Red Sanders Logs Of Blood
The heat is on. The National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the Andhra Pradesh government on the killing of 20 alleged red sanders smugglers by Special Task Force. Taking suo motu cognizance, the NHRC has observed that the incident smacked of serious violation of human rights. Both the Chief Secretary and the DGP of Andhra Pradesh have been asked to submit a report within two weeks. Voices are being heard from all around that the encounter was a staged one. The police claim that they were forced to open fire as they were attacked with stones, axes and knives.
A number of facts have emerged that cast doubt on the police version of events. At the first site, seven of the nine dead had been shot in the face or the back of the head. Many of the dead had burn injuries on the abdomen, shoulders and hands. The bodies had the skin peeling off. Some of the bodies have marks on the wrists indicating that they had been tied up.
Most of the bodies have bullet wounds at the back of the neck. Either the STF personnel were Olympic level marksmen or plain murderers who shot their victims at point blank range. The lame duck theory of the police that the burn marks may have been caused by summer heat is laughable. There are many other holes in the story. The logs that were shown to be around the bodies were not fresh cut ones, most of them had numbers neatly painted on them, something that the forest officials do when they make seizures. What was more surprising was there are no red sanders trees in the vicinity where the encounter happened. The knives, axes and machetes that were shown as seizures from the smugglers were all rusted and blunt.
When questioned, the Task Force DIG Kantha Rao said that over hundred “smugglers” attacked his team with sickles, rods and axes. He said that the smugglers were given several warnings, but they did not stop attacking. Asked how many of his men were grievously injured, he said,
“Nobody was seriously hurt from our side as their superior training saved their lives.”
Most of the dead are Vanniyars, a denotified tribe of forest dwellers who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The politically powerful gangs who smuggle the wood, recruit these tribals at the lowest rungs. Red sanders smuggling involves four layers of operation. These tribal woodcutters belong to the first rung. The second rung is the transporters, who connive with the forest and police officials to get the wood out of the forest. The exporters who take it out of the country comprise the third rung. Red sanders is exported in containers, as food products, as jewelry, medicine etc. The top layer is the masterminds who oversee everything from recruitment to negotiation and getting political patronage. It’s common knowledge in both Andhra and Tamil Nadu that many politicians are involved in the smuggling of red sanders.
While the poor woodcutters rarely make more than Rs 5,000 per tree, that too at the risk of their lives, the wood fetches between Rs 60 and Rs 80 lakh per tonne abroad. Last November, the state government earned Rs 1,000 crore by auctioning a huge cache of confiscated red sanders.
There has been a long history of conflict between police and smugglers in the state. Over 2500 people, mostly from Tamil Nadu are presently in custody in Andhra Pradesh on charges of smuggling. The smugglers come in hordes, at times 300-500 strong. There were incidents when 400 people were arrested; the police had to hire buses to transport them to court. The small courtrooms had no space; the magistrates heard them in the open ground. The police stations and forest department have 2200 Innovas in their custody, the SUV is the favourite of the smugglers for transporting the wood. By killing the poor tribals, it is clear that the trigger-happy Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Special Task Force (RSASTF) acted without restraint. The encounter will be another blot on the country’s criminal justice system and a huge violation of human rights. It is the non-functioning criminal judicial system, which forces the police to take the law into their own hands to deliver justice as they see fit. Only a credible enquiry can help throw light on this dreadful incident.