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AUGUST 14, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 6

India's most wanted criminal, Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, now holds one of India's most wanted actors.

Just Like in the Movies
A famous Indian film star is kidnapped by an equally famous bandit. Will there be a happy ending?

A ragged bunch of toughs sit around their hirsute, half-crazed leader. They are drinking alcohol, laughing raucously and enjoying the terror of their hostages, who are huddled together, fearing an almost certain death. Suddenly, the leader raises his hand; his followers fall silent. All they can hear are the sounds of the jungle, but they know that their chief has an uncanny sense for danger, one that has helped them evade an Elite government commando battalion for several years. "He has eyes everywhere," an awestruck villager explains to a distraught man whose girlfriend is one of the hostages. "He knows everything."

This tense scene is from the current Hindi hit film Jungle, a biopic about Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, 53, a notorious murderer, elephant poacher and India's most-wanted criminal. But in the southern state of Karnataka, the bandit is playing out a much more riveting drama—in real life. Last Sunday, in a brazen caper that could have come from a movie script, he led several cohorts into the home of Rajkumar, an ailing 72-year-old film star, asked his wife chattily if she recognized him—she did, later recalling his unmistakable moustache—and handed her an audio tape of his demands. He then took the actor, a brother-in-law and two business associates off into the forest where Veerappan has hidden out for more than two decades.

In movie terms, the bandit had pulled off a casting coup. Rajkumar is beloved by millions in his native Karnataka, and his abduction prompted street protests that temporarily closed down Bangalore, the state capital and center of India's technology industry. Politicians and security officials scurried ineffectually to find a solution. "This is not just any kidnapping," declared state information minister B.K. Chandrashekhar. "Strong emotions hinge on the outcome." Some of Rajkumar's fans demanded that the government hunt down Veerappan and rescue their hero. Others simply prayed for a happy ending. Said S.R. Govindu, president of the actor's fan club: "As in his films, I hope Rajkumar can reform Veerappan and bring him back to Bangalore."

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The fans' best hope, however, is that Veerappan simply lets Rajkumar go. The bandit has free run of the 3,000 sq km Satyamangalam forest that straddles Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states. Here, he has killed more than 2,000 elephants for their ivory tusks, felled thousands of sandalwood trees to smuggle their aromatic and expensive bark and murdered at least 120 people. For the past decade, a force of 600 commandos has been combing the forest in India's biggest, longest-running, most-expensive manhunt. It has yielded nothing. Why not? It is often claimed that the bandit bribes politicians and policemen to tip him off about commando operations. But he also has a network of informers, who both dread and respect him. Like a modern-day Robin Hood, he helps the poor with money, but demands absolute loyalty in return. Deeply religious, he has paid for the renovation of village temples. His most popular deed, however, was the killing of one of his associates for raping a village woman.

With Veerappan aging and many of his best men arrested or killed in recent years, this latest abduction might have a movie-clichE motive: the chance to make one big, final score and, if possible, negotiate favorable terms of surrender. With more than 100 criminal cases pending against him, Veerappan cannot simply walk out of the forest and settle down to family life with his 10-year-old daughter, now being raised by her grandparents in a village outside the forest. Veerappan has not listed his demands yet, but as in the past, he will probably ask for a pardon, withdrawal of cases against his accomplices, the transfer of charges against him to a court in his native Tamil Nadu state—where he apparently expects more leniency because of his political connections—and billions of rupees.

Karnataka authorities called off police action in the forest and agreed to open talks with Veerappan. The man given that job is journalist R.R. Gopal, who had tried to negotiate the bandit's surrender in 1997. Late last week, as Gopal vanished into the jungle to meet the gang, the police received a tape-recorded message from Raj-kumar, warning that any attempt to launch a rescue could be "dangerous." Everyone is hoping that there is no real threat to Rajkumar's life. Veerappan has returned most of his hostages in the past, and many of them apparently grew to like him. Also, the bandit is said to be quite a movie buff: he once demanded that a film be made about him. It's not known whether he has seen Jungle, but Rajkumar's fans will not be reassured by a scene in which the villain, hoping to persuade authorities to give up the chase, sends them the head of a hostage. That's one plot twist the real-life drama could do without.

—With reporting by Saritha Rai/Bangalore

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