By Sanjana Sanghi:
On April 7, in Seshachalam forest in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, 20 alleged sandalwood smugglers were shot dead in an “encounter” by the Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force (RSASTF). Once the smugglers were spotted in this forest area, located near Tirupati, a joint operation was launched against the smugglers with the aid of forest officials. Red Sandalwood smuggling is an illegal trade that goes into crores of rupees, and is especially in demand by the eastern countries such as China and Japan, as this wood is highly useful for woodcraft, medicinal purposes, musical instruments, and containing radiation in nuclear reactors. Red sandalwood has been endangered since 2000, and the government has banned its cutting, sale, movement, or export. This incident has snowballed into the realms of international news as many call it an outright breach of human rights and cold-blooded murder. Such allegations have triggered statements from the police, and counter-statements by human rights activists, the Tamil Nadu government, and other political parties.
The Police’s side of the story
The DIG, Kantha Rao, has stated that at least 150 to 200 laborers seemed to be employed by the smugglers and they “shot arrows, rained stones and threw sticks and iron rods,” when asked to surrender. The laborers did not stop despite several warnings being given to them, however, nobody from the police’s side was seriously hurt. The reason for this, according to Rao, is “superior training”. Eight officials received mild injuries as these daily-wage workers belonging to Tamil Nadu hid behind boulders and attacked the officials. The task force thus opened fire in “self defense” and as a result, 20 smugglers were killed. Additional Director-General of Police (Law and order) RP Thakur justified the encounter saying that it was an act of retaliation.
Evidence seems to contradict the picture the police has tried to paint. The Tamil Nadu government, other opposition party members, human rights activists, Dalit organizations, and the NHRC, seem to be coming together to prove that this encounter was indeed fake. Former Congress MP Chinta Mohan demanded a judicial enquiry and said, “Some of the bodies have marks on the wrists indicating that they were tied up and shot at close range. Most of the bodies have bullet wounds at the back of the neck. Either the police are Olympic level marksmen or plain murderers who shot their victims at close range.”
Most of the bodies were found in a heap at the two sites. In the case of an encounter, the bodies are never found in heaps, they are always scattered.
Many believe that such instances have occurred before and it is usually poor porters from Tamil Nadu who get killed. An actual smuggler has rarely been caught or killed.
Following the fact that those killed in the encounter were Tamilians, O Pannerselvan, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, has demanded a credible and speedy inquiry into the encounter killings as the truth needs to be established. He has expressed an urge to know whether the Anti-Smuggling Force maintained adequate restraint and has urged Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, to take necessary steps if a human rights violation is established in the probe.
The NHRC that plans on taking up the matter for hearing in Hyderabad on 23rd April has also issued notices to the Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh, demanding reports to explain the act of police and forest officials within two weeks. With reference to the logs of red sanders lying along with the bodies, leading opposition leaders and human rights activists allege that this wood was actually brought from a government stockyard and planted at the site. Such allegations seem to arise because the bodies were badly decomposed, thereby suggesting that the “encounter” occurred much before the stated time.
A high-stakes lucrative trade
Several instances revolving around smuggling of red sanders and consequent encounters have occurred before.
The two sides being spoken of here have conspired to result in a bloody battle that seems to have assumed a political character. The Tamil-Andhra friction appears to be in an eternal continuum with the Andhra Government claiming that it is simply cracking down on crime, while the Tamil Government insists that Tamilians are being needlessly shot. Many believe that the big smuggling sharks are all finding easy escape while the harmless fish are killed. This smuggling trade is plaguing the Andhra forests as mafias continue to cut and export red sandalwood, employing daily wage workers from within or across the Andhra borders, offering them wages as high as Rs. 300 a day, which serves as undeniable incentive for the poor and unemployed. They are the ones who are most often rendered victims of the police’s onslaughts.
Therefore, while human rights activists are protesting on grounds of this encounter being a clear violation of human rights, political forces are also raising their voices, and the police continues to state otherwise, and is sticking to its defensive stance. The truth behind this incident can only be revealed with time as investigation into the encounter is underway, and immense political pressure is certainly going to expedite this process. As light is being shed on this area, more effective mechanisms to counter the growing smuggling trade of this endangered plant species must be thought about. Until such time, we all await justice.