Custodial Killing by Police in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana ​

L​ast week, there have been two instances of custodial killings by the police of two different states. Both instances raise serious questions about the weak state of democracy, where fake ‘encounters’ become the norm for the police.

In Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, near Tirupati, the Andhra Pradesh police killed 20 tribal people whom they claimed were ‘smugglers’. The killings happened deep in the Seshachalam forest, with 11 being killed at Pacchinodu Banda and 9 near Etagunta.

In Telangana, five Muslim youth were killed by the police on their way to court for a trial, even as they were handcuffed and in police custody.

In the Chittoor case, the police claimed that all killed were ‘red sandalwood smugglers’ who were found chopping red sandalwood trees, and that the police fired in ‘self-defence’ when they were pelted with stones and sickles. Facts that have emerged, establish this to be a falsehood. An eyewitness has stated that 7 of the 20 killed were picked up from a bus by the police a day before the ‘encounter’. All evidence suggests that the 20 men were picked up at random from other spots, and then killed in cold blood, in the custody of the police.

Moreover, if stones and sickles were pelted in a life-threatening attack on police, how come no policemen were injured? If the firing took place in the dead of darkness, how come all the victims have bullet injuries accurately in the chest, head and face? It is also difficult to believe that the identical incident took place twice, in two different spots, on the same night.

The police is trying to silence questions about the massacre by claiming that those killed were ‘smugglers’. The fact is that the police do not touch the well-connected top smugglers, that include the brothers of the current Chief Minister and a previous CM respectively. Money from red sandalwood smuggling flows smoothly in elections in the region, with the open collusion of police and politicians. It is the poor tribal wood cutters from Tamil Nadu who are periodically arrested and killed by police in the name of a ‘crackdown on smuggling’. In the past year, apart from the recent massacre, 20 tribals were killed by police, and more than 2000, arrested and framed in false cases with no evidence, lie in jails in Chittoor and Cudappa.

The TDP-BJP Government is defending the massacre brazenly. The spree of arrests of tribal people continues unabated, and the Government has also slapped draconian cases against human rights activists who went in a fact-finding team to the massacre site.

The Nalgonda killing by the Telangana police is another instance in which the police’s ‘self-defence’ story appears entirely incredible. The five youth were being taken to Court, where there was a high chance that they would be acquitted of the acts of terrorism of which they were accused. Photographs and videos show that their hands were handcuffed to the seats of the police vehicle, and guns seems to have been planted in their hands. These photographs tell a tale of open, shameless murder by the police.

The question is, why the delay in booking the concerned policemen in cases of murder? The NHRC guidelines clearly spell out that in every case of alleged ‘encounter’, cases of murder must be filed against the policemen, and it is in the Court that the police must establish that they killed in self-defence. Why is this procedure not being followed? Both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana killer policemen must face arrests and prosecution without further delay.

Further, the Andhra Pradesh Government must declare a moratorium on the further arrests of adivasi wood cutters, and must unconditionally release all those who are already in jail. To curb smuggling, the nexus of police, politicians and smuggling mafia must be probed and exposed. The top men in the smuggling mafia need to be arrested without further delay; and a time-bound probe set up to identify and punish the political patrons of these smugglers.

Police reform is indeed needed – but such reform must first and foremost mean an end to the culture of impunity, and stern accountability and action against police men who violate civil liberties and constitutionally guaranteed rights.

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