Andhra Pradesh: 20 red sanders smugglers killed; were they smugglers or innocent labourers?

New Delhi(dna): 20 people were gunned down in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district in a police operation said to be against Red Sanders smugglers that came under severe attack from the government and political parties in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, which claimed 12 victims were labourers from their state.

Taking suo-motu note of the incident, the National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to Andhra Praderh government after one of its members observed that it involved “serious violation” of human rights of the individuals and the firing cannot be justified on the ground of self defence.

They claimed that the task force and forest personnel, during a joint combing operation, spotted over 200 red sanders woodcutters involved in felling trees and they were asked to surrender.

“However, the smugglers, armed with sickles, axes, swords, country-made weapons and stones, attacked the police and forest personnel injuring six policemen,” said deputy inspector general of police (Special Task Force) M Kantha Rao.

In retaliation, when the police fired in “self-defence”, 20 of the smugglers were killed and many others fled the scene, he said. The Andhra police action elicited strong political reaction from parties in Tamil Nadu.

Chief minister O P Panneerselvam wrote a strongly-worded letter to his counterpart N Chandrababu Naidu demanding a “credible and speedy” inquiry into the episode and responsibility fixed for possible human rights violations.

Acknowledging that some of these people Thiruvannamalai and Vellore districts of Tamil Nadu were engaged in illicit tree cutting, he said efforts could have been made to apprehend them than taking such a “drastic action”.

Claiming that they were innocent labourers from Tamil Nadu who were lured with higher wages to forests in neighbouring Chittoor, NDA ally, PMK chief Ramadoss said their being shot down without even an inquiry was unacceptable.

Red sanders, an endangered species also called red sandalwood, has a huge demand abroad, specially in China and Japan, and commands a good price. It is grown mainly in Seshachalam hill ranges spread across Kadapa, Chittoor and Kurnool in Rayalaseema region and parts of Nellore district in Andhra Pradesh.

The NHRC sent a notice to the AP chief secretary and DGP on the basis of observations sent by one of its members Justice D Murugesan, who is camping in Thiruvananthapuram, sent his observations that the incident involved a serious violation of human rights.

“The opening of fire cannot be justified on the ground of self defence since it resulted in the loss of lives of 20 persons,” an NHRC released quoted Justice Murugesan as saying.