Why the Sesachalam Killings are a Fake Encounter

April 14, 2015

By Ajmal Khan

On the morning of April 7th, Tuesday, India woke up to the news of 20 “Sandal wood smugglers” shot dead in an encounter with police in Andra Pradesh. AP police has made it clear from their side that the ‘encounter’ was on the early hours of the 7th. The newly formed Special Task Force which was set up to curb the smuggling of red sanders apparently came across more than a hundred ‘smugglers’ carrying red sanders logs. When challenged, the ‘smugglers’ attacked the force by pelting stones and using sickles. In self-defense, the STF fired ‘random’ shots, which resulted in the deaths of 20 people. The rest of them managed to escape. The laborers who are killed are being identified as Muni Swami, Murthi, Mahendran, Palani, Perumal, Saikumar, Murugan, Hari Krishan, Venkateshan, Shivakumar, Lakshman, Velayudam, Sivalingam, Govinda Swami, Chinna Swami, Velli Mutthu, Rajendran, Pannir Selvam from the Tiruvannamali and Dharmapuri districts of Tamil Nadu, belonging to Adivasi and Dalit communities.

However, several questions have been raised about the credibility of the police version from the very beginning. Now more evidence is coming out to support the view that this was not an encounter at all, but organized murder. The images that came out in the media, the ones where there is the presence of task force and AP Police, show dead bodies arranged neatly and sequentially. The question naturally arises: how can an encounter happen in such a manner?. Also, one log of wood is placed with each dead body. How can only 20 logs be found if they were cutting the trees?. How can an unarmed crowd cause threat to the Task Force which carries guns and is armed to the teeth?.

On the second day after the killings, one member called Shekar who was not picked up by the AP police came out and reported that those who were killed by the police were picked up from the same bus that he had been traveling in. He was fortunately not being picked up because he happened to be sitting on a seat in the ladies’ section. He has reported that those who were killed were picked up from the bus by police and he was shocked to hear the news that all his colleagues were dead.

On 13th morning, Shekar along with the other witnesses came forward and recorded their statements at the National Human Rights Commission. According to the statement, Shekar was travelling from his village after getting to know of a job from his friends. After the bus crossed Arcot bus stand at around 2:30 PM, a man who looked about 30 years old, with a thick moustache, medium height and closely cropped hair, in mufti, boarded the bus and asked Mahendran, Shekar’s friend who was seated behind Shekar, to come with him. When Mahendran asked the man about his identity, the man aggressively caught hold of his shirt and forcibly took him out of the bus. As Shekar was alarmed and afraid, he remained silent. After a while, when Shekar discreetly looked back, he noticed that Murthy and Munusamy, his other friends who were accompanying him, were also missing from the bus. Shekar was shocked and afraid. He got off at the next bus stop and with great difficulty made his way back home after changing buses and walking. The next day at 7:30 PM., some policemen came to Shekar’s village, showed him Mahendran’s photograph and told him that he has been shot dead in the forest region in Tirupati. Apart from Shekar, Balachandran and Illangovan, who also escaped in a similar manner from the police, have reported similar events.

The families back in the village who received the dead bodies reported that they received the bodies with very serious injuries and evident marks of torture. According to them, the police picked them up from the bus as reported by Shekar and might have tortured and killed them somewhere and placed the bodies conveniently in the Seschachalam forest.

After the third day, the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO) team visited the place where the bodies were found and also spoke to the families of victims and different government officials who were concerned. The team made some very remarkable observations: for example, the part of the forest where the encounter allegedly took place has no red sanders. There are no red sander trees within many kilometers of the site. Only twenty dead bodies were recovered (along with a few logs). Which begs the question, what happened to the rest? Where are the injured? Where are the arrested people? What happened to the many logs that they were supposed to have been carrying?. Blood stains are only found on the spots where the bodies were lying. There are no random blood marks on the ground, as one would expect in a random firing. There are no bullet marks anywhere on the encounter sites. No bullet holes on trees, the clay mounds or on the ground. In the ‘random’ firing every single bullet seems to have found its mark – the upper body of the victims. (In fact, media reports say, quoting both the witnesses who saw the bodies and the doctor who conducted the autopsy, that the bullet injuries are primarily on the upper body and the shots have been fired at close range.)

The encounter sites are not stony at all. There are simply not enough stones to throw. (And we are talking of people carrying a very heavy load, using both hands to balance a log on their shoulders, throwing stones at an STF party armed with automatic rifles.) The bodies were not lying among the trees or spread all over the space, as one would expect in a random encounter. The bodies were very conveniently found lying next to each other in two clearings inside the forest. Both encounter sites are clearings, and more or less accessible from the road by jeep. Places where it is easy to bring in bodies (or people to be shot). There were exactly 20 logs which were taken into police custody from the wood cutters; how come they can managed to get only one logs for each person who were killed?. Journalists who had first access to the dead bodies also confirmed that the gun shots are on the upper part of the body mostly. How can it be the case if there was random firing?

When the CDRO team tried to meet the forest officials to take their version of events, the team was threatened with dire consequences. Eventually, a case was registered against the team under the Forests Act for trespassing. Those charged include rights activist Mr. Chandrashekar (general secretary Civil Liberties Committee, AP) who had moved AP High Court, demanding that a murder case be registered under Section 302 against those who invoked in the encounter, and due process laid down by the Supreme Court be followed and that the case be investigated by a neutral central agency like CBI and not AP police who is the prime accused in this case.

The Seschachalam incident is not the first one. We already have examples of fake encounters of Tamil laborers who come to cut wood. The Andhra Pradesh Government had killed 10 red sanders wood cutters in the name of smugglers and about 2,500 laborers belonging to Tamil Nadu state are being detained. All the ten men were below the age of 30 years. They were brutally killed after being grabbed from different places. All this indicates that, there has not been an encounter anywhere as the police version of the story. As the evidence suggests, the workers might have been killed somewhere and the dead bodies placed in the forest, or they might have been taken to the forest and shot at gun point. The bodies and logs were then staged and a cooked up story told to us.

Now the question remains, if this a fake encounter, what is the motive to kill these poor laborers? The answer could be that the government of Andra Pradesh wants to give a message to the private and other smugglers who belong to the opposition parties that anyone coming to cut wood would be killed. The Chandrababu Naidu government might want to give the following message to Reddies: we are in power and we will not allow you and your friends to smuggle now, only we will control the red sanders wood business and we have the sole authority over that.

However, the people who were made victims for this were the poor Adivasi and most backward caste laborers. Poverty and hunger makes them migrant laborers even without knowing properly what kind of illegal activity they are taken for. If any government in Andra Pradesh was genuinely committed to the protection of red sanders tree, despite killing and arresting the poor migrant laborers they should arrest the real smugglers and dons who are involved in the red sanders smuggling. The governments failed to do that since, these smugglers are also a one of the huge financial source for the political parties and closely associated with government, police, forest and other departments. The political parties are themselves the master smugglers from which a huge amount of money gets generated.

Ajmal Khan is an activist based in Mumbai.