A STUN grenade rolled stealthily into the ambulance, guns flashing with bullets zipping all around and then, the silence.
These are just some nuggets from the final moments of Operation Cocoon — the encounter that killed the dreaded bandit Veerappan over 12 years ago — according to the book, “VEERAPPAN Chasing the Brigand”, written by K Vijay Kumar, who helmed the operation as head of the Tamil Nadu Police Special Task Force (STF).
It was in 2000 that Kumar, who was leading BSF operations in Kashmir at the time, volunteered to lead the campaign to capture Veerappan, the sandalwood smuggler who is said to have killed at least 124 people, including several police and forest officers. But the final shootout on October 18, 2004, as Veerappan was moving in an ambulance (also referred to as Cocoon by the STF) in Tamil Nadu, “was over in twenty minutes — a rapid climax to a 20-year wait!” writes Kumar, 64, in the 250-page book.
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Kumar, a retired IPS officer, has served in various senior positions across the country, including as CRPF chief and Chennai Police Commissioner. He is now a senior security advisor with the Union Home Ministry.
“VEERAPPAN Chasing the Brigand”, published by Rupa Publications India, is scheduled to be released on Wednesday in New Delhi at a function where Home Minister Rajnath Singh will be the chief guest.
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 irukaange (The gangsters are inside).’
Even in that moment, I could make out that he was eager to catch my eyes, as if seeking approval for delivering the goods. I nodded appreciatively and hurriedly patted him as he brushed past me.
Rajarajan grabbed Saravanan and shoved him behind a huge tree near my position. Meanwhile, Durai — identifiable from the shine of his shaven pate — turned back abruptly towards Cocoon. He had pulled the safety pin of his stun grenade and rolled it into the rear of Cocoon from the secret slot under his seat. ‘What had happened to the damn thing?’ he thought. It took him a moment to realise that the damned thing had a four-second fuse to blow up. It finally did.
Cocoon rocked on its wheels. Durai had 4 metres to reach the relative safety of Hussain’s flank, just opposite my position. He headed for it like Usain Bolt taking off from the blocks. After all, the firefight could begin any time, and he had no intention of getting caught in the core battle zone. I raised my right palm. Kannan’s warning rang out over the megaphone, ‘Surrender. You’ve been surrounded.’ A few moments went by. Then, the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 emerged from the rear of the vehicle. There was a sudden flutter of birds from the tamarind trees. Far away, a lone dog barked. Soon, many joined the chorus. Shattered glass flew out of the rear of Cocoon….
A total of 44 cops and foresters had already died at the hands of these men. At least 80 more civilians, known to the police, had been killed by them.Those people were probably killed in brutal multiple ways. It would end tonight, one way or the other. 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 felt something hot on my neck. Empty shells were spewing from my buddy Sundaram’s AK. Since we were standing close together, some of them scalded my neck.
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.
The mayhem of the encounter faded to a dull murmur. Some birds had returned to their nests, but were still chirping restively. Dogs were still barking in the distance. 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 p.m. and was over in twenty minutes ? a rapid climax to a 20-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 7.62mm 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…. 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…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 a mastery over both strategy and tactics. Even at fifty-two, he was sinewy and extremely fit. Forensic specialist Dr Vallinayagam, who later examined his body, told me he was in the shape of a twenty-five-year-old, apart from the problem with his eyes.
Rumour has it that he had damaged his eyes while applying dye to his famed moustache, which often filled him with pride. It was an irony worthy of an O’Henry tale. The famous moustachioed bandit eventually trimmed his whiskers to get his eyes treated, only to end up losing both ? his eyes as well as his life.
An early casualty of the firefight was the lamp at the tip of the selfiestick, which had been shot out. The shreds of its shattered bulb nearly got SI Rajesh Khanna in the eye. In any case, the illumination from the lamp had not really been used as Cocoon glowed in the radiance of its own light.
Charles, like a conjurer, pulled out a black cloth the size of a bed sheet. He was supposed to have cut the cloth into strips to be used as bandanas. But in the excitement, everyone had forgotten about it. Now, it served to cover the four men. 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 recognized the fallen men. ‘Could it really be him?’ ‘Is it just someone who looks like him?’ ‘No, it’s actually Veerappan!’