Murders most foul

Families of loggers who were killed in police action in the Seshachalam forest in Andhra Pradesh and those who escaped by a stroke of luck give a chilling account of their ordeal.

Published : Apr 29, 2015 12:30 IST

The wife and daughter of Murthy,  who was shot dead by the Andhra Pradesh police, at Murugapadi village in Tiruvannamalai district on April 8.

The wife and daughter of Murthy, who was shot dead by the Andhra Pradesh police, at Murugapadi village in Tiruvannamalai district on April 8.

SHAKEN, dazed and disoriented, S. Saroja, a tribal woman from the Malayali Scheduled Tribe, cannot even remember her age. Recollecting haltingly parts of the last conversation she had with her son, Saroja said: “He said, ‘Mother, my cell (phone) is out of currency, can I have yours?’ and took my cell (phone).”

On the afternoon of April 5, coming down from her house in Arasanatham, a tiny hamlet of 150 families atop the Sitheri hill in Sitheri panchayat of Pappireddipatti taluk in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, she met her 35-year-old son S. Sivakumar on the only main road she knows, the one from the nearest town, Harur, to Salem. Little did she know that it was the last time she would see him alive. In a series of events that still remain the subject of conjecture and controversy, Sivakumar, along with 19 others, was shot dead in the early hours of April 7 nearly 200 kilometres away in the Seshachalam forest at the foot of the Tirumala hills in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district, by the recently formed Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force (RSASTF) of Andhra Pradesh. While the Andhra Pradesh government has claimed that the men were part of a gang of around 100 woodcutters employed by the timber mafia to smuggle the highly priced red sanders, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Tamil Nadu say that the men were abducted from different locations the previous night, between 7.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m., tortured, taken into the forests and then killed by the RSASTF.

The government of Tamil Nadu has termed the men innocent and announced a compensation of Rs.3,00,000 for each of those killed; in addition, the two main political parties in the State, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), have chipped in with sums of Rs.2,00,000 and Rs.1,00,000 respectively, and the actor-politician Vijayakanth has handed over another Rs.50,000 to the families of each of those killed.

Andhra Pradesh Home Minister Nimmakayala Chinarajappa called the RSASTF operation a “major breakthrough” in the campaign against timber smugglers. However, though smuggling of red sanders is rampant in the foothills of the Seshachalam forest, experts in insurgency-type operations say that it was unlikely that a hundred people, as claimed by the Andhra Pradesh government, would have been employed to fell and gather the timber. Smuggling operations like these are undertaken by stealth and with fewer men, say 20 at the most. A hundred men felling and smuggling trees in the forest is only possible with the knowledge of officials in the Forest Department and other government agencies. According to Henri Tiphagne of the human rights organisation People’s Watch, a man who was picked up allegedly by policemen “managed to escape by moving to the back of the van even as it entered a compound in the lower Tirumala hills close to the site of the killings”.

According to A. Kathir of Evidence, a Madurai-based NGO, the 20 men were killed because “their arrest and illegal detention was known”. Said Kathir: “There is a nexus between the timber mafia, forest officials and politicians. And the mafia has its well-oiled system. Chains of brokers are used to ensure secrecy and the brokers take two people’s wages as commission. People go for 15 days to a month and earn Rs.40,000. An inquiry must be held to find out who gave the order to fire. What vehicles were used? What weapons? And who is behind the timber mafia?” Kathir also claimed that the cell phones of six of those killed had all been switched off at the same time.

S. Palaniswamy, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Tribal Association, said: “Without a tacit understanding between the timber mafia and forest officials, cutting of red sanders is not possible. The timber mafia is able to know when to enter the forests, which routes to take, where the raids will take place, etc., and it is all pre-planned. This is not possible without the officials being in connivance with the mafia. The mafia, in turn, needs hardy men, and tribal people are preferred because they are cheap labour.”

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken cognisance of the killings and issued notices to the Andhra Pradesh government. It is not just Saroja who is shaken. Sivakumar’s widow, Vijaya, sitting cross-legged on the doorstep of her ramshackle hut, her two-year-old physically challenged daughter, Samidha, cradled in her arms, is also in a state of shock. “He was only doing painting work. He is not a woodcutter. He left home on Monday telling me that he was going to look for some work. He has gone like this numerous times before looking for work, in Salem, Coimbatore, Erode.”

Vijaya, who also has a son, Jeevan, 10, vehemently shakes her head when asked who took Sivakumar. “We don’t know; there was no reason to even ask him before he left since on many occasions he has gone looking for work and would be gone for a week, 15 days or even a month. In fact, before we had children, I have also gone with him looking for work.”

Survivor’s account

Fifty-year-old H. Mallika’s husband, Veliyan Harikrishnan (55), and her son, H. Balachandran (29), were also with Sivakumar when he left Arasanatham. While Harikrishnan was among the dead, Balachandran, a father of two, survived. He has been kept in a safe house after he gave his statement to the NHRC lest he be kidnapped or killed. According to Balachandran, a few months ago when he was in Tiruppattur town for work, he had got acquainted with one Palani. Coming to know that Palani was an agent who recruited villagers for work in companies, he left his contact number with him.

