The Special Task Forces:

The Butchers Worse Than the Bandit

— Shankar

The longest and the costliest- ever hunt for a bandit in modern Indian history was for the elusive Veerappan. Two decades of manhunt has cost more than Rs.1000 crore to the state exchequer, according to an estimate. Veerappan is dead but the stories of atrocities of the Special Task Force (STF) are still alive. It appears that the skeletons in the STF cupboard are yet to come out into the open and one wonders if they would come out at all. With the burial of Veerappan, the vast shady network and the unholy nexus of top echelons in the polity, state machinery, forest and police department officials and the business interests in the region is also buried deep in the grave. One can easily realize that many powerful people at various levels would have heaved a deep sigh of relief on the day the forest brigand was killed.

Veerappan began his journey as poacher at the age of 10, moved over to sandalwood smuggling and focused on granite and other businesses in the latter part of his life. Contrary to the habitual method of gang rape by the STF, Veerappan is known for his respect towards the womenfolk. People are still discussing his later role as ‘Robinhood’ and the rural and forest people in the surrounding region are expressing deep sympathies with the forest brigand. Veerappan’s prize catch was Kannada matinee idol Raj Kumar who spent more than 100 days in forests under Veerappan’s custody. His release was allegedly secured by bribing Veerappan to the tune of more than 20 crores. The death of Nagappa, a former minister of Karnataka, allegedly under Veerappan’s custody was one of the turning points in alienating a section of Lingayat mass base from the Congress in Karnataka. The repeated pleas of Veerappan for more than a decade for amnesty, along the lines extended to Phoolan Devi, were turned down by successive governments. Had Veerappan been granted amnesty, it would have brought many uncomfortable facts to light.

More than Veerappan, it is the STF which played the role of a state-sponsored gang of criminals who indulged in large-scale sexual violence on women, lootings, killings and third degree torture of innocent civilian population. Veerappan could not be apprehended, not just because of his popularity as ‘Robinhood’ but because of the inhuman, cruel and ruthless methods of oppression and atrocities on local masses resorted to by the STF. It was the secret behind the bandit’s long drawn elusiveness.

The role of the STF came to the limelight when almost all womenfolk of the whole of Vachati village were gang raped by the STF personnel. The Sadasivam Commission, instituted to go into the excesses of the STF, has documented a large number of stories of horror and nightmare as testimonies of the poor and innocent victims. The STF was a ‘holy cow’ for a pretty long period and its operations were held like a defence secret. It was exposed and came to the public scrutiny only because of the long-drawn and consistent effort by a handful of civil liberty activists and by some left and democratic organizations. The operational area of the STF was practically exempt from any law of the land and the STF indulged in all kinds of criminal activities that were insulated and concealed from the law in the name of anti-Veerappan operations. Human rights had been a major casualty.

More than 124 people were put behind the bars for more than eight years for alleged association with Veerappan. But, the actual number of associates, according to the STF’s own records, was less than the number of accused. At one point of time, more than 50 villagers were held under TADA without any review of their cases for several years. The Karnataka Special Court on Veerappan acquitted 109 accused and charged the STF, on record, of serious violations of human rights.

The irony is that the state governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are competing with each other to honour the STF, the most dreaded state-sponsored criminal outfit, for killing Veerappan, offering plots of lands, promotions and cash bonanza. But, it is unfortunate that the victims of the STF are left high and dry. The inhuman and cruel atrocities of the STF should not be allowed to be buried under the euphoria of killing of Veerappan.

The STF formed for the purpose of nabbing Veerappan should be disbanded forthwith and STF personnel should be punished for the atrocities committed on innocent people. All the innocent people who are in jail in connection with the Veerappan case should be released and the cases should be withdrawn. A judicial commission should be instituted to enquire into the STF excesses of killing innocent people and harassment of the rural poor. The report of the Justice Sadashiva Commission which looked into the links between Veerappan and senior political leaders and bureaucrats in Karnataka should be made public. Investigation into the wealth amassed by Veerappan and senior politicians and bureaucrats in league with him should continue and the wealth should be confiscated and should be used for developmental schemes in that backward area. q