What began as a project to prevent armed murders turned out to be a life-saving exercise for wild elephants
It was smack bang in the lockdown during the second wave of COVID-19, in June 2021, that a young TNPS (Tamil Nadu Police Service) officer K Kiruthikaa took charge as Deputy Superintendent of Police at Denkanikottai, Krishnagiri district.
Within three days, with the help of her boss, Superintendent of Police, Krishnagiri district, E Sai Charan Tejaswi, she had put together a plan to tackle what was a major issue in the area. Kiruthikaa’s father, a retired Indian Forest Service officer, helped, by cajoling the Hosur forest department to join the task.
Ms. Kiruthikaa and her boss were concerned about the number of murders using guns in the Hosur area – specifically in Denkanikottai, Thally, Anchetty and Kelamangalam. Drunken brawls had resulted in men getting shot dead. They could not understand how the gun culture had arrived in these seemingly sleepy, remote villages lining the Eastern Ghats.
“As I made enquiries, it became clear that pretty much everyone in these areas possessed a gun,” said Kiruthikaa. “These are locally-made weapons. Many villagers poach wildlife – deer or kaattu panni (wild pigs). But the main reason these guns exist is for elephant poaching – for the tusks.”
Guns and gun makers
The first job was to get a tandora (public announcement) out across these villages. Beating drums, the local thalaiyari shouted out the warning. “Whosoever has an illegal weapon, deposit them either today or tomorrow at the village centre or at the Panchayat office. If you do this voluntarily, no case will be filed against you. But if the police finds illegal weapons in your possession, cases will be filed,” they announced in Tamil, Kannada and the local dialects. The deadline for surrendering guns was two weeks.
Meanwhile, the district police and the forest department worked feverishly to identify key persons involved in the manufacture and transport of illegal rifles. Three gun manufacturers were identified – Nanjachari from Unisenatham village near Thally, Krishnamachari alias Krishnan, and another Krishnamachari from Denkanikottai and Anchetty. Three gunpowder manufacturers too were put under surveillance – one each from Denkanikottai, Anchetty and Kelamangalam.
A view of the entrance to Thally
Two weeks after the first tandora, on July 19, 20 and 21, five special teams comprising six police and forest personnel each, swung into action, and conducted day and night simultaneous raids to ensure no one escaped
Thirty-eight live firing guns – single barrel loaded guns – were seized from 21 persons arrested. 12 rifles were surrendered, although these were largely not in working order. The two Krishnamacharis were picked up.
But, the key gun maker – Nanjachari – had fled.
Three special teams were then formed to track him down. Local lore has it that Nanjachari had been making guns since he was 13. There are rumours that he had helped the forest brigand Veerappan’s gang by repairing weapons, something his family denies stoutly.
“The gun butts were carved out of wood from the forests, usually wood from the jackfruit tree,” said Ms. Kiruthikaa. “The barrels were specially made iron curtain rods bought from a store in Bengaluru. He made the triggers himself using scrap iron, in his workshop at home,” she added.
Approach to Nanjachari’s house
About 8 km away from Thally, Nanjachari’s home nestles on a slope, surrounded by a rose farm on one side and with large tracts of grazing land on the other. The entrance to his modest home is a cowshed. Behind it is Nanjachari’s workshop, once with lathe and foundry machines. The police removed the lathe when they raided him.
By the time the police landed up at Nanjachari’s house, the 65 year old had fled, with his driver Upendra alias Uppi and the gun-maker’s younger brother, Jayaraman. They arrested Nanjachari’s son Lokesh, a relative Venkatraj, and a helper, Imran. “We recovered 24 items used for making guns from his residence,” said Sub-Inspector M Karthikeyan of Thally police station. “Three barrels, two triggers, 33 iron parts and a wire were used to pack gunpowder into the rifle. We also found 14 machines that were used in the gun-making process.”
Nanjachari was finally arrested deep in the Bannerghatta forests in Karnataka after weeks of old fashioned tracking since the gun-maker did not use a cell phone. He was camping there with Uppi when the special team surprised them. He was remanded, found to be ill with severe lung ailments, and is now out on bail.
“The police have foisted false cases on us,” says Lokesh, who is also out on bail. “Our profession is to create swings for deities in temples. We do not know anything about guns,” he insisted.
In the past year, official sources say that three instances of tusks being smuggled into Karnataka near the Hosur border have been registered. The smugglers are invariably from Denkanikottai, Anchetty or Thally. The Hosur district forest officials, however, did any make any arrests or seizures.
“The problem is complex due to the migratory nature of the elephants and also jurisdictional issues,” said K Karthikeyani, District Forest Officer, Hosur. “We have had a problem with illegal guns in this area since Veerappan’s heyday. A year ago we seized weapons at Anchetty, but not too many. We are hoping that these raids will help bring the number of weapons down and prevent poaching,” she added.
The tandora and raids approach has since gone “viral” in the Western districts. By the end of July, over 80 illegal guns had been recovered across Salem, Namakkal, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts. More tandoras and raids are planned in Hosur in the near future.
Elephants migrate between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu via Hosur between October and February every year. If the Hosur police and forest officials manage to break the illegal gun network’s back, the jumbos can migrate in peace.
Sandhya Ravishankar is an independent journalist based in Chennai.