Andhra Pradesh

Massacre in the hills

Print edition : May 01, 2015

The scene of the 'encounter' at Cheekateegalakona in the Seshachalam hills near Tirupati, on April 7. Photo: K.V. POORNACHANDRA KUMAR

M. Kantha Rao (left), DIG and Head, RSASTF, at the scene of the encounter on April 7. Photo: K.V. Poornachandra kumar

In Vetayangiripalayam, checking the newspapers to see if any of those killed in the encounter belonged to the village. Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

Kranti Acharya (left) of the APCLC at a protest against the killings, in Tirupati. Photo: K.V. Poornachandra kumar

THE Seshachalam hill ranges witnessed bloodshed in the early hours of April 7, when 20 woodcutters from Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Villupuram districts of Tamil Nadu were killed by the Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force (RSASTF) in an encounter.

The incident occurred at the foot of Tirumala hills and is clearly the biggest in terms of the magnitude of the operation as well as the number of people killed in the decades-old history of red sanders smuggling.

Following a tip-off about the entry of a huge contingent of 150 woodcutters into the forests, the RSASTF, a joint team of forest and police sleuths formed recently to counter the menace of red sanders smuggling, launched a combing operation late on April 6. According to the official version, the sleuths split into two teams and intensified their search. On finding the woodcutters climbing down a hillock at around 5 a.m. on April 7, the task force members warned them to surrender, but the latter threw stones and hurled sickles and axes at them. The RSASTF members, some of whom were injured, then retaliated and fired random shots in self-defence. At sunrise, the team found 20 bullet-ridden bodies, 11 at Eethagunta and nine at Cheekateegalakona, located three kilometres away.

The scene resembled a battlefield, with dead bodies strewn around, along with water bottles, towels, sickles, red sander logs. Five country-made guns were also found. Deputy Inspector General of Police M. Kantha Rao, who heads the RSASTF, rushed to the spot and explained the sequence of events that finally led to the encounter. He termed the incident “unfortunate”, but denied it was a planned operation.

Following the inquest and after evidence was gathered from the spot, the bodies were shifted to the Sri Venkateswara Ramnarain Ruia Government General Hospital in Tirupati only late on April 7 night, and by noon post-mortem examination of all the bodies had been done.

Amid fears that they could be “marked” and harassed in the name of investigation, several relatives of the slain men initially stayed away, and only seven bodies were claimed by relatives. The seven men were identified as Moorthy and Munuswamy of Murugapadi village, Sasikumar and his brother Murugan of Vettagiripalayam, Palani and Perumal of Kalasamudram, and Magendiran of Arjunapuram, all in Tiruvannamalai district. The bodies and the death certificates were handed over to relatives by District Collector Siddharth Jain in the presence of Tamil Nadu Inspector General of Police (North Zone) Manjunath. The relatives brought letters from the Station House Officer of Kannamangalam Police Station to show as proof of their identity for claiming the bodies. Chittoor District Revenue Officer Vijay Prakash announced that the remaining bodies would be housed in the mortuary for a week and sent to the respective district general hospitals in Tamil Nadu later.

Red sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus), the precious redwood, is endemic to the Seshachalam range spread over Chittoor, Kadapa and parts of Nellore and Kurnool districts of Andhra Pradesh, and is in high demand in China, Japan and other South-East Asian nations. The logs are shifted clandestinely to godowns in Chennai and Bangalore, from where they cross Indian shores. Informed police sources also confirmed the presence of a highway route up to Kolkata and from there into the porous Bangladesh border through the north-eastern States. While it is believed to be used to make toys, furniture and musical instruments, the sources said it was also in demand for its aphrodisiac properties. As the returns are huge, the number of stakeholders has grown. Small-time casual labourers have turned smugglers, while existing smugglers have become international kingpins. Rags-to-riches stories can be found in habitations abutting the Seshachalam hills. The politician-police-forest staff nexus is alleged to be the main reason for the smooth passage of smuggled consignments even on guarded highways and in containers from sea ports.

Just three days before the encounter, Kantha Rao had sought permission from the State government to open fire at those illegally entering the forest. While the intention apparently was to prevent outsiders from plundering forest wealth, the timing of the encounter has raised eyebrows even in government circles.



Human rights activists and political leaders of various hues criticised the Andhra Pradesh government over the encounter and dubbed it a “planned massacre”. The Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) accused the government of picking up the victims from a running bus and shooting them. APCLC State executive member K. Kranti Chaitanya maintained that seven of the eight residents of Anandapuram panchayat in Tiruvannamalai district travelling to Tirupati were taken into custody by the police at the inter-State border near Tiruthani. An eighth member escaped police attention, returned home and spilled the beans. “If we find the seven among those killed, we can conclude that it is a fake encounter,” he said, adding that the eighth person, now underground for obvious reasons, will be produced before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) at the appropriate time.

A.D. Rangarajan

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