The gruesome killing of 20Â alleged â wood-smugglersâ raises questions on the entire incident which happened on early morning of 7th April. As per the version of the Andhra Pradesh police and forest officials they shot dead 20 suspected red sandalwood smugglers in Chittoor district and injured eight others. A fact which many find itÂ too hard to believe that a gun battle of this level was required to chase out red sander smugglers from a restricted forest zone.
Ever since Chandrababu Naidu returned to power in the state last year, he has been relentless in his crackdown on the red sanders smugglers in Chittoor and Tirupati districts of the state. Eight âwood cuttersâ were killed between May and August last year just after Naidu took charge of the state. Many believe that Naidu still recalls the landmine blast by the naxals on 1st 2003 had been funded by the red sander smugglers in the region who were upset by the crackdown on their activities by the Chandrababu Naidu government then. This is what may have given the police a freehand in dealing with the wood cutters in the way they chose to do.
The gruesome visuals of the bodies of the alleged smugglers, shook TamilNadu. An angry state cried hoarse as people demanded CBI probe triggering violent reactions in TamilNadu. Seven of the dead were from Arjunapuram village of Thiruvanamalai district of Tamil Nadu . Relatives of theÂ killed men alleged that a group eight woodcutters had been hired by red sanders smugglers in AP.
The police theory of a fierce encounter between them and the smugglers got a dent when report of an 8th man from village emerged . Raja Babu (38), whose relative died in the encounter told media “They were traveling in a bus from Thiruvanamalai to Chitoor on Monday afternoon. The bus was stopped by the police at Nagari and seven of the eight men were arrested. The eighth man, who was sitting separately, managed to slip away quietly.” Raising questions that whether the âencounterâ was a planned effort by the forest officials and the special task force that was createdÂ last year by Chandrababu Naidu. Â Despite questions,the Andhra Police stuck to its theory. A senior police official told journalists on the spot that the police found the men illegally cutting down endangered red sandalwood trees. He said that when the men were asked to surrender, they attacked the police with stones and axes, forcing them to open fire in self-defence.
Several questions that come to mind, that in a fierce encounter that the police claim took place between nearly a hundred armed smugglers and the police partyÂ How no police official was injured ?Â How all the smugglers were shot dead in a small vicinity in such a big forest ? Why most of those killed were in their underwears and their clothes lying next to their bodies ? Why there is no destruction to vegetation which should have been seen in case there was a large scale clash ? How come there is no tell tale evidence of nearly a hundred people fleeing the spot? Human rights groups have taken cognizance of the killings. NHRC has initiated an enquiry into the matter.Â “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, Campaigner at Amnesty International India. “The police are not above the law, and must not be treated like they are.” NHRC has asked senior government and police officials to explain the actions of the police and forest officials within two weeks.
In recent years while there have been some ‘encounter’ killings of suspected red sandalwood smugglers by the police, none were so brazen in magnitude. While the red sanders smuggling menace has been a persistent problem that the Andhra Pradesh police have faced for a long time in the past.
The ban on the red sanders by govtÂ of india in 2000 , started a lucrative business of trafficking wood cutters by the sandalwood mafia in Andhra Pradesh. Most of the tribals from Tamilnadu region are hired by contractors for the illegal felling activity in the forest regions of Chitoor.
Most of such âwood cuttersâÂ donât even know the people who pay them so handsomely for their work and also donât knowÂ the international prices of the valuable red sanders wood. They only know the trade in which they are is illegal and command a price for their adventurism. They end upÂ getting paid upto one lac of rupees for each felling seasonâs work in the forests in Andhra Pradesh.
âA tonne of smuggled red sanders fetches up to Rs 15-18 lakhs in Indian market, but its international price varies from Rs 30-40 lakh,â a retired forest officer from Karnataka told TEHELKA. Myth has it that King Solomon coveted the wood for its beauty and the queen of Sheba presented it to him. In medieval China, it gained popularity as the preferred wood for furniture as well as for its medicinal properties including in curing diabetes .
In India the wood, grown mostly in Andhra Pradesh, has ritual importance for Hindus in the various Havans that are performed. It is this demand fuelled by such beliefs which has made illegal trade in the wood lucrative for those involved in it not just in Andhra Pradesh but also in international markets like China, HongKong ,Malaysia and Singapore which have a huge demand for red sanders wood.