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Koose Muniswamy Veerappan (1947-) is India’s most notorious and dangerous outlaw. To Tamil nationalists (and those who benefit from his smuggling operations or his generosity) he is a Robin Hood like hero. To many others, he is a ruthless killer who has claimed between 120 and 140 lives.

Veerappan began his life of crime under the tutelage of gang leader Maleyanoor Mamootiyan three decades ago. He gradually eliminated rivals to become the undisputed master of the dense jungles between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. He began as an elephant poacher and smuggler of ivory and sandalwood. His extensive smuggling operations petered out when the Indian government cracked down on the ivory trade and the forests were depleted of sandalwood. He then turned to the profitable business of kidnapping, preying on everyone from government officials to tourists and wildlife photographers.

A decade ago, the government created the well funded Special Task Force just to catch Veerappan. They have had a spectacular lack of success and have been severely criticized for human rights violations in villages surrounding Veerappan’s territory. At first, they significantly whittled down the numbers in his gang by capturing or killing them. Then they captured his brother, who died in police custody by committing suicide with a cyanide capsule – or so they say. Veerappan was furious and the hunter became the hunted. Veerappan’s campaign of revenge against the police claimed the lives of 32 policemen

He made news around the world when he kidnapped the legendary Karnataka movie star Rajkumar last year. Veerappan was ruthless but known for taking good care of his captives. This time, he didn’t demand money but aimed at furthering the cause of Tamil nationalism. His demands included the release of 56 prisoners, mostly his gang members, something fiercely objected to by the families of his victims and blocked by the Indian Supreme Court.

In the end, Rajkumar was released after 109 days. His nationalistic demands were not met, and many suspect that the kidnapping did not involve the Tamil cause at all, but instead revolved around a monetary dispute concerning one of the sons of Rajkumar who is in the granite business.

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