I am glad I could bring Raj alive: Nakheeran Gopal

R R Gopal with forest brigand Veerappan

R R Gopal, better known as Nakheeran Gopal, was one of the interlocutors who played an important role in the release of Kannada cinema thespian 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 Deccan Herald’s E T B Sivapriyan in Tamil. Here is his version translated into English.

By 2000, I was almost used to the terrain of the forests and scrub lands 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 Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi on July 31, 2000, asking me to negotiate the release of Rajkumar, I was too scared.

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 Rajkumar’s family and Rajinikanth, who telephoned me 13 times to take up the challenge.

But what brought in a change of mind in me was a phone 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 Rajkumar, a Kannadiga. When Jayaprakash told me that Kannadigas were terribly angry with me, I had no choice, but to accept, since my refusal might result in violence on the streets of Bengaluru.

So, on August 2, 2000, I set out to the forests to negotiate the release of Rajkumar and three others, from Thalavadi – from where the actor was abducted - along with three of my colleagues Sivasubramaniam, Balamurugan and Subbu.

All of us walked for nearly 20 km and were met by associates of Veerappan who lodged us in a hut. Despite all our efforts, we were not able to meet Rajkumar and the forest brigand for 10 days.

On the 10th day, there was light at the end of the tunnel, as we were taken further deep into the forests. From a distance, I saw a man sitting, wearing a white shirt and white dhoti. That was Rajkumar, looking relaxed and at ease with his new-found abode.

He spoke to me in chaste Tamil. Only during the visit did I realise that Veerappan had transformed into a self-declared Tamil extremist from a forest bandit. The conditions imposed by Veerappan and his associates for the release of Rajkumar were unprecedented.

This was the first time that Veerappan told me point blank that he would not give me access to a person kidnapped by him and he did concede to my request only when I 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 me a couple of hours of convincing to ensure that Rajkumar was on camera, reassuring his core audience in Kannada that he was safe and would return home soon.

Rajkumar did not complain of anything, except making a request to me to bring medicines for asthma. During my second visit, I walked more than 40 km to meet Veerappan. Again, he refused me permission to meet Rajkumar. Since I was adamant and told him I would not leave the forest till 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 the 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. The man got accustomed to the new environment in no time and I saw him practising yoga every day. 

I would have returned with 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 goalposts.

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. It was during this visit that Veerappan proposed involving Pazha Nedumaran in the talks for the safe release of Rajkumar.

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.

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