On April 4, when Balachandran was at home, at around two in the afternoon, he received a call from Palani informing him that there was work to be had in Puducherry. Palani also wanted Balachandran to bring along a few men.

Balachandran said:

“So seven of us, my father, relatives Sivakumar and Lakshmanan, and Venkatesh, all of Arasanatham, and Velayudham and Sivalingam of the neighbouring villages of Melavalavu and Karkapatti, got together at Koppanampatti junction on April 5 at 11 a.m. and got into a private bus and alighted at Tirupattur bus stand. From there we caught a bus and went to a place called Alangayam. Agent Palani, who was waiting at a tea shop there, took us from there to a village called Nambiyampattu in Jamunamarathur hills. We stayed that night in a house on the outskirts of Nambiyampattu village, where a woman cooked for us.

“The next morning [April 6] at about 10, we caught a bus from Nambiyampattu and came to Kannamangalam village. We ate at a hotel near the bus stand and then caught a bus to Arcot [a suburb of Vellore]. At that time a person known to Palani also joined us. Though I do not know his name I can identify him if I see him. He and I went to a TASMAC liquor outlet situated half a kilometre from the bus stand without telling anyone and had liquor. When we came back to the Arcot bus stand after around half an hour, we couldn’t find Palani or the others who had come with me. There was no one at the bus stand. Then the person who was with me called Palani on his phone and Palani told him that they had looked for us at the bus stand and since we were not to be found they left by bus to Tiruthani and asked us to catch a bus to Tiruthani [some 15 km from Andhra Pradesh].

“So both of us caught a bus and reached Tiruthani bus stand at about seven. Since no one who came with me were to be found at the bus stand, the person with me called up Palani again. He seems to have replied that they were on their way to a place called Nagariputhur and asked both of us too to come by bus to Nagariputhur. So from Tiruthani we caught a bus to Nagariputhur. Upon reaching Nagariputhur bus stand, I called my relative Sivakumar, who had accompanied us, from my mobile phone. Sivakumar told me that Palani had made the seven of them wait at one place and was coming to fetch me. Then I asked the person with me to speak to Palani. After he spoke to Palani he said to me, ‘Come let’s go back to Tiruthani.’ I asked him why and he said that Palani had asked us to come back in the morning and that if we remained in Nagariputhur, the police would arrest us on grounds of suspicion.

“Therefore, we caught a bus from there and reached Tiruthani bus stand by about 11 at night. On the way, when the person with me called Palani over phone, he did not pick up. Because of this, the person who was with me said that the police had caught Palani. He also said that if we waited for the others the police would catch us too and went away leaving me. Then I called my relative Sivakumar over phone and the person who answered the call said, ‘Your men are here. So come to Tirupati immediately.’ Since the voice was new to me I asked who it was, but the person switched off the phone without replying. I stayed back at Tiruthani bus stand that night and at about four in the morning I came to Arcot by bus. From there I caught a bus to Kannamangalam and reached there at about nine.

“When I was having tea at Kannamangalam bus stand, I saw news being telecast on TV that 15 persons who had gone to smuggle red sanders were killed in an encounter with the police. I could not identify the people who came with me among them. Then I went to Nambiyampattu village in Jamunamarathur hills, which was on the path by which we were brought. At about 2 p.m. a person called me from a new number. The person asked me, ‘Are you Balachandran?’ When I said yes, he said that Sivakumar had died in an encounter and further asked me to identify from newspapers if it was in fact Sivakumar who had died. After some time he called again. At that time I looked at the newspaper and told him that it was indeed our people who had died. I also identified them by names. I was at Nambiyampattu village. On April 7 by nightfall I came back to my village. I came to know from the newspapers that all six persons whom I had taken along for work had been killed in the encounter in Tirupati. They must have been picked up by the police. Even Palani was dead.”

Six of the 20 dead were from Arasanatham, and the other families who lost their men have similar tales to tell. All residents of Arasanatham own some agricultural holdings and are dependent on rain-fed agriculture.

But with the rains having failed for almost a decade, many of the villagers have been forced to move out looking for work at construction sites and brick kilns and in poultry farms, hotels and coffee estates, as far away as Bangalore, Munnar, Coimbatore, Mudigere and Chikamagalur. There is no motorable road to their village, and the nearest bus stop is 3 km away. They said that successive governments or the local panchayats had not done anything substantial for them. If Balachandran was lucky to survive, a further 90 km east of his village, P. Sekar (54) of Pudur Kollamedu village in Anandapura panchayat of Polur taluk in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district can count himself luckier. A stranger probably saved his life. A Vanniya Gounder by birth, Sekar, who owns an acre of land, has been cultivating sugarcane on a fifth of it. With crops drying up because of water shortage, Sekar said that he had to look elsewhere for work.

