The most infamous sandalwood smuggler to have existed in India was a rather thinly built man with a disproportionately big moustache. He was allegedly involved in the murder of close to 184 people-most of them police officials. So big was his smuggling empire that he maintained a private army and was one of India’s richest criminals. Given his infamy, not many tears were shed when on October 18 2004, Veerappan and two of his associates were killed by the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force.
Red Sanders is a tree which takes more than two decades to reach maturity. Once it grows to its full potential, its deep, red wood becomes vulnerable to assorted woodcutters and organised smugglers, who try to export the wood and earn a hefty profit. Apart from Japan and China a number of other countries in the East are known to import red sanders, for making musical instruments and medicinal purposes. It is this wood which became a catalyst for a massacre. Yesterday 20 labourers were hunted down and summarily executed in the Seshachalam forests near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. Neither were these labourers were armed bandits nor were they dollar millionaires with big moustaches like Veerappan.
According to the police, these 20 labourers had attacked them with sickles, axes and stones and the police had gunned them down in self-defense. This claim is perplexing on many levels. The police was not involved in a skirmish with highly trained and heavily armed militants; they were dealing with a group of underpaid minimum wage labourers. If it was indeed in self defence as they claim, where are the injuries of the task force members? Reportedly, only two members of the task-force were injured. It’s not as if the Andhra Pradesh police has a clean record, when it comes to sandalwood smuggling.
An inquiry by the AP Vigilance Department in September last year revealed two senior officers, who were tasked with protecting forest officers, were in fact taking large bribes and allowing them to enter the forest. This complicity of some elements of the police force has been instrumental in making a bad situation worse. Further disheartening is the inefficacy of our legal system in resolving encounter killings. Out of the 555 recorded encounter killings till 2013, only 144 cases have been resolved so far. It would seem that these poor and hapless woodcutters are the latest scapegoats in the Andhra Pradesh Police’s quest to rid its forests of the scourge of smuggling. The fact, however, is that neither smuggling kingpins are never arrested nor are the local politicians, who tacitly profit from the sandalwood trade. A judicial probe into the matter needs to be announced at the earliest. The truth behind this murky incident must come through.