Killing red sander 'smugglers' was summary execution: Andhra Pradesh should be ashamed

The 'encounter-killing' of 20 'smugglers' in Seshachalam forests near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday by a state-level task-force for their alleged role in red-sandalwood smuggling is one of the most intense extra-judicial killings the country has witnessed in recent years.

G Pramod Kumar April 09, 2015 08:05:50 IST
Killing red sander 'smugglers' was summary execution: Andhra Pradesh should be ashamed

The "encounter-killing" of 20 labourers in Seshachalam forests near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday by a state-level task-force for their alleged role in red-sandalwood smuggling is one of the most intense extra-judicial killings the country has witnessed in recent years. The action killed 20 unarmed people in about an hour. This is a ferocity that is reported only from war fronts.

Media reports said the smugglers, or rather their hired workers who were cutting and transporting sandalwood trees, attacked police with sickles, axes and stones although none of them mentioned hand-to-hand combat.

Killing red sander smugglers was summary execution Andhra Pradesh should be ashamed

PTI

Reportedly, the workers, who numbered about 150, hurled stones and sickles at the task force men. Even so, the excessive reaction in the end appeared like summary executions. Were the task-force men so ill-trained that they couldn’t find other ways to contain a mob-attack?

The Andhra Pradesh government is yet to come out with a status report and explain the need for such a brutal response and the level of casualties. After all, it was only red-sander (shorter for red-sandalwood) smuggling and not a border-skirmish with heavily armed militants or an uncontrollable riot that the task-force was sent to handle.

And this is not the first time this has happened.

It was a widely reported fact that Andhra Pradesh was fed up of red-sander smuggling and the number of labourers, allegedly most of the from Tamil Nadu, involved. State police men had been killed in earlier encounters. The state DGP has reportedly said that about 2000 labourers, mostly from Tamil Nadu, are under custody. He also said that often the police had to use open grounds to present them before a magistrate because they entered in such large numbers. Each time, about 200-400 people were arrested in one go.

Moreover, the wood is quite precious because it fetches a lot of money in the international market and recently the state earned about Rs 1000 crore from an auction of sander seized from the smugglers.

So was this encounter a desperate action to instill fear in the labourers employed by the smugglers? Available evidence does suggest deliberate intent.

According to this Indian Express report, seven in a heap of nine bodies, have been shot either in the face or in the back of the head.

How is it possible in an armed melee, that too one which took place in the woods, that the task force members were able to take aim at the victims’ faces and the backs of their heads? If it was indeed in self defence as they claim, where are the injuries of the task force members? Reportedly, only two of them were injured.

Do two injuries warrant a firing that killed 20 people?

The Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin encounter cases had raised the conscience of the country about extra-judicial killings and earned a bad name for Gujarat. But the fact of the matter is that most parts of India are notorious for unjustified killing of people by police and security forces.

A 2013 report said 555 encounter cases were registered in four years, with the highest number coming from Uttar Pradesh.

While some argue that this is a result of a non-functioning criminal judicial system, which forces the police to take the law into their own hands to deliver justice as they see fit, others say that it is a demonstration of the highhandedness of the state.

There have been cases in which alleged criminals have been killed to mollify public anger or to weaken insurgency movements. Anyway, every encounter killing, fake or otherwise, is a blot on the country’s criminal justice system and a huge violation of human rights. If presented to the justice system, most of the victims of these encounter killings would have escaped death and some of them, even jail.

The National Human Rights Commission and the Tamil Nadu Government, where the incident has begun swelling into an inter-state issue, have taken cognisance of the encounter.

Now that the deaths have already occurred all that one can expect is a judicial investigation. The Andhra Pradesh government will be happy if the Tamil workers are scared out of their forest jaunts. But this is unlikely because it is poverty and utter helplessness that finally drive them to work for the smugglers.

If the Tamil Nadu government is serious about protecting its people, they should discourage the villagers by alternative employment and social assistance.

In 2014, the Supreme Court had issued a 16-point guideline to be followed “as the standard procedure for thorough, effective and independent investigation” which includes the recording of the tip-off, filing of FIR and investigation by an independent CID and magisterial involvement. However, the history of delivering justice on encounter killings has been rather dismal. For instance, in the 555 cases recorded during four years till 2013, only 144 had been resolved.

So, in the end, it’s the combination of scant regard for human rights, the failure of our criminal justice system and a guaranteed impunity or possibly the lure of gallantry awards, that breed encounter killings. They are not mere encounters, but extra judicial killings in which Indian citizens are summarily executed even before being legally charged with a crime.

The Seshachalam episodes shows that despite the NHRC and SC oversight, our governments are getting more and more intolerant, autocratic and rights-violative.

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