More than 350 tribals, arrested on trumped up charges of double murder of Andhra Pradesh forest officials at the behest of red sandalwood smugglers, have been acquitted and released from jail following a prolonged struggle by All India People’s Forum and other groups.
TN has 7.5 lakh tribals, approximately 1% of the state’s total population. They are severely