Families of two alleged sandalwood smugglers, who were among the 20 killed in the forests of Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday, today placed their bodies on the road in protest in Tamil Nadu's Tiruvannamalai, demanding an independent inquiry into the deaths.
The shooting of the 20 men has provoked furious protests from human rights activists and a demand from Tamil Nadu for an independent inquiry. The Centre, too, has sought a report from the Andhra Pradesh government over the incident.
Some of the bodies have burn marks; others show bullet injuries in the chest and head, challenging the police claim that they opened fire in self-defence. Adding to the tension are accounts like the one offered by the headman of a small village in Tamil Nadu who says some of the victims were headed to Tirupati in search of jobs when they were pulled off the bus by policemen from Andhra Pradesh.
"Police has to defend themselves when somebody tries to kill them," Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police JV Ramudu said on Wednesday, adding, "Had there been an opportunity to arrest them, we would have definitely done that."
A police task force said that early on Tuesday morning, it was attacked with knives and axes in the Chittoor forests in the biggest operation in recent years to catch illegal sandalwood traders. Top officers have so far not divulged how many policemen and forest officials were involved in the encounter. Activists allege that the fact that none were injured suggests that the police was not ambushed.
Logs of the rare red sandalwood or red sanders that the police claim to have collected from the victims have government markings, according to Congress leader Chintah Mohan. This, he said, proves that wood had not been illicitly felled. "This area doesn't even have red sanders trees," Mr Mohan said.