The Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force (RSASTF), which was set up in December 2014 by the Andhra Pradesh government to tackle smuggling and felling of red sandalwood trees, notched up a major “success” on Tuesday.
During an encounter in Seshachalam hills in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district, they killed 20 woodcutters, the highest toll in a single encounter in the history of red sandalwood smuggling.
According to the RSASTF, its members found more than 100 woodcutters engaged in the task of felling trees in the area and when they asked the woodcutters to surrender, the men allegedly rained stones and hurled sickles at them.
This prompted the STF, which according to a government order is equipped with “the necessary arms and ammunition and other equipment for commando operations shall be provided by the Police Department”, to “open fire in self-defence” and kill the men.
Tuesday’s mayhem was part of an ongoing fight between woodcutters and the police: On December 15, 2013, two senior forest officers were stoned to death by a red sanders smugglers gang in the same Seshachalam forests in Chittor district. Three others suffered injuries while three more to escape and call for help.
Red sandalwood is endemic to the forests of the districts of Kadapa, Chittoor, Nellore, Prakasam, and Kurnool, covering an area of 4.67 lakh hectare. The wood has great demand in South East Asia, China and Japan.
Since the woodcutters were from Tamil Nadu, the issue has already become a flashpoint between the two states. On Tuesday, MDMK leader Vaiko and PMK leader Ramadoss slammed the Andhra Pradesh government for the deaths and demanded action against the officers involved in the operation. “Officers should be tried for murder,” Vaiko said. Some other leaders have sought a Supreme Court probe into the matter.
There are several loopholes in the RSASTF’s report, claim rights activists. “The police version that there was an encounter (exchange of fire) or a serious threat to their and they had to fire in self-defence cannot be taken at face value and the matter cannot be closed,” VS Krishna, general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Forum, told me in an interview.
“After every encounter a case of murder under the Indian Penal Code 302 and other appropriate sections should be booked against those police personnel who have participated in the alleged encounter. It is for the court to decide whether there really was a justifiable plea of self-defence and there was indeed an exchange of fire leading to the deaths or whether the firing was unilateral and one-sided. This is the lawful procedure which the police across the country are not adhering to."
Lack of employment opportunities and necessary job skills push dirt poor forest dwellers, like the 20 killed in Tuesday’s encounter, to become cannon fodder for powerful people who control such illegal trade.
“Even chief minister Chandrababu Naidu knows that bigwigs are behind this trade. The police have enough men to tackle these poor people and could have desisted from opening fire,” Krishna said. “In a democracy, police cannot afford to be a trigger-happy force, can it?”