The Andhra Pradesh police shot dead 20 suspected red sandalwood smugglers in the state’s Chittoor district on Tuesday, sparking protests in neighbouring Tamil Nadu over what many said was a massacre of innocent woodcutters.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also took suo moto cognizance of the incident and issued notices to the Andhra Pradesh chief secretary and director general of police while the Chittoor administration ordered a magisterial inquiry into the killings.
Andhra police said the encounter occurred in the forests of Tirupati hills, about 500 km from Hyderabad, after about 100 smugglers attacked security personnel with stones and axes when they were challenged.
“About 20 smugglers were killed in the incident which can be termed as a major breakthrough,” Andhra Pradesh home minister Nimmakayala Chinarajappa said.
Andhra police said the number of casualties was the single biggest success in the campaign against suspected smugglers. Police said the bodies were found in an area of one km radius.
Andhra police raised a special task force last year to curb organised smuggling of the endangered red sanders trees, which is highly prized in China and other Asian nations for use in furniture, musical instruments and alternative medicines. Felling, transportation and sale of red sanders is prohibited in India.
Andhra Pradesh government communications advisor Parakala Prabhakar justified the action, alleging that the actions of the villagers forced the force to open fire.
"The large-scale smuggling of red sanders has been going on for decades. Last night and in the early hours of today, about 400 people encircled a very small force of police and forest officials. They started pelting stones and attacking them; the police had to open fire," Prabhakar told the media.
The news of the encounter sparked protests in Tamil Nadu, where many, including chief minister O Panneerselvam, said “innocent Tamils had been massacred” by Andhra police.
Officials said Panneerselvan wrote to the Andhra government, demanding a probe into the largescale casualties.
“In case of any human rights violations, it is essential that action is taken against those who caused the deaths and appropriate compensation is paid to the families of the victims,” he said in a letter to his Andhra Pradesh counterpart N Chandrababu Naidu.
MDMK general secretary Vaiko also demanded that the policemen who killed the labourers be tried for murder and sought compensation of Rs 20 lakh per person killed in the police action.
“The least the two states can do is to ensure such incidents do not recur and give adequate compensation to the families of the deceased,” he added.
Members of fringe political organisations also congregated outside Andhra Bhavan in Chennai’s T Nagar seeking justice for those killed in the “massacre”.
Civil liberties group PUCL described the incident as a “planned and a brutal massacre” by Andhra police.
Human rights activists say that in most cases the so-called smugglers are poor woodcutters employed by organised gangs.
India’s most wanted sandalwood and ivory smuggler, Veerappan, was shot dead in a gunbattle with police in 2004 but since then smaller gangs have sprung up.
There have been encounters between police and smugglers earlier as well with casualties on both sides.
Two forest officials were killed and three injured in an attack by smugglers in the same district in December, 2013. In May last year, police had killed three smugglers, also in Chittoor.In India, red sanders is naturally found in Andhra Pradesh and north Tamil Nadu.
According to rough estimates, a kilo of red sanders bought at around Rs 500 in India can fetch anything between Rs 3000 to Rs 12000 in China and other countries, making the wood a lucrative proposition for smugglers, according to police.
After the TDP government came to power last year, Naidu vowed to put an end to the red sanders smuggling and formed a taskforce comprising police and forest officials under a DIG to curb the illegal practice.
After a red corner notice was issued by the state police, Gangi Reddy, a kingpin in the racket was arrested in Mauritius some time back.
Last year, the state had earned over Rs1,000 crore from global auction last year.
Over 3,000 smugglers were arrested and 2,025 tonnes of red sanders was seized in 2013.