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Veerappan's last stand

India , The Last Stand “India Today” 13/2/2017

Veerappan's dead body after the encounter

October 18, 2004, 2200 hrs

Minus 60 minutes

It was the fourth night after the new moon. Poor visibility was worsened by the four massive tamarind trees near the location. If this bothered the well-drilled commandos, they certainly didn't show it. Waiting in the dark for long hours in the hope of getting a single shot to be taken within seconds was part of their expertise. In the past, they had lain in ambush in far worse conditions.

Kannan and I stood next to the one-room school in Padi, around 12 km from Dharmapuri. The school overlooked the road. Its roof provided a perfect field of fire. Six of my crack commandos were squeezed together on the school's roof, weapons at the ready. An undercover police vehicle, masquerading as a sugarcane-laden lorry, was parked in the middle of the road. It was named 'Sweet Box', as it was full of sugarcane supposedly heading towards the sugar mill nearby.

The lorry was actually meant to block the path of the oncoming Cocoon. It also housed three tech experts, who would receive signals from the surveillance camera concealed inside the ambulance. It was their job to confirm that the target was inside the vehicle before we intercepted it.

Another lorry-codenamed 'Mobile Bunker'-packed with sandbags and armed STF commandos was parked on the other side of the road, at an angle of about 45 degrees to the school, partially concealed by a tree. If all went off well, the ambulance would be trapped, hemmed in from all sides by the Sweet Box, Mobile Bunker, the school and Tiru's team. Another DSP waited in the east towards Dharmapuri town. His job was to cut out all incoming traffic. We needed a sterile zone to ensure no collateral damage. Unusually for him, Veerappan was not very alert that day. In fact, his mind seemed preoccupied with memories and regrets. But his natural optimism seemed to resurface despite these dark thoughts. As his mind hatched plans, his gaze fell on the 7.62 mm SLR lying near his feet. Many of his comrades had moved on to the deadlier AK-47, but he still liked to carry the weapon, which he had personally taken from a policeman killed during the ambush with SP Gopal Hosur. Veerappan smiled at the memory and glanced out of the ambulance... A few metres down the road, Kumaresan, a seemingly nondescript STF old-timer, sat in a shack. He half-heartedly picked at some food, trying to make sure he was well within the shadows. Except for the driver, Durai, Kannan and I, he was the only other person who was aware of the target's identity. As the ambulance passed by, Durai nonchalantly stretched his arm out of the window, flattened his hand against the side of the vehicle and moved his thumb very slightly. The target, lost in his reverie, didn't notice. But Kumaresan did so instantly. He also spotted two other things-the blue revolving light of the ambulance was on, which meant that the entire gang was inside. So was the fog light, which meant all the gang members were armed.

Minus 10 minutes

Kannan glanced at me and gave a thumbs-up. Just then, we heard a slight clicking sound on our muffled wireless set. It was a signal from Tiru that our prey had come into view. Kannan uttered the words, 'Cocoon in ten minutes.' My AK was dangling on its sling from my shoulders. With all the teams watching, I stretched both my arms, turned 360 degrees and chopped the air to mark the exact arcs of fire for all three teams...

The lights of the ambulance appeared to come closer and closer... 'Would they stop at the designated spot?' I asked myself. It was crucial that they did, since a moving target is much harder to hit than a stationary one. 'Brake hard. Switch on the rear cabin lights. The passengers must not catch sight of anything, but must be seen,' Saravanan recited the instructions to himself one more time. Then, with fumbling fingers, he flicked on a switch and Cocoon's three cabin lights came on. He simultaneously stepped on the brakes with all the force his right leg could muster. Cocoon lurched hard and screeched to a dead stop right in the middle of the designated slot. The smell of burning tyres filled the air. Even as Cocoon shuddered to a halt, a vehicle came up rapidly from behind. Tiru had been trailing Cocoon discreetly, keeping out of sight to ensure he didn't arouse any suspicion. But with Cocoon trapped, he moved quickly into position to block the exit...

