'It was the toughest mission of my life'

Glad I could bring Dr Rajkumar back alive: Nakheeran Gopal

R R Gopal, better known as Nakheeran Gopal, was one of the interlocutors who played an important role in the release of Kannada matinee idol Dr Rajkumar after he was abducted by forest brigand Veerappan on July 30, 2000. The journalist made six trips to the forests along the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border to make the mission successful. Gopal recounted his experiences to ETB Sivapriyan of DH

"By 2000, I was almost used to the terrain of the forests and scrublands that were the fiefdom of Veerappan, having trekked into the deep jungles several times to meet the forest brigand to negotiate the release of people held captive by his gang and record his interviews.
But when I received a phone call from the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi on July 31, 2000, asking me to negotiate the release of Dr Rajkumar, I was too scared. For the first time, I replied in the negative to Karunanidhi and soon I was bombarded with telephone calls from almost everyone who shared a special relationship with the actor – notable among them being Tamil superstar Rajinikanth.

I was not willing to be the official negotiator between the two sides because the mission was too big, and I was pretty sure the consequences would be disastrous if it ended in failure. Though I had decided not to go, there was consistent pressure from Dr Rajkumar’s family and Rajinikanth, who telephoned me 13 times to take up the challenge. I was not too convinced – I could not smell success and moreover, I did not trust the police forces of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

But what brought in a change in my mind was a telephone call from my reporter in Bengaluru, Jayaprakash, who said news had spread that Nakheeran Gopal, a Tamil, was refusing to go into the forests to save Dr Rajkumar, a Kannadiga. When Jayaprakash told me that Kannadigas are terribly angry with me, I had no choice but to accept since my refusal might spill over onto the streets of Bengaluru resulting in violence, as emotions ran high then.

And my mentor and veteran Tamil journalist Chinnakuthoosi, too, played a pivotal role in convincing me to take up the mission in the interest of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. So, on August 2, 2000, I set out to the forests to negotiate the release of Dr Rajkumar and three others from Talavadi – from where the actor was abducted - along with three of my colleagues – Sivasubramaniam, Balamurugan and Subbu.

Nakheeran editor R R Gopal speaks with forest brigand Veerappan as Dr Rajkumar looks on. (Pic Special Arrangement)


All of us walked for nearly 20 km and were met by associates of Veerappan who lodged us in a hut. And despite all our efforts, we were not able to meet Rajkumar and the forest brigand for 10 days. The forest was like a living hell since we spent our days without knowing the fate of Dr Rajkumar and my fear only compounded as the sun rose from its slumber every day.

On the 10th day, there was light at the end of the tunnel. We were taken further deep into the forests and from a distance, I saw a man wearing a white shirt and a white dhoti. There was Dr Rajkumar, looking relaxed and at ease in his new-found abode.
He spoke to me in chaste Tamil and only during the visit did I realise that Veerappan has transformed into self-declared Tamil extremist from a forest bandit. The conditions imposed by Veerappan and his associates for the release of Dr Rajkumar were unprecedented.

And this was the first time that Veerappan told me point blank that he will not give me access to a person kidnapped by him and he did concede my request only when I put my foot down and insisted that I needed a confirmation that Rajkumar was alive.

The worst was not over yet: Veerappan was not allowing me to shoot; it took a couple of hours of convincing to ensure that Dr Rajkumar was on camera reassuring his core audience in Kannada that he was safe and would return home soon. After recording the video, I rushed my colleague out of the forests so that the videotape reaches Chennai and Bengaluru to cool the tempers in both states.

Rajkumar did not complain of anything, except making a request to me to bring medicines for asthma. And during my second visit, I walked more than 40 km to meet Veerappan and again he refused me permission to meet Dr Rajkumar. Since I was adamant and told him I would not leave the forest until I met the actor and spoke to him, his associates took me to the place where the actor was kept captive.

Since the negotiations prolonged, I visited the jungle third time and had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with Rajkumar – he lived a frugal life despite being the superstar of Kannada cinema; he got accustomed to the new environment in no time and I saw him practising yoga every day. He never complained about the food and consumed whatever Veerappan's gang gave him.

Gopal negotiates with Veerappan over Rajkumar's release.

It is during this visit that I took a photograph of Rajkumar’s mother on his request and once I gave him the framed picture, he held close to his face and cried like a child. I would have returned home with Dr Rajkumar during the third visit as Karnataka agreed to release five of Veerappan’s associates, but the Supreme Court stayed their release. This made negotiations tough as Veerappan did not trust the state governments and kept changing his goal posts. The tough time that began during my third visit continued till the sixth that ended in Dr Rajkumar’s release.

The fourth visit was the toughest in the mission because Veerappan was terribly angry with everyone around him since Nagappa, one of his captives, tried to escape from the forest. And it was during this visit, Veerappan proposed involving Pazha Nedumaran in the talks for a safe release. And it took another two rounds of talks with Veerappan to ensure Rajkumar’s release. Eventually, we walked out of the forests with the actor on November 15, 2000, drawing curtains on the 108-day old drama.

It was the toughest mission that I had ever carried out in my life. If I had not succeeded, everything from my career to the magazine I built brick-by-brick would have gone up in flames. I am glad I could save him and bring him back."

ALSO READ: Dr Rajkumar kidnap case: court acquits all accused

Dr Raj's abduction: looking back at the fateful night

(Images special arrangement)

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