As questions continued to be raised over the gunning down of 20 alleged red sander smugglers by the Andhra Pradesh Police in an encounter in the Chittoor district of the state yesterday, the Tamil Nadu government today announced a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to the next-of-kin of those from the state killed in the incident.
According to various sources, 12 of the 20 killed were labourers from the Tamil Nadu and the incident is turning into a feud between the two neighbouring states.
Andhra Pradesh police officials said the policemen had opened fire in self-defence after they came under attack by the smugglers and labourers engaged by them in the Seshachalam forest.
The encounters took place at two spots within a kilometre of each other in Chandragiri mandal of Chittoor district, about 500 km from state capital Hyderabad, between 5 am and 6 am yesterday.
The police and personnel of the forest department had launched a joint operation in the area on Monday night after receiving inputs that a gang of smugglers had entered the forests and started felling trees.
The officials said that more than a hundred smugglers and labourers hired by them had attacked the police with sickles, axes, stones and other sharp-edged weapons.
According to the sources, 11 men were killed in the encounter at Pacchinodu Banda and nine near Etagunta.
Chittoor District Collector Siddharth Jain has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident, official sources said.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam wrote to his Andhra Pradesh counterpart Nara Chandrababu Naidu yesterday, expressing his distress over the incident.
"Many of these persons are reportedly from Tiruvannamalai and
Vellore districts of Tamil Nadu. 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. Even if the persons had been engaged in illicit tree cutting, efforts could have been made to apprehend them rather than take such drastic action and cause such high casualties," he said.
Mr Panneerselvam urged Mr Naidu to order a credible and speedy inquiry into the matter so that the facts are established and responsibility fixed for possible human rights violations.
"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.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has also issued notices in this regard to the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police (DGP) of Andhra Pradesh, taking suo motu cognizance of media reports about the incident.
"According to the media reports, the incident took place at Etagunta and Vacchinodu Banda hamlets, in the deep forest in Chandragiri Mandal. From the media reports, it appears that police and forest officials opened fire as the smugglers attacked them with stones, axes and knives," a press release from NHRC said.
"The matter was immediately brought to the notice of NHRC Member Mr. Justice D. Murugesan who is camping in Thiruvananthapuram in connection with the camp sitting of the Commission. He observed that the incident involved a serious violation of human rights of the individuals and the opening of firing cannot be justified on the ground of self defence since it resulted in the loss of lives of 20 persons.
"Accordingly, notices have been issued to the Chief Secretary and the DGP of Andhra Pradesh calling for report explaining the act of police and forest officials within two weeks. The matter shall be taken up for hearing in the Camp Sitting of the Commission to be held at Hyderabad on 23rd April, 2015," the release said.
The Commission also noted that the incident has taken place at a time when a similar incident was reported from the bordering districts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in the month of December, 2014 wherein Andhra Pradesh forest officials were seen physically torturing and assaulting a man in a naked position and reports are awaited from concerned authorities and the issue is under consideration of the Commission.
The gunning down of the 20 men has also attracted sharp criticism from human rights organisations.
Amnesty International India said the killings must be investigated in a swift, thorough, and independent manner and, if they are found to be unlawful, those responsible should be brought to justice.
“There must be a criminal investigation to determine whether the police used excessive force, and whether the killings amount to ‘fake encounters’, or staged extrajudicial executions”, said Abhirr VP, Senior Campaigner at Amnesty International India.
“In many cases the so-called smugglers are poor woodcutters employed by organized gangs,” said Abhirr. “The curbing of red sandalwood smuggling must not be used as an excuse to ignore human rights.”
Red sander (scientific name: Pterocarpus santalinus), also known as red sandalwood, has been placed by the IUCN in its Red List for being an endangered species. It is restricted to be southern parts of the Eastern Ghats in India.
Occurring in dry deciduous forest, the tree is commercially valuable for its timber and for the extraction of dye, medicine and cosmetics. It is valued for the rich red colour of its wood, which is not aromatic, unlike the Santalum Sandalwood trees that grow natively in South India.
Red sander is a light-demanding small tree, growing to 8 metres in height with a trunk 50–150 cm diameter. It is fast-growing when young, reaching 5 metres tall in three years, even on degraded soils.
Furniture made from red sander is expensive and it has been one of the most prized woods for millenia. It is particlarly valued in China, where it is called zitan, and most of the smuggled wood ends up in that country.
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