Interview

‘Cold-blooded murder’

Print edition : May 15, 2015

Chiluka Chandrasekhar addressing the media in connection with the Seshachalam killings, in Tirupati on April 11. Photo: K.V. Poornachandra Kumar

Interview with Chiluka Chandrasekhar, general secretary of the Civil Liberties Committee of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

“IT is a cold-blooded and premeditated mass murder under the guise of containing illicit timber trade in red sanders,” said Chiluka Chandrasekhar, general secretary of the Civil Liberties Committee (CLC) of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which has filed a petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court regarding the deaths of 20 woodcutters from Tamil Nadu at the hands of the Andhra Pradesh Special Task Force in the Seshachalam reserve forests on April 7.

Talking to Frontline over phone from Guntur, the 53-year-old activist, relying on highly placed intelligence sources, claimed that it was a murky game involving politics and caste.

“It is a pity that the promise of big money drove these poverty-stricken labourers to their brutal death in the forests,” he said.

The truth is that behind this sordid episode there is a sinister plot, he added. He said that immediately after the CLC took the issue to the High Court, its members were intimidated by the police. Excerpts from the interview:

What prompted the Andhra Pradesh government to resort to such knee-jerk action against the smuggling of red sanders, which has been going on for several years?

Yes. It has been going on for a long time, especially after the wood became a protected species and its demand in China, Japan and South Asian countries increased manifold. But the execution, we feel, has more to it than what meets the eye. It is a long-drawn-out fight between two powerful OBC [Other Backward Classes] groups, with both the caste groups wanting to monopolise every trade and activity that takes place in the Rayalaseema region, in Kadapa, Kurnool and Chittoor districts in Andhra Pradesh, from where Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu also hails.

Caste has been playing a decisive role in politics. Andhra Pradesh is not an exception to it. How is it that a particular caste seems to have control over the trade in red sanders?

In the region, persons from the dominant Reddy caste control not only the timber trade but everything else, though people from various other caste groups, including Kammas, also are involved. Political patronage to red sanders smugglers and traders is open. Even village-level representatives are involved in this illegal activity since it yields enormous amounts of money. There is nothing secret about it here.

What could the State government achieve by killing poor labourers from a neighbouring State?

The forest “encounter” is, in fact, an outcome of the State’s decision to step up vigil against sanders smuggling primarily to break the link between the timber mafia and their powerful political friends in the Rayalaseema region. It [the encounter] has also sent out a message to the adversaries of a powerful politician that they should not continue their alliance with the timber mafia. It also serves as a warning to all not to engage in any activity detrimental to the State’s welfare. Unfortunately, the poor woodcutters became the victims.

The media seem to be devoting more space to the involvement of Gangi Reddy, who, they allege, is a major red sanders smuggler.

It is politics again. Gangi Reddy was once an activist. Today he is an alleged smuggler. But everyone in Andhra Pradesh knows that he is the major supporter of a political party, especially in Kadapa district.

But for the CLC the families of the victims and activists from Tamil Nadu would have found it very difficult to get judicial intervention in this case.

The CLC has been fighting against rights violations for the past 40 years through writ and habeas corpus petitions in various courts, including in the Supreme Court. We have taken up many cases of police “encounters”, including those involving PWG [People’s War Group] cadres and sympathisers. Since 1968, nearly 4,000 people have lost their lives in such encounters. We have always been against extrajudicial killings.

In the present case, the Andhra Pradesh High Court has issued several statements condemning the police action against the innocent victims. The court asked the CLC to make the relatives of the victims file complaints and, based on these complaints, ordered a second post-mortem of six of the bodies.

The police, as expected, resorted to intimidatory tactics against us. They filed serious charges against the fact-finding team members of the CLC. They even detained me for interrogation. But we did not relent. We are now optimistic after the intervention of the judiciary in this case.

As a rights organisation, we never discriminate between victims on racial or geographical lines. Whether the victims are Tamils or Telugus, we take up their cases if we think that human rights have been violated. We demand action against illegal activities as per law. The state should not resort to any sort of revenge activity. If a state pursues an illegal method of dispensing punishment, others also will follow this.

What is your demand in the present case?

The Andhra Pradesh government should take action against the real culprits in red sanders smuggling. They should have the courage to bust the high-profile nexus of officials, politicians, the timber mafia and smugglers instead of victimising poor labourers. We have submitted many petitions to the authorities concerned too in this regard.

Poverty drives them to take up such dangerous work. The Tamil Nadu government is also morally responsible. It should have created livelihood resources for these poor people and should have sensitised them about the ills of illegal woodcutting in a neighbouring State.

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