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|September 5, 2002||
The Rediff Interview/Shankar Bidri
How can you fight a war in Kargil from Delhi or Bangalore?' asks Shankar Bidri, the police officer from Karnataka whom Veerappan loves to hate.
From February 18, 1993 to June 28, 1996, Bidri was commandant of the Special Task Force constituted to arrest Veerappan and is currently inspector general of police of the Karnataka State Reserve Police in Bangalore.
The only police officer to have lived in the jungles near Veerappan for three-and-a-half years and also the longest serving head of the STF in Karnataka, Bidri is considered the most effective of all STF heads. Many major arrests from Veerappan's gang -- including the brigand's brother Arjunan -- took place during his tenure. Several gang members were killed in encounters and many of Veerappan’s supporters arrested. His term also saw the bandit’s gang being reduced to just the brigand and a couple of aides.
Bidri also established an intelligence network which continued to be the STF’s mainstay for a long time, and its vestiges exist even today.
It was his commitment to hunt down terrorists that motivated then state chief minister Veerappa Moily to post him as head of the STF. In 1991, when LTTE terrorists led by Sivarasan committed suicide in a house in Konanakunte, Bidri was the first police officer to enter the house. Though the terrorists were all dead inside, nobody outside was aware of their suicide plan.
Alleged to have detained several innocent tribals under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act for assisting Veerappan, Bidri refutes the allegations and says every single person arrested by him helped the brigand seriously in some way.
Finally, when the M Karunanidhi government came to power in Tamil Nadu, he requested the Janata Dal government in Karnataka to post him back to Bangalore.
In an exclusive interview with M D Riti, he looks back at his stint in the pursuit of India's most wanted outlaw.
How would you describe the situation you stepped into as head of the STF, when then chief minister Moily gave you that responsibility?
It was a war-like, tough situation. Veerappan had about 200 to 300 men and women in his gang then. He had established domination over all villages in that region. You could not move around freely in the jungle because he had buried land mines all over the place. I also had to establish domination over the areas dominated by Veerappan.
Is that where the numerous allegations of human rights violations now being investigated were allegedly committed?
Look, I established domination not by harassing or torturing tribals and villagers. I did it purely by enlisting their cooperation. If I had just tried to terrorise them by the use of physical force, I could never have achieved as much as I did -- of reducing Veerappan’s huge gang to just 3 or 4 men. You have to appeal to the sathvik [spartan] qualities in a person, and persuade them to help you, because that is the right thing to do. I gave those tribals who were helping me jobs, money, gave the villages better facilities than they had before: this was my approach.
What were the first problems you faced when you took over?
My first task was to keep the policemen working under me united, and boost their morale. I had to take charge of a demoralised task force, inspire them to become courageous and dedicated to the cause of hunting down Veerappan. They were not accustomed to jungle warfare. I had to have them trained in those skills.
And how did you do that?
By working very hard at it. I had to live amongst the constables, as one of them. I also never used whatever rank I enjoyed in the police service, and insisted I was just designated 'commander' of the STF. They were my troops, I was their sole leader. I staked my own life every day in the jungle, and my men followed me. There was one patch of time when I spent 120 days without a break in the jungles and its bordering villages, after Veerappan made a daring attack on police officer Gopal Hosur.
However, I am proud to remind you that there was not a single police casualty in all those years, except amongst my personal bodyguards! I had seven bodyguards, out of which five always used to move around with me.
How would you describe Veerappan, the man you spent so many years pursuing?
He is a cruel, self-centered man, who is willing to sacrifice anyone at all for his personal ends or to achieve glory.
Police officers who succeeded you said you were the only one who could establish an excellent intelligence network in Veerappan’s territory. How did you do that?
By being available in that area all the time, and meeting a lot of local people. There would be at least ten different people in my office at any given time, talking to me -- shepherds, hunters, firewood gatherers. I spent huge amounts of time cultivating all these people and chatting with them. This is the only way you can do it. They helped me keep track of Veerappan’s movements in the jungles, because they too were people of the jungle.
Where would you sleep every night?
I must admit I spent roughly half my nights in IBs [inspection bungalows] bordering the forests, and in school buildings, churches and forest guards’ quarters. But I did spend the other half of the nights camping out in the forests with my men. We slept out in the open. Only when the rains came, we would put up plastic sheets overhead as protection. We never used posh tents or any such facilities.
Were you not afraid that Veerappan would attack you while you slept?
Of course not. We had sentries guarding us and keeping a watch. The forest gives everyone the same advantage or disadvantage.
Were you never afraid that you could die in the jungles?
Not really. I have escaped a certain death 10 times so far in my lifetime. I always felt, even then, that if I was to die, then I just would, and nothing could save me.
Design: Dominic Xavier
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