India red sandalwood: Mystery over killings deepens

Palani's family
Image caption Palani's family says he was a tailor who even taken a shop on rent

The BBC's Imran Qureshi and K Muralitharan travel to the impoverished villages of India's Tamil Nadu state to meet the families of some of the 20 men, allegedly red sandalwood smugglers, who were killed by police in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state last week.

Seven of the men hailed from four villages in Tiruvannamalai district - and their families say none of them had worked as woodcutters before.

Police say the dead men were among a group of more than 100 smugglers who were challenged when they were cutting down trees in the remote forests near the popular pilgrimage town of Tirupati in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh.

They said when asked to hand over the logs, the woodcutters refused and attacked the police with axes, sticks and stones in two separate areas of the forests.

Police say they acted in self-defence. Now India's National Human Rights Commission has ordered an investigation into the 7 April killings after hearing the testimony of two witnesses.

According to the families of the seven men, four of them worked as painters and masons. The other three worked as a plumber, a tailor and an assistant in a small catering business.

The mother of one of the victims, Magendra, says her son, was a plumber and was even pursuing an distance learning degree in economics. He had also applied for the post of police constable.

Magendra, according to Chitra, was 22 and worked in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, and had "never worked in the forests before".

Thirty-eight-year-old Murugan was a painter and father of two who would travel to nearby towns for work and earn 300 rupees ($4.8; £3.2) a day, says his family.

"A few months ago, he told me to stop working. He told me that he would take care of me," his father Manickam said. The family is landless.

Image caption Muniswamy's family said he was a mason
Image caption Murugan's wife (right) says her husband was a painter

Sasikumar, another victim, was a painter, says his family.

Although he owned two acres of land, a drought had forced him to leave the village and look for painting jobs, his father Annamalai said.

He even went to Malaysia to work for two years before returning in 2009 to get married. The couple had two children, aged two and four.

Palani Velu, 34, was a tailor who had taken a shop on rent, where he would earn 200-400 rupees for stitching a pair of shirt and trouser.

He told his family that he was going to buy buttons and thread and, according to eyewitnesses, ended up on the bus which was stopped by the police.

"Why should he put his life in danger by going to the forests? His wife had given birth to his first child just over a month ago," says his mother Sambhanu.

Perumal's family said he worked as a mason, and that he had never been to Andhra Pradesh.

Muniswamy's family said he was a mason earning 300 rupees a day, and had told his family that he was leaving for a "job" on the fateful day. "Next thing I knew was he had been killed," his widow, Thanjiammal said.

And Murthy's family said he worked in a small catering company. The families insist that none of them had ever gone to a forest to work.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rights groups have questioned the way the 'woodcutters' were killed

A journalist who has reported on the incident says the victims all come from some of the most impoverished villages in Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu. There are two hilly areas populated by poor tribes people, who are in great demand as woodcutters.

"These villages are in the throes of severe economic crises. There's little water, no industries, no jobs and the farms are often parched. Many of the men are taken to work outside in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh by agents who come here and lure them away with promises of better paying jobs," he says.

"Often they are not told what the job is and they only discover it on reaching the destination. These men may have travelled to the forests before to cut wood in the past, but had not told their families. Or they were being taken there for the first time. That is not clear."

However, he says, what is clear is that the victims were not smugglers, but had been hired by a gang to cut red sandalwood. Sandalwood smuggling is rampant in southern India, with a ton selling for tens of thousands of dollars on the international black market.

What is also clear is there is a "huge demand" for workers from Tamil Nadu to cut wood for smuggling groups in Andhra Pradesh. There are some 3,000 people from Tamil Nadu lodged in prisons in Andhra Pradesh on smuggling charges, by one estimate.

But nobody still knows how the seven men ended up in the woods dead, shot by the police. And rights groups say there are still too many unanswered questions over the killings.

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