While the dust around the ‘encounter’ killing of 20 labourers by the Special Task Force (STF) in the Seshachalam forest of Andhra Pradesh is settling down, the families of the victims continue to seek justice. Numerous questions over what exactly happened remain unanswered and the complete truth is yet to be unearthed.
“If my son was a red sandalwood smuggler, our house would not have looked like this. Our lives would have been better, my grandchildren would not have to sleep on empty stomachs,” laments G Padmavathi, 70, standing in front of her dilapidated hut in a village in Thiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu. Her son Muniswamy, 35, was among the 20 villagers who were gunned down by the STF in the Seshachalam forest in Chittoor district on 7 April. He was the only son and the sole breadwinner in the impoverished family comprising his mother, wife and two children aged two and three. The family has been living in the same hut for decades.
Muniswamy often doubled as a chef and supplier at a small local establishment to make ends meet. Although his family owns 30 cents of land, it is unsuitable for cultivation due to water scarcity. Muniswamy’s wife Thangiammal refuses to buy the police version of the ‘encounter’ and says she has no idea why they killed her husband. “I know he could never get involved in any illegal activity,” she says. “His body bore signs of extreme torture and his limbs were mutilated. His face, too, was disfigured, possibly with acid.” Illiterate and malnourished, Thangiammal says she has “no clue how to shoulder the responsibility of four lives”.
The killing of 20 men allegedly engaged in sandalwood cutting violates both domestic laws and international standards accepted by India, which lay down clear guidelines for the use of lethal force such as firearms by law enforcement officials. No wonder the victims’ families as well as human rights activists were outraged and raised a number of questions on the STF version of the encounter. According to the STF, “As soon as they saw the police, at least 150 to 200 labourers, hired by the smugglers, rained stones, shot arrows and threw sticks and iron rods. They hid behind the boulders and attacked the forces. At least eight forest officers were injured and the task force opened fire in self-defence. We believe they had been camping here since Monday evening (6 April).”
Prima facie evidence, however, suggests that it was a case of abduction, custodial torture and cold-blooded murder. Investigations by government and independent bodies have given rise to more questions that unravel the police theory. The findings challenge the State’s claims regarding the cutting down of red sandalwood and the attack on the STF. The ‘encounter’ comes across as a drama staged by the people in power. And the reasons why the State scripted a tale to justify mass murder are still shrouded in mystery.
P Sekhar and S Balachandran, two survivors of the ‘encounter’, narrated their harrowing experience before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and alleged that the victims were pulled out from a bus by the police and detained only hours before the incident.
All the victims belonged to poor families and turned to odd jobs when their lands dried up, making agriculture difficult. Sekhar, 54, told the NHRC that he along with his relative Mahendiran were on their way in search of a job when the police picked up the latter and two others. Sekhar was spared as he was sitting next to a woman and was mistaken for her husband. The timeline of the incidents — the gap between the abduction and the ‘encounter’ — suggests that the victims were tortured and murdered while in custody, after which the bodies were placed at the ‘encounter’ site.
At Kalasamangalam village in Thiruvannamalai district, Lokanayika, 22, wife of Palani, another victim of the massacre, tells Tehelka, “On the afternoon of 6 April, my husband left for the nearest town to buy beads and thread.” This was the first time that Palani, a former schoolteacher, had gone out of the village for work. He had taken up tailoring after losing his teaching job. Holding their 42-day-old baby in her arms, Lokanayika says she never heard from him after he left that fateful afternoon. Recalling the sight of her husband’s tortured and mutilated body, she fights to hold back her tears. “His eyes were gouged out and teeth removed,” she says.
The kin of all the ‘encounter’ victims share similar stories of torture and mutilation. The bodies were said to have come in a horrific state: The arms had been hacked off, teeth were missing, eyes had been gouged out, toes sliced off and tongue slashed. Moreover, there were marks of burns, of sharp objects having been thrust into the bodies, and of limbs being crushed.
“The government decided to carry out a dramatic massacre in order to send out a message of fear,” says V Suresh, national general secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties. “The decision to inflict maximum casualties must have been taken at the highest levels of the government.
There is no way the field-level officials could have decided to carry out coldblooded murders on this scale.”
The family members of the deceased dismiss the State’s claim that the victims were woodcutters and were involved in red sandalwood smuggling. Although sandalwood trade yields super-profits and labourers involved in it are often paid a good amount, most of the victims’ families show no signs of prosperity and live hand to mouth.
