When Supreme Court Crushed Veerappan’s Ultimatum & Saved Democracy

Here’s why SC came down heavily on govts of Karnataka & Tamil Nadu, when dacoit Veerappan kidnapped actor Rajkumar.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Picture of Veerappan used for representational purposes.
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On 18 October 2004, the people of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala breathed a huge sigh of relief. The Special Task Force had shot dead the notorious forest brigand Veerappan and his associates after 20 years of search operations in the dense forests spanning over 18000 square kilometres. His death was described as 'the death of a demon'. He was accused of brutally killing more than 130 people, poaching more than 2000 elephants, and abducting dozens of people. One such abduction was that of the legendary Kannada actor Dr Rajkumar, which almost brought the Government of Karnataka to its knees.

The Abduction of South Superstar Rajkumar – And The Govt’s Dilemma

Veerappan abducted Rajkumar and 3 others from his farmhouse in Tamil Nadu on 30 July 2000. Before taking the hostages away, he handed over a cassette to Rajkumar's wife and instructed her to hand it over to the Chief Minister of Karnataka. The cassette contained an audio recording of Veerappan's demands from the government. The demands included adoption of Tamil as an additional language of administration in Karnataka, installation of a statue of Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar in Karnataka, a minimum procurement price for tea grown in Tamil Nadu, release of his associates who had been imprisoned in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, etc. As Rajkumar enjoyed a huge fan following all over Karnataka, violence broke out when the news of the abduction spread.

The government became worried about the maintenance of public order as this issue could assume a linguistic colour and spiral into something violent like the Cauvery riots in Bangalore.

The governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka decided to negotiate with Veerappan.

The negotiators visited Veerappan in the forest and informed Veerappan about the steps being taken by the governments to meet his demands. Emboldened by governments' response, Veerappan put forward more demands and reiterated that his associates in jail must be released. The Government of Karnataka became increasingly worried about Veerappan harming Rajkumar especially since Veerappan had killed hostages in the past when his demands were not met. The governments yielded and assured him that his associates would be released.

How Tamil Nadu & Karnataka Govts ‘Submitted’ To Veerappan

51 associates of Veerappan were lodged in the jails of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and they had been booked under various laws including the stringent Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). In order to release his associates, the governments decided to withdraw the TADA cases against them by instructing the prosecutors handling the cases to file applications seeking to withdraw from the prosecution and by not opposing their bail applications.

While Rajkumar's fans may have been relieved that the governments were taking steps to get Rajkumar released, there was one man who was pained by this development. The man was Abdul Karim, a retired police officer whose son, Sub-Inspector Shakheel Ahmed was shot dead by Veerappan in an ambush on a police convoy.

Abdul Karim approached the Supreme Court and urged the Court to prevent the governments from withdrawing the cases and releasing Veerappan’s associates.

He pointed out that if these dangerous men were released, the safety of the victims' families and the witnesses would be endangered. He claimed that Veerappan's associates could ‘unleash terror and jeopardise public order’ and therefore, public interest required that these criminals remain in jail.

Why Govts Of Karnataka & Tamil Nadu Drew Supreme Court’s Ire

The Supreme Court came down heavily on the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. During the course of the hearing, the bench grilled the counsels representing the states and asked them to explain what made them believe that Veerappan would release Rajkumar after his associates are released from jail. When Harish Salve argued that the Government of Karnataka was finding it hard to maintain law and order, one of the judges remarked that in that case, the incumbent government ought to make way for a government which could maintain law and order.

In its order, the Court criticised the governments and the prosecutors for concluding that public interest would be served by releasing dreaded criminals. The Court noted that the states had failed to provide security to Rajkumar despite a warning from the Intelligence department that Veerappan may abduct him.

It also pointed out the governments had failed to consider the impact of the release on the morale of the police force and the safety of the witnesses.

Justice Sabharwal opined:

“It may lead to anarchy... If (the government) yielded to the pressure tactics of those who, according to the Government, are out to terrorise the police force and to overawe the elected Governments. It does not appear that anyone considered that with their action, people may lose faith in the democratic process, when they see public authority flouted and the helplessness of the Government. The aspect of paralysing and discrediting the democratic authority had to be taken into consideration.”

Police Officer Abdul Karim’s Legal Battle – And How It ‘Saved’ Democracy

The Court noted that there would have been a miscarriage of justice if Abdul Karim had not challenged the release of Veerappan's associates. It went on to quash the judicial and executive orders which had been passed to facilitate their release. The verdict and the stinging remarks by the bench embarrassed the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Veerappan eventually released Rajkumar after keeping him in captivity for 108 days. While the Government of Karnataka denied that a ransom was paid, two senior police officers and one of Veerappan's aides claimed that a ransom had been paid to the brigand.

Abdul Karim’s legal battle thwarted an outlaw’s attempt to bully the governments of two states into submission.

He deserves to be applauded and remembered for being a vigilant citizen who fought to prevent the sacrifices made by the brave policemen from going in vain.

(Rahul Machaiah holds an LLM degree from Azim Premji University. His areas of interest are public law, law & development, and legal philosophy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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