Gripping narrative

On April 6, a relative of his, S. Mahendran (30), visited him and asked if he was interested in doing some construction work outside the village. Informing his wife, he left around noon. While he and Mahendran were standing at the Kannamangalam bus stand waiting for a bus, Sekar said he saw Murthy (40) and Munusamy (35), who were from the neighbouring village of Murugampatti, standing in the shade of a tree on the opposite side of the road. On reaching Arcot bus stand, Mahendran and Sekar found a bus to Tiruthani.

Recollects Sekar:

“Murthy and Munusamy also got into that bus along with us. The bus reached Tiruthani at about 5.30 p.m. From Tiruthani we took an Andhra Pradesh government bus going to Tirupati. It was only because the conductor of the bus was calling out ‘Tirupati’ that I knew that the bus was going to Tirupati. Mahendran and I got onto the bus through the steps at the back and sat on a three-seater seat in the middle. Mahendran was seated by the side of the window while I sat next to him. After about 15 minutes, the bus stopped and a woman who looked about 40 years old came and sat next to me. Mahendran and I were travelling in silence.

“In an hour, when we reached a stop, a man who looked about 30 years old, with a thick moustache, of medium height and with closely cropped hair, boarded the bus and came near our seat and asked Mahendran to come with him. Mahendran asked him who he was and the man caught hold of his shirt and said that he needed to talk with him and took him out of the bus. I was shocked and agitated. I felt afraid. I did not know who took Mahendran. I was unable to speak anything and remained silent. Mahendran got down from the bus without saying anything to me. Ten minutes after the bus started I looked back to see whether Murthy and Munusamy were still in the bus. They too were not to be seen. I was spared probably because of the woman sitting next to me, who was mistaken for my wife.

“I felt very afraid. I only had the Rs.90 I brought with me while leaving home and the persons who came with me too were now gone. When the bus reached the next stop I got down. I crossed the road and caught a bus to Tiruthani, then Vellore and finally one going towards Tiruvannamalai. Getting off at Kannamangalam, I walked the 13 km to my village and reached at two in the morning. I related the scary encounter to my wife and told her that someone had taken Mahendran away.

“The next day, April 7, I met Chitra, Mahendran’s mother, and told her that both of us were going for work and on the way from Tiruthani to Tirupati someone took her son from the bus. She said that it would have been someone who knew him. Later that day, policemen showed me Mahendran’s photograph and said that he had been shot down in the forest region in Tirupati. Murthy and Munusamy met with the same fate.” When Frontline visited Mahendran’s house in Pudur Kollamedu village, a plainclothes policeman stood outside, keeping a close eye on visitors. Said Mahendran’s younger brother Ramesh: “Mahendran said he was going to Kerala to collect some money that was due to him for some work that he had done. His vision was poor at night. How could he have gone to cut timber at night?”

How the mafia works

There is little doubt that many of the inhabitants of the villages from the districts of Dharmapuri, Viluppuram and Tiruvannamalai that Frontline spoke to are well aware of the red sanders smuggling. Some may have even participated in them, but they feign innocence.

Said S. Annamalai, a tribal person from the village of Mellkuppathinnuru (around 40 km from Polur in Tiruvannamalai district): “As there is no road to the village, we are unable to get milk or vegetables. There is no rain, so we are unable to grow anything even for six months of the year. Many of us go to work in coffee estates as far as in Mudigere [Karnataka], where we get Rs.20,000 for two months of work. I have to repay a Rs.50,000 loan, so I have no money to dig a well. The panchayat is not helpful. Therefore, when agents of the timber mafia come, most tribal people being innocent are tempted to go with them.”

Talking to people like Annamalai gives one an insight into the modus operandi of the red sanders smuggling operations. “Owners”, as agents are called, recruit villagers for logging trips. In order to maintain anonymity, layers of “owners” are used by the mafia. Owners recruit the strongest and most gullible men in the village as loggers. And the money is good—Rs.650 for every kg of red sanders—while wages as a farm or construction labourer, if work is available, is around Rs.350 a day. “Owners” also assure villages that forest and police officials have already been paid off and they have nothing to worry.

With the Andhra Pradesh Police checking buses coming from Tamil Nadu, “owners” take men from Dharmapuri to Bangalore and after bribing bus drivers bundle them into night buses going to Andhra Pradesh, even mixing them with other passengers to avoid suspicion. Drivers are bribed to drop the men on unused roads in the dead of night.

The loggers are now met by men who know the forest area. Known as “pilots”, they lead the loggers into the forests. Loggers are also asked to strip down to their underwear —their dark complexion a natural camouflage in the forests—and to carry their clothes and valuables in a towel. It usually takes two to three days of trekking before red sanders is found and logging starts. According to people like Annamalai, each logger collects around 25 kg of logs and a two- or three-day trek brings them to a pre-designated point from where the cargo is hauled off, many a time in a petrol tanker.

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