The village of Arasanattham sprawls across a scenic dip in Tamil Nadu’s Sitteri Hills, where the air is cooler and the mango trees are generous with shade. Early on the morning of April 5, a Sunday, seven men left the village and took a bus into town. They were looking for work, their families said – people from Arasanattham often worked in the banyan factories and construction sites of small cities like Salem and Tiruppur. By Tuesday morning, six of them were dead, shot by an anti-smuggling task force of the Andhra Pradesh police.

The lone survivor from Arasanattham, 29-year-old Balachandar, testified to the National Human Rights Commission in Delhi on Monday that he had witnessed the police arrest the others at a forest checkpost in Andhra Pradesh, just hours before the encounter took place.

The killing of 20 people in the Seshachalam Forest near Tirupati last week, including the six from Arasanattham, is a tragedy of illegal sandalwood smuggling, migrant labour and state violence. The authorities claim the deceased were part of a hundred-strong gang of timber smugglers who forced a police patrol to open fire when they attacked it with stones and axes. Smugglers have long thwarted state efforts to conserve red sanders trees, which are grown only in Andhra Pradesh and whose deep red wood fetches a small fortune on the international market. And although clashes occurred in the past, never has there been bloodshed on this scale.

Heartbreak and attention

Along with the testimonies of two other survivors, Balachandar’s story is the most damning evidence yet against the official version, because it implies that the slain men were in custody before they were shot dead. Human rights activists say clues from the scene also point to extrajudicial murder – that poor migrant workers were pulled from buses and killed in cold blood. The bodies were found in two separate clearings, for instance, and there were no stray bullet holes or bloodstains anywhere in the area.

“These government people must love the forest so much that they’re willing to kill for it,” said TSS Mani, an activist with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties who accompanied a fact-finding expedition on Saturday. “And not only that, but they made sure not a single bullet hurt the trees!”

The National Human Rights Commission, for its part, has ordered a probe.

The events have brought great heartbreak and attention to Arasanattham, a sleepy place whose residents belong to the Malayali tribe. On the morning of April 12, the widows and acquaintances of the victims assembled under a large mango tree as a group of activists from the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the Human Rights Forum recorded their version of events. The exhausted women – including Balachandran’s mother Malliga, whose husband Hari Krishnan had died – left their hair unbraided and wrapped their saris around their shoulders in mourning. Representatives from a local educational trust and a small media entourage had come too, bringing rice for the widows and promising to educate their children. A state police officer with the ominously-named Q Branch appeared, inquiring just what was going on there.

Fortuitous escape

Balachandar testified before the NHRC that on April 5, he left with his father and other villagers to meet an agent named Palani Chami, who had promised them lucrative work. The next night, in a village called Nambiyampattu, Balachandar and another man stepped out for a drink and the others left without them. The two were on their way to meet the others at Nagari Puttur, a border town in Andhra Pradesh, when Palani called and advised them to turn back.

At Arasanattham, Balachandar’s family members corroborated this testimony. “He called [on Monday night] and told us to arrange a lawyer,” said his younger brother Prabhakaran, who works in a factory in Errode but had come back to Arasanattham for his marriage. “He said my father and the others had been arrested, and that he was on his way back to the village.”

Tamil workers are routinely arrested around Seshachalam range. According to S Ravi Kumar, the area’s chief forest official, over 6,000 people were arrested on smuggling charges in the past five years, the vast majority of whom were released on bail. The arrest rate shot up after two forest rangers were killed in a December 2013 confrontation with smugglers. Following those deaths, six people from Arasanattham were rounded up in a mass arrest, and remain in jail, although the villagers maintain they were only visiting the temple in Tirupati.

On the morning of April 7, the day of the encounter, family members in Arasanattham called a lawyer in Tirupati, who said she would look into the case and arrange for bail.

“We didn’t know until later that evening that our people were killed,” said Prabhakaran.

Balachandar’s brother Prabhakaran
Photo credit: Vivekananda Nemana 

The villagers repeatedly denied that the seven men were headed for work in the red sanders trade. “My husband said he was going to town for a painting job,” said Kanagarani, 20, a soft-spoken woman whose husband Venkatesan was killed. “He often leaves the village to work as a painter.”

Prabhakaran said that Palani, the labour agent, had promised the men work at a brick kiln. “He came to the village a week before, checking up on each house,” he said. “My father and brother don’t usually leave the village for work, but Palani called and said the work would be Rs 300 to 500 per day.”

Andhra Pradesh officials have insisted that workers in the illegal red sanders business pose a dangerous threat to wildlife, taking pains to emphasise the word smugglers. But whether the 20 men killed last week were headed for that work or not is beside the point.

Hundreds of workers from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are regularly employed as red sanders loggers, but the vast majority are daily wage labourers from poor backgrounds. And despite making thousands of arrests, authorities have managed to hardly nab any top brass of the well-organised smuggling ring. The Seshachalam encounter, if indeed staged, demonstrates a stunning level of state impunity – and a unique overreach in India’s long history of false encounters, since Chittoor, unlike Kashmir or Chhattisgarh, is not a conflict zone. At the NHRC hearing in Delhi, Balachandar said he now feared for his and his family’s lives.

The families conducted the funerals on April 9, when the bodies were returned. The custom in Arasanattham is to bury the dead, but they were cremated instead, at the insistence of the police.