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'Killing 20 people is a massacre; you can't call it an encounter'

April 08, 2015 14:57 IST

Image: Police personnel after the 'encounter' with alleged red sanders smugglers in the Seshachalam forest near Srivari Mettu in Chittoor district. Nearly 20 men were killed on April 7, 2015. Photograph: PTI


'There is a mafia operating in that area that lends money to these labourers. Loans are paid off with red sandalwood. The actual smugglers don't need to come to the area.'

The bizarre gunning down of 20 men in Andhra Pradesh's Chittoor district in a police operation supposedly against suspected red sandalwood smugglers on April 7 has elicited strong reactions in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

Red sandalwood, an endangered species indigenous to South India, has a huge demand abroad, especially in China and Japan, and commands a good price.

People's Union for Civil Liberties, PUCL, Tamil Nadu General Secretary S Balamurugan tells A Ganesh Nadar/ how insecurity and the lack of a livelihood forces tribals from the state to cross over to Andhra Pradesh and the government apathy towards them.

You have called the incident cold-blooded killing.

This is cold-blooded murder because the victims were not smugglers, but labourers who got daily wages of Rs 200 to Rs 500 a day. They were tribals.

There is a mafia operating in that area that lends money to these labourers. Loans are paid off with red sandalwood. The actual smugglers don't need to come to the area.

Killing 20 people is a massacre; you cannot call it an encounter.

The police claim they were attacked with sickles, country-made weapons...

The Criminal Procedure Code, CrPC, clearly states how to arrest people, but to avoid that, the police claimed they were attacked.

The police could have shot the 'attackers' below the knees, but they were fired at from point blank range and killed.

Are these killings a regular occurrence?

This is not an isolated incident. Three people were killed in the same forest last year.

Earlier, 50 people from Bargur village in Erode district were arrested under charges of smuggling. One of these persons was caught and beaten up by the police and died six months ago in a jail in Andhra Pradesh. The rest got bail after two months.

What is the Tamil Nadu police saying about this?

They have washed their hands off the incident, since it happened in Andhra Pradesh.

As the proverb goes -- 'Give a dog a bad name and then hang him.'

The police knew they were labourers.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O P Panneerselvam has asked for an enquiry. You think there will be any justice?

They should ask for a judicial enquiry and compensation for the victims's families. The Andhra Pradesh police should follow the Supreme Court guidelines about encounters.

Is there a permanent solution to this problem?

The question is: Who should control the forests? Who should control the resources?

The Forest Rights Act of 2006 gives power to the forest dwellers, the tribal community. But tribal land is not protected by the law in Tamil Nadu, which is one of the states that has not implemented the Act.

Not a single patta (a legal document issued by the government in the name of the actual owner of a particular plot of land) has been given to the tribals. Tribal funds are diverted in Tamil Nadu for other work.

So they cross the state border to look for a livelihood. Then they come in contact with the mafia and the vicious circle starts. Many of these tribals are in jails in Andhra Pradesh -- the state government doesn't care about them.

The government's forest department is well-armed, but they protect the mafia and the labourers are killed.

The smuggled sandalwood can be seized on the highways or at the ports, but the government does not do that.

The Supreme Court and the Andhra Pradesh high court should take suo motu action on this issue.

This is an utter human rights violation.

A Ganesh Nadar