Various fact-finding teams investigating the case have also come to the conclusion that the Seshachalam ‘encounter’ was one of the most brazen extra-judicial killings in recent times. “The bodies were found in an area with no red sandalwood trees and there was no evidence at the spot or nearby that a group of 200 men had camped there for 24 hours. There was nothing to show that an encounter that lasted two hours had taken place,” says Henri Tiphagne, executive director, People’s Watch, Madurai, which had given protection to the three eyewitnesses and produced them before the NHRC. “There were no bullet marks either on the rocks or on the trees at the encounter site. Also, hardly a tree stump or a blood stain was found within a radius of 1 km.”
Evidence suggests that the slain men could not have cut the logs found around the bodies as they were too heavy to carry and the markings on them prove that they were brought from government godowns. Therefore, it is likely that the STF had placed the logs at the encounter site in order to manufacture evidence.
Sandalwood smuggling is rampant in these parts of the state and it has often resulted in clashes among rival gangs. The poor labourers often become the scapegoat in this dirty game. Even as little information is available about the involvement of middlemen and the sandalwood mafia, around 2,000 daily wage labourers are languishing in various jails after being accused in several such cases.
While activists and others argue over the intentions behind this gruesome massacre, A Marx, general secretary of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations, alleges that the mastermind was none other than Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu. “When Naidu assumed charge as chief minister, the sandalwood mafia was dominated by Kollam Gangi Reddy, a financier of the YSR Congress, and Kishore Kumar Reddy, brother of former chief minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy. Though there is a sandalwood mafia linked to Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party, too, it was not so strong compared to the other two mafias,” says Marx. “Even before Naidu formally assumed charge as the chief minister, he convened a meeting of top police officers and asked them to put an end to this menace as soon as possible. The officers who were sympathetic to the Congress were transferred and enormous powers given to the STF in its drive against red sandalwood smuggling.”
Whatever may have been the intention behind the massacre, it is clear that the STF violated all the rules regarding the circumstances in which security forces may be permitted to shoot to kill. Law enforcement officials are only allowed to shoot at the suspects below the waist when they try to evade arrest by running away. Moreover, the victims of the Seshachalam ‘encounter’ were not armed with deadly weapons nor was there any clear and immediate danger to the lives of the policemen concerned. No wonder not a single police personnel was injured in the two-hour-long ‘encounter’.
No one knows whether proper protocol was followed or any warning given. Details of phone records need to be probed in order to identify who ordered the firing and how the message was passed on to the STF.
The killing, therefore, of 20 men without a criminal record or history of violence – STF dig Kantha Rao himself described them as labourers — appears to be a massacre orchestrated by the State in order to strike fear in the minds of the sandalwood smugglers and the labourers working for them.
In a country where staged encounters are not new, the history of justice being delivered in cases of extra-judicial killings is rather dismal. Out of the 555 cases recorded across India during 2009-13, only 144 have been solved. Scant regard for human rights, high-handedness of the State and impunity for murderers in uniform give a free hand to the law-enforcement authorities to unleash lawlessness.
The NHRC, however, has condemned the Seshachalam ‘encounter’ as a serious violation of human rights and directed the Andhra Pradesh government to conduct a judicial probe. It has asked the state’s chief secretary and director general of police to constitute an inquiry commission led by a judicial magistrate under Section 176(1)(A) of the Criminal Procedure Code. Under pressure from activists and the public, an fir was registered under sections 302 (murder) and 364 (kidnapping) of the Indian Penal Code against ‘unknown’ personnel of the STF. No further action has been taken against any of the police personnel involved in the massacre, including STF dig Kantha Rao.
Although the Naidu government has drawn a lot of flak, it continues to defend the STF operation. In a move to suppress the issue, it is alleged that the government asked the AP Police and the STF to refrain from talking to the media, citing that the case is sub judice. At a public meeting held in Chennai recently, writer Arundhati Roy commented on the dismal nature of justice with regard to such extra-judicial massacres in the country. “Nobody has been arrested. Like the Hashimpura case in which the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary shot dead 42 Muslims in cold blood and was let off, like the case of Keezhvenmani (a village in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam district where 44 Dalits, mostly women, children and the elderly, were locked in a hut and burnt alive by upper-caste landlords on 25 December 1968) and almost every other massacre of Dalits, the chances are that nothing will happen to these STF men,” she said.