New Delhi,Yogesh Pawar: Damning findings by a four-member fact-finding committee from the Nodal Centre for Human Rights Education, School of Law Rights and Constitutional Governance of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) nail Andhra Pradesh cops' lies on the way 20 alleged red sanders smugglers were killed by police in a controversial encounter in the forests of Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh last week .
As a part of the TISS' "ongoing monitoring of blatant human rights violations" and holding of spot visits to unravel the "real story" in such cases, faculty Dr Murali Karnam led the fact-finding team to the killing field where the tragedy unfolded on April 7. The report, based on "interaction with families of victims and forest officials", which is being sent to both National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the AP High Court, raises several pointed questions.
"The bullet injuries on the front side of the bodies, point at a direct confrontation between police and ill-equipped victims," the report said. "Perhaps it's not firing from behind on fleeing persons, as often seen in events involving Naxalites. The theory of a real encounter will hold only if the scene of offence is captured graphically and proved. No attempt has been made to preserve and explain the details of scene of offence to understand the movement of labourers and the police. Also, given the unsophisticated nature of the weapons used by the victims, it's unlikely that they would've confronted the police.
"Each body, strewn in a 30-metre radius, was shown with a long log.
There could be two ways of explaining this scenario. One is that alllabourers were walking in a single file carrying the logs. There are no traces of pathways around the scene. Yet, after firing on 20 of them, the rest must be presumed to have carried away the logs, which is improbable given their weight. After all, each kilo of red sander wood costs several lakhs.
"The second scenario is that if spots of encounter were meant for their camping, many more logs than what was shown by police should have been piled and the escapees should've abandoned them after the firing. But the seizures show only 20 logs of wood, clearly indicating that there couldn't have been more labourers than those killed. The presence of more than those killed is undoubtedly a poor police construction."
The report further raises questions on the multiple bullet marks on the dead bodies. "This indicates indiscriminate firing. In such firings, at least a few stray bullets must have hit the trees. But the spot does not show any trees with bullet marks nor has police indicated of any injured persons escaping. Though the police claim that the combing operations are still on, not a single arrest – injured or otherwise – has been reported."
It goes on to ask, "Why couldn't police secure a single witness, to give credibility to their version even by inference?" and points out, "On the other hand, two survivors – Sekhar and Balachandran, who escaped from Nagari town – have challenged the police version before NHRC. They claimed that seven of the victims, including Sekhar's nephew, were picked up by the police. Production of any witness by the police hereon would only be an afterthought."
The department Dr Karnam is attached with had visited Muzaffarnagar twice after communal violence in 2013 and submitted a report to the UP government. "In the Tirupati encounter killing too, we felt an urgent need to bring alternative versions of the incident on the basis of facts from the ground. We visited the spot and met family members of the victims in Tamil Nadu. Our report will be shortly submitted to the NHRC and the AP High Court," said Dr Karnam who was joined by Sheethal Menon, Sukanya Shantha and Damudor Arambam from TISS on the committee.
He lamented how the Supreme Court has been dragging its feet on questions of due process of law in deaths resulting from police firings. "This puts lives of the underprivileged at stake. The tribal and dalit woodcutters of Tamil Nadu, branded smugglers in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh are the latest addition to the list of victims of extra-judicial killings."
Following widespread outrage by civil society, the Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu declared a magisterial inquiry, but the police refused to accept a complaint by the victims' families. It took a rap by the Hyderabad High Court for a case of abduction and murder to be registered.
Underlining how this case too is registered against "unknown STF personnel involved in the encounter killing", the report says it's not surprised with the responses of the CM and the police. "If the government were to dispel the allegations of fake encounter, it will have to face several discomforting questions."
The report wants to know: "When there was substantial information about woodcutters in the forest, why didn't the government deploy adequate force to ensure arrest? Why is efficiency of the government measured in terms of killings but not with arrests?"
It cites Section 46 (3) of CrPC which clearly prohibits police from killing persons accused of offences, not punishable with death or life imprisonment and says, "After allegations of a fake encounter, the government is refusing to prosecute officers in the name of right to self-defence. In 2009, AP HC had rejected this argument saying existence of exceptional circumstances allowed for firing in self-defense can't be conclusively determined by police themselves. It held police findings on these events were merely an opinion and the judicial magistrate has the discretion to disregard it and proceed for prosecution," and reminds, "It also pointed out that a magisterial inquiry is neither a substitute nor an alternative to regular process of prosecution. In 1994 itself, the SC said that whether loss of life was on account of genuine or fake encounter was a matter to be investigated closely."
Underlining the AP government's challenge to the HC judgment in the SC saying fixing criminal culpability of individual officers will prevent it from countering extremism, the report remarks, "Given the approach of the government, there is very little to expect in the present case, except the possibility of including woodcutting into extremism."