At least 20 labourers hired by suspected red sanders smugglers were shot dead Tuesday morning by a task force of the Andhra Pradesh police in the Seshachalam forests on the outskirts of the temple town Tirupati.
At one of the two sites where bodies were found, seven of the nine dead had been shot in the face or the back of the head. Many had burn injuries — on the abdomen, shoulders and hands, the skin peeling off. Barring three, all were in their 20s or early 30s.
Explained: Logs of blood
The killings, the most in any recent encounter, led to an uproar in neighbouring Tamil Nadu where political parties condemned the “brutal” police action and said 12 of the dead were labourers from their state.
Tamil Nadu chief minister O Panneerselvam wrote to Andhra Pradesh counterpart Chandrababu Naidu, seeking a “credible and speedy inquiry” into the incident. “While it is possible that these persons may have been engaged in illegal activities, the occurrence of such high casualties in the operation raises concerns whether the task force personnel acted with adequate restraint,” he wrote.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued notice to the Andhra Pradesh government seeking a report on the killings, noting that the incident “involved a serious violation” of human rights of individuals. NHRC member Justice D Murugesan said the firing cannot be justified on the ground of “self-defence” since it resulted in loss of lives of 20 people.
Officials said a beat guard on patrol before daybreak heard sounds of trees being chopped, and whistles and whoops that smugglers use to communicate in the forests, and alerted officers of the Tirupati forest division.
Forest officers who are not allowed to carry fire arms sought the help of the red sanders anti-smuggling task force.
DIG M Kanta Rao of the task force said: “As soon as they saw police, at least 150 to 200 labourers, hired by the smugglers, rained stones, shot arrows and threw sticks and iron rods. They hid behind boulders and attacked. At least eight forest officers were injured and the task force opened fire in self-defence. At least 20 were killed. They are hired daily wagers from Tamil Nadu. We believe they had been camping here since Monday evening.”
The exchange started 5 am and continued for about an hour. At least 150 to 200 labourers — most were from Erode and Vellore districts of Tamil Nadu and Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh — were “cutting” the red sandalwood trees. Police said they found many chopped trees at the scene of the encounter.
“As our personnel started firing, the labourers ran helter-skelter. Many escaped into the forest while we detained some. Combing is going on,” Rao said.
Inside the forest, 4 km from the roadhead, bodies lay scattered. At one spot where nine bodies lay, seven had been shot in the face or the back of the head. Red sander logs could be spotted next to the bodies. An officer collecting fingerprints of the dead said “they had been caught smuggling them”.
Chittoor revenue officer Vijayachander, who reached the site for a ministerial inquiry, said he cannot comment on the reason behind the firing until procedures are completed.
“I received information around 10 am from the district magistrate. I have seen axes, iron rods and a knife at the crime spot which the police said the men used. We will soon send a report to the NHRC. I cannot comment on any human rights violation or planned murder at this point. I will be visiting the operation team and injured officers tonight,” he said.
At the site, a small knife lay on the ground — a white paper marking it as evidence. No other weapon was visible. The labourers had been carrying small bags or wallets. One of the men had a little more than the others — a wrist watch, a chain, a railway ticket and a 100-rupee note.
On the body of one youth, the number 3 had been written on the chest — the third body in the records. He had been shot through the neck and cheek, the bullet disfiguring his face. There were also burn marks on the body.
“We do not know them. But what is disturbing is the way they have been killed. Look at their hands, most behind the back. Some body parts have burn injuries which do not seem to be the result of firing,” a revenue official said.
The killings drew strong reaction from political parties in Tamil Nadu. The DMK, BJP, PMK and CPI claimed that poor labourers from the state were among the victims and asked the Andhra Pradesh government to “pursue lawful means” to check red sanders smuggling.
Claiming that “innocent labourers” from Tamil Nadu had been “lured with higher wages” to forests in Chittoor, PMK chief Ramadoss said the killings were unacceptable. Dismissing claims of Andhra Pradesh police that they opened fire in self-defence, he said “it was a plain lie” and demanded a probe by a sitting judge of Supreme Court besides seeking relief to those killed and action against police officials.
DMK chief Karunanidhi, in a statement said, governments of both the states should announce relief to the families of the labourers killed.
Red sanders, an endangered species also called red sandalwood, has a huge demand, especially in China and Japan. It is grown mainly in the Seshachalam hills spread across Kadapa, Chittoor and Kurnool in Rayalaseema region and parts of Nellore district in Andhra Pradesh.