The Case of the Menacing Mustache
Indian police kill the country's most notorious criminal.
On Monday evening, India's millions slept more soundly in the knowledge that the country's most notorious gangster had been killed by police hours before in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. For decades, Koose Muniswamy Veerappan had murdered and pillaged, sporting an enormous, trademark handlebar mustache and terrorizing the forests of southern India. * He was legendary in his own time, and some called him a Robin Hood figure who used the support of local villagers to evade capture. Veerappan's main business was smuggling sandalwood and elephant tusks, but he earned his celebrity with daring kidnappings, including that of a major Indian film star, Rajkumar *, in 2000. That event led film fans to riot, and Rajkumar was released over three months later, after reportedly paying an enormous ransom.
Verappan's death has made headlines in India all week as newspapers gleefully reviewed Veerappan's long record of crime. The Hindustan Times summed up general sentiment when it called his passing "the end of an epoch in the annals of violent crime in India." The article noted his Robin Hood reputation, but argued that he was a killer at heart: "[S]trip away the iconography, and the owner of the world's most famous moustache—which was conspicuous in its absence when his body was recovered on Monday—was a cold-blooded killer. Let that be not forgotten even after the inevitable bio-pics come out." Several papers focused on how Veerappan was finally captured. According to an op-ed in the Hindu, success caught up with him: "Even in the jungle, he was seen with modern gadgets and audio players." The article suggested that as the outlaw spread his wealth farther, his broader network of contacts provided more informants for the police. The Times of India ran an extensive report on "Operation Cocoon," the sting that finally trapped Veerappan, which involved recruiting the brigand's personal doctor and having security agents pose as assistants and drivers. Another article in the Hindustan Times followed up on a vital detail: How will the numerous rewards (totaling hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars) for Veerappan's death be divided up?
Nearly every Indian paper sought answers to two larger questions: How did Veerappan evade police for so long, and why was it necessary to kill him instead of capturing him? To the first question, the Times of India answered that "he owed his existence to the very state that hunted him." As the Times noted, just a day after Veerappan was killed, "the Karnataka chief minister ordered a probe to uncover the political patronage and financial support enjoyed by Veerappan." The Star of Mysore noted that the mysteries may stay unresolved: "[W]ho paid them those awesome amounts of money and what did they do with it … These are big questions dying for answers, and the answers today lie dead."
Some commentators wondered why Veerappan never made the move into a more political guerilla career. Several news sources noted that he had established links with Tamil rebels, who may have been involved in the kidnapping of Rajkumar. On Wednesday, the Indian Express noted in an editorial titled "Heart of Darkness" that Veerappan was threatening to emerge as a politician from his "evil little empire." "Would Veerappan succeed in reinventing himself as the messiah of the Tamil cause? That question, thankfully, will not visit us again." On Thursday, the Express reran an editorial from 2000 that it said had encouraged Veerappan's eventual killer to take up the case, and noted that "this week, that officer … delivered." The article asked another question: "What kind of a state institutionalizes such nonsense? We specialize in not catching our crooks."
Correction, Oct. 21, 2004: The article originally stated that Veerappan operated in the Chambal region of central India. In fact, his criminal activities were based in the forests of southern India. (Return to corrected sentence.)