Andhra Pradesh police shot dead 20 suspected red sandalwood smugglers in the Chittoor district on Tuesday, April 7. Out of the dead, 12 were from Tamil Nadu, which resulted in protests across the state.

Tamil Nadu chief minister, O Panneerselvam called the incident a “massacre” and said innocent wood-cutters had been killed. In a letter addressing his concerns to CM of Andhra Pradesh, N Chadrababu Naidu, he asks for a speedy and thorough inquiry into the matter. “W hile it is possible that these persons may have been engaged in illegal activities, the occurrence of such high casualties in the operation raises concerns whether the task force personnel acted with adequate restraint” his letter reads.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the Andhra Pradesh government ordering a probe into the incident. It declared this incident a serious violation of human rights of individuals.

The Indian Express

It is important now to get a balanced understanding of both sides of the story.

The ‘official’ police version

The police are claiming, first and foremost, this encounter was an act of self-defence. According to police officials, when the officers reached the spot, the smugglers along with some labourers began pelting them with stones and iron rods. The police then opened fire on them as a means of self defence. Deputy Inspector General of Police, Kanta Rao told reporters that over 100 smugglers and labourers helped them attack the policemen, forcing them to open fire.

The ‘other’ version

The problem with the police’s version is the many holes that have recently been brought to light in their story. For instance, a report by Times of India states the logs strewn around the bodies were not fresh and many of them had numbers painted on them. It is possible that they were from an earlier seizure. Another eyebrow raising fact is that there were no red sandalwood trees in the vicinity where the incident had taken place.

The report also quotes CPI’s P Harinath Reddy who reveals that the knives allegedly used by the deceased were rusted and therefore could not cut anything. “The government is targeting the workers instead of going after contractors who employ them to smuggle wood”.

A proportionate response?

A report by The Indian Express states, that of the 20 killed many had been shot in the face or head. The oddity here is that in an armed melee, especially one that took place in the woods, it would be extremely difficult to get such clear shots. Also, if this was a case of self defence as the police are claiming, where are the injured officers?

The police claimed two officers were injured by the smugglers. Here is where the question of a proportional response comes in. Do two injured police officers justify an attack of such magnitude?

This is not the first time citizens have been unjustly killed by police forces. A report published in 2013 states there were 555 cases of encounter killings in four years. Many argue, the blame lies in the failing judicial system of the country, which forces the police to take justice into their own hands. Others believe that it is a demonstration of the high-handedness of the state.

Whatever the cause, the point is that there are hundreds of citizens executed in this country before being legally charged with a crime.

In Chittoor 20 people were killed in what many will consider a disproportionate response. The Andhra Pradesh government must complete the investigation, at all costs.