, he created a false identity, which he himself took on, of a Sri Lankan LTTE officer who wanted to help Veerappan. The police officer convinced Veerappan that the Sri Lankan LTTE would help with his eye operation and let him spend the rest of his life with them, also promising him a meeting with LTTE leader Prabhakaran. The sheer brilliance of this plan made Veerappan completely believe the man, and he did not have any doubts about who the LTTE officer actually was.
On the 18th of October, 2004, Veerappan and the remaining three members of his gang walked into an ambulance near the Dharmapuri forest in Tamil Nadu, believing that they would be taken over to Sri Lanka. Unbeknownst to them, this ambulance was actually a repainted police van, and police snipers were waiting in position on the stretch of road ahead. Within some time of this journey, the police force created a small window of a minute in which the van was stopped, Veerappan and his men were blinded by bright lights inside the vehicle, and the snipers opened fire. Veerappan was finally shot dead by the authorities after having spent over 200 crore rupees in India’s largest-ever manhunt.
There were certain doubts raised after Veerappan’s body was seen by many, and The Hunt for Veerappan mentions them as well. The bullet holes all over the police van’s body and the wounds on Veerappan’s face suggested that the events with the police van might have been staged. The dacoit had much fewer bullet wounds on his body than possible in such an encounter, and the bullet hole in his head looked much more precise and from a close range than any sniper shot. The fact that only Veerappan’s torso was put on display while the rest of his body was always kept covered also raised doubts. The most common theory is that Veerappan might have been captured and brutally tortured by the police before being killed, which was not revealed to the public since there was some public sentiment in support of the man. The Hunt for Veerappan also tries to probe the issue, with the makers directly asking Kannan about this, but the police officer simply replies that the STF or the authorities did not actually care about what stories journalists and reporters wrote, as long as they mentioned that the STF had successfully ended the terror reign of India’s most notorious bandit.