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Operation Cocoon: The Night Veerappan Was Hunted Down

by Editor's Desk
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Swarajya: Night of October 18, 2004 was one that was unparalleled in the history of notoriety in South India.

The myth of the man or rather the moustache-marque monster met its fate relieving the nation of one of its most feared bandits and his three-decade long notorious reign.

Story of the meticulously planned encounter of Koose Muniswamy Veerappan was also the story of the victory of Special Task Force (STF) that was entrusted with this operation. ‘Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand’ by retired cop K Vijay Kumar is the first person account of what went into bringing the brigand down. The book by Kumar, who was then the chief of the STF heading the operation, is an interesting glimpse into the life of both the hunter and the hunted. Operation Cocoon was the grand finale that brought the curtains down on an act of terror.

Excerpts:

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 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.

The ambulance code named “Cocoon” that was planted as a getaway vehicle for Veerappan, and the one in which he was finally killed.

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 ten 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 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.

I took stock of the encounter. There were no casualties or serious injuries among my boys. I sent up a quick prayer of thanks. It was one more thing to be grateful for on a night when fortune had been exceedingly gracious. I was not the only one to be scalded by a buddy’s empty shell. It’s not so unusual when people are firing while packed in close proximity to each other.

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.

It is impossible to predict the number of bullets that could hit a target during a firefight. Two people close by may not receive the same number of bullets or wounds. In 1980, when the SAS had stormed the Iranian embassy in London to rescue twenty-six hostages, eighty-two bullets had hit one terrorist alone. The bullet count for his other five comrades was in single digits.

An early casualty of the firefight was the lamp at the tip of the selfie-stick, which had been shot out. The shreds of its shattered bulb nearly got SI Rajesh Khanna in the eye. Thankfully, he did not sustain any serious injury. 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!’ they wondered aloud.

I then signalled that we needed to rush the four men to the nearest hospital. They were loaded onto an Omni and dashed away.

Suddenly, cries of ‘Long live the STF’ resounded through the clearing.

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. We exchanged broad grins and shook hands. No words were needed.

Next, it was the turn of Hussain, Rajarajan, Tiru, Sampath and Saravanan.

All the officers and team leaders present were tossed around, as were the head constables, who had spent years haranguing and tongue-lashing the men to finally make this moment possible.

There was a brief pause as the boys looked in puzzlement at Durai, standing calmly at a distance, scratching his shaven head. Nobody knew him, but they clearly understood that he was one of them and had played a pivotal role in the operation. Up went Durai, too.

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 on the dangerous side, I made the call.

Felicitations after Operation Cocoon

‘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.

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