As protests over the killing of 20 labourers Tuesday by an Andhra Pradesh police task force grew into a chorus, a Tamil Nadu villager said today he saw seven of the 20 being taken off a bus by Andhra Pradesh policemen near the border of the two states, hours before the incident.
Sekhar, a resident of Vettagiripalayam near Arni in Tiruvannamalai district, returned home early Tuesday — around the time 20 people were gunned down by the red sanders anti-smuggling task force in the Seshachalam forests near Tirupati. Police claimed they had been hired by smugglers to chop the red sanders and, on being confronted, had attacked the task force.
Sekhar told villagers and his relatives — The Indian Express spoke to them — he was with the seven in the bus when it was stopped by Andhra Pradesh policemen Monday evening. While the others were led out, he was spared because he was sitting next to a woman and police thought he was her husband, Sekhar was quoted as having said.
All eight had set out from their homes in Vettagiripalayam on Monday afternoon. Only Sekhar returned Tuesday morning.
Hours later, policemen turned up with photographs of seven who were gunned down.
Kannamangalam DSP N Mani said they traced the homes of the men using the address proof given to mobile phone companies.
“We went to each and every house with photographs taken from the encounter site.” He said they will probe Sekhar’s version of the incident. “He is afraid of the police and is refusing to appear before us. Our attempts to trace him have been futile though some mediapersons have managed to reach him,” he said.
Word on Sekhar’s escape and the fate of the others spread like wildfire in the village Tuesday. Terrified, Sekhar locked himself in a house. He refused to speak to reporters. He finally set out on a scooter to speak to a Tamil TV channel but disclosed little. He told the channel he couldn’t recall much. He was said to have been advised by a village elder to remain quiet until they had worked out a strategy.
According to Sekhar’s account, all eight set out from Kannamangalam around 2 pm Monday and boarded a bus to Vellore. From there, they took another bus to Tiruttani. He told villagers he was with D Mahendran, a plumber who had offered to help him find the job of a carpenter. They reached Tiruttani between 5.30 pm and 6 pm Monday. From Tiruttani, a temple town 15 km from the state border, they boarded a bus for Renigunta in Andhra Pradesh, almost an hour away.
Mahendran had a window seat. A middle-aged woman was in the middle seat and Sekhar next to her. “ A few kilometres before the Andhra check-post, the bus stopped. A police team entered the bus through the rear door and started picking up passengers, one at a time,” Sekhar was quoted as having said.
The police took Mahendran with them but spared him because they thought he was the woman passenger’s husband, villagers said.
All seven were led out from the front door and the bus set out on its journey again. Sekhar told the villagers he got off at the next stop.
“He returned to Tiruttani and from there, he took a bus to Vellore. When he reached Kannamangalam, it was early morning. He took a taxi and got off at Gandhi Nagar,” a relative of Sekhar said.
Margabandhu, elder brother of Sekhar, and his wife Padma say Sekhar is hiding because he is afraid of the police.
“He told the families of the victims about what happened Monday night. After the police visited us Tuesday night, he left home with his son and wife. Whether it is Andhra police or Tamil Nadu police, it’s the same for people like us. He said he is afraid of further police action. He will come out in the open but only in the presence of our village leader,” Margabandhu said. The families of Sekhar and Margabandhu live together.
Sekhar’s account has stunned the village. Loganayagi, a 22-year-old with a 40-day-old baby boy, said her husband, 35-year-old Palani, ran a tailoring shop in Kalasamuthiram. He had left home saying he was going to Kannamangalam to buy buttons and accessories.
Mahendran, 25 years old, left home saying he was going to Chennai. “He was here for two weeks since there was work on a borewell work near the house. He said he had to get back to Chennai where he worked as a plumber,” his mother Chithra said.
M Murugan (38), a painter, and A Sasikumar (34), a farmer in this drought-hit village, had also left home the same afternoon, saying they have been offered better jobs in Renigunta.
Loganayagi said she called Palani around 7 pm. “He answered the phone and said he was in the town and would return soon. Later, I called him repeatedly but there was no response,” she said. As she began making calls to check on him Tuesday, a team of Tamil Nadu police showed up at her house with a photograph of his mutilated body. “He was wearing a violet shirt and white pants when he left,” she said, holding back her tears. They had been married only a year.
On Wednesday evening, villagers descended on all seven houses in Vettagiripalayam. Women sat and mourned in each house. One from the village said an opposition party leader planned to take Sekhar to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).