The mystery surrounding the release of Rajkumar, the Kannada film star, has given rise to many disconcerting questions about the role of the granite quarry mafia in the entire kidnap drama. This mafia has a dominating presence in the MM Hills and the Satyamangalam forest and enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with Veerappan and his men, who have a virtual run of the area. Already, Bangalore is rife with speculation that the souring of ties between the granite lobby and Veerappan was a prime factor in Rajkumar’s kidnapping.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that Rajkumar’s third son, Puneeth, has links with the granite lobby. Officials in Karnataka’s Mines and Geology Department say Puneeth’s involvement in the granite trade first came to light in 1995. "Some villagers who were rounded up during raids on illegal quarries mentioned Puneeth’s name," says a police official in Kanakapura, where Puneeth operated. It was alleged that he was illegally transporting granite. In fact, the former minister of mines and geology, M.D. Jayaram, then part of former CM H.D. Deve Gowda’s cabinet, had told the assembly that Puneeth was one of the many persons who were raided. "The Rajkumar family is very influential, a lot of pressure was mounted and the case was hushed up," says a Congress mla.
Though Puneeth stoutly denies any links with the granite lobby, sources say that till recently (before Rajkumar was kidnapped), he owed the lobby a big sum of money. They also say Puneeth squared his accounts in these last few weeks. "From our informants in the area, we understand he owed some granite owners about Rs 30-40 lakh," says an intelligence official. When reports of Puneeth’s debt surfaced in a section of the Bangalore media, CM S.M. Krishna whisked him away in his chopper to MM Hills for a special pooja, held shortly before the release. "Isn’t that fishy? Obviously the whole truth isn’t out," says an intelligence official.
Highly-placed officials in Karnataka say the newly constituted Special Task Force (stf) would be questioning the complex net of emissaries who’ve interests in the granite business and also have ltte links. "There’s concern over their links and we’ll get to the bottom of the many mysteries surrounding the kidnap and the release," says an official. Many of those who negotiated Rajkumar’s release are into granite quarrying. For instance, immediately after he was freed, the actor was taken to the farmhouse of U.A. Ramaraj, a local tmc leader, in Mullyanur village near Mettur, Tamil Nadu. Besides being the chairman of the Pudapati panchayat, Ramaraj is a kingpin in both the quarrying and stone-crushing businesses in the region.
Then there’s Kolathur Mani, who played a key role in the release. A prominent Dravida Kazhagam (DK) leader who in the early ‘80s had set up training camps for the ltte, Mani had meticulously put together - from September 15 onwards - the unofficial team of negotiators. He too has extensive quarrying interests in Tamil Nadu and is seen in the Satyamangalam forest area as a ‘philanthropist’. At least in three instances when the stf allegedly indulged in excesses, it was Mani who provided relief and medical support to the victims. It was primarily due to his initiative that Dr Bhanu, who owns a granite quarry, and her business associate R. Rajaram - son of a former dgp, who also went into the forest to secure the actor’s release - were roped in. Both Bhanu and Rajaram have since gone underground following reports questioning their antecedents.
Another fact that’s come to light is that Bhanu finds a mention in the court proceedings of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. She had reportedly helped Dhanasekaran, one of the accused in the case, rent a house in Bangalore. Kolathur Mani and Shanmugasundaram, president of the Bangalore Tamil Federation and a big transporter in the state - whose fleet of lorries is involved in transporting stones - have come out openly on their pro-ltte links. Asks Shanmugasundaram: "I am proud of my ltte links. What is wrong with it?" He points out the Tamil Nadu government was unable to secure even one conviction in the 65 cases it had against ltte sympathisers.
The granite lobby, ltte sympathisers like the Tamil National Liberation Army (tnla), and Veerappan together control quarrying in the forests. "Illegal quarrying in the reserve forest area can only happen if Veerappan lends a helping hand," says a senior intelligence official. Some of these quarries - which are inside the Satyamangalam forest, which spreads over Dharmapuri, Erode and Salem districts on the Tamil Nadu side and to an extent, Wynad in Kerala - are rich in stone deposits. The forest area is about 18,000 sq km. "The black granite is of high quality and expensive," says a quarry operator in Bangalore. While 65 per cent of quarrying happens on the Tamil Nadu side, the rest is split between Karnataka and Kerala.
The link between the quarries and the radical groups was established nearly 15 years ago. Stone quarrying, crushing and polishing in Tamil Nadu starts near Tindivanam and Mylam in Villipuram districts in the east, stretching to the Karnataka border. Most of the radical groups, including the two now associated with Veerappan - the Tamil National Retrieval Troops (tnrt) and the tnla - are from this area. Normally, quarrying is supposed to take place on registered land. "But that’s seldom done. A quarry operator given 10 acres extends his operations illegally by the same acreage," says a police officer. Some of the stone slabs are transported through the jungle and tribals, who owe their allegiance to Veerappan, are pressed into service. "He assures the tribals are well looked after and also takes protection money from the granite lobby," says an intelligence official.
Aware of the rich dividends, many have taken up the trade in the past few years. Karnataka had imposed a ban on quarrying near the MM Hills in ‘93 but it has not been able to fully control the activity in Kollegal, Chamrajnagar and Yellunder, which fall in Veerappan territory. According to a former bureaucrat who served in the area, the granite lobby and the radical groups work together as it’s the former which has the licence to procure gelatin sticks. These are used to dynamite rocks while groups like the tnla require them to fabricate explosives.
This entire nexus could well be prised open when the stf begins its combing exercise. "It must have started with protection money but has ended up in illegal mining within the forest area," observes an intelligence official, adding that at least seven such illegal mines operated freely.
Meanwhile, Krishna has been reiterating that his government will nab Veerappan and get to the bottom of the Rajkumar kidnapping. But that’s easier said than done. For one, sources say there’s considerable pressure from Rajkumar’s family to let things die down.As for Veerappan, he’s always proved to be slippery in the forest. And he might just continue to elude justice.