Minus 5 seconds

In the heat of the moment, Saravanan had forgotten to douse the headlamps and the revolving blue lamp on the roof. The burning lights engulfed Cocoon's front in a soft halo. It stood there in the middle of the road in all its majesty, still rocking like a boat tossed by waves, its double beam of lights bobbing up and down. Two men shot out of Cocoon with the speed of discharged bullets-the captain and the navigator had abandoned their ship. Saravanan's voice carried clearly, his left hand pointing backwards. 'Gang yulla irukaangoe (The gangsters are inside).'

Kannan's warning rang out over the megaphone, 'Surrender. You've been surrounded.' Then, the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 emerged from the rear of the vehicle... If the four men had come out of the vehicle with their weapons raised, we would have accepted their surrender. But the moment they opened fire, they closed that window for themselves... Our response was instant and overwhelming. Brass hosed down on Cocoon from every direction. Bullets zipped all around along with the rhythmic flashes of guns... I shuffled to my left, flicked my gun to burst fire mode, and let go. After a few bullets, I paused briefly, as did the others. Another couple of reports of a self-loading rifle and a shotgun came from Cocoon.

Kannan reiterated the terms for surrender. There were few more shots, followed by a volley of the STF's response. I signalled the teams to stop. Another pause. This time, there was no return fire... Cocoon was engulfed in smoke and dust. I signalled to Rajarajan and Hussain. Another stun grenade was lobbed into Cocoon. There was a flash and a bang. Rajarajan flashed on a torch, which he held below his gun's barrel, as did Hussain. The two beams of light converged. The two men approached Cocoon warily. They heard a gurgle, followed by a hiss-like air escaping from a cycle tube. It is a sound typically made by air trapped between the lung tissue and the chest. Someone wounded was trying to suck in air. Then, silence. The stillness was finally broken by the cry of 'All clear'. The encounter had started at around 10.50 pm and was over in twenty minutes-a rapid climax to a twenty-year wait! Hussain and Rajarajan saw blood and bodily fluids splashed all over-the walls, floor and seats, food packets and the stretcher. They picked up two AKs, a 12 bore Remington pump action gun and the infamous 7.62 mm SLR. Three persons were huddled together-their final conclave before going down. Men in their death throes, clutching each other! One, later identified as Govindan, was a little distance away. The four men were speedily removed from Cocoon and laid on the ground. I beckoned to Kannan and, ignoring a cramped muscle, hobbled over to where they lay.

It was my only face-to-face moment with Veerappan, if it could be described as such. He was unable to speak and was clearly dying. I noticed that a bullet had gone through his left eye, just as it had with Senthil in Sorgam Valley almost 10 years ago. With his moustache trimmed and in civilian clothes, rather than his trademark green dress and brown belt, he seemed a stripped-down version of his former self. He had been a wily and worthy foe, with mastery over both strategy and tactics. Even at 52, he was sinewy and extremely fit....

I took stock of the encounter. There were no casualties or serious injuries among my boys. I sent up a quick prayer of thanks... A total of 338 bullets were fired by us. Later, seven were found in Govindan's body; two had pierced Veerappan's body and exited from the other side, while one stayed inside. Gradually, I sensed a growing murmur from the boys. Since the identity of the men inside the vehicle had not been revealed to them initially, they began to mutter in disbelief when they recognised the fallen men...

There was a spontaneous eruption of delight and high-fiving. I was hoisted on the shoulders of my men and effortlessly passed around. I noticed that Kannan had been similarly hefted. As soon as the boys brought me to the ground, I bounded up the school's steps, two at a time. Sitting on the parapet with my feet dangling towards the road, I made the call. 'The CM has retired for the night. Is it urgent?' asked Sheela Balakrishnan, Jayalalithaa's secretary. 'I think she will like what I have to say,' I replied. An instant later, I heard her voice on the phone. 'We got him, ma'am,' I said. Then I quickly recounted the operation and informed the CM that Veerappan was on his way to hospital, but survival seemed unlikely. I replied in the affirmative to her brief query on the STF's safety. Though she was her usual dignified self, the elation in her voice was unmistakable. 'Congratulations to you and the STF, Mr Vijay Kumar. This is the best news I've ever had as CM,' she said, before hanging up.

Monday, October 18, 2004, 11.10 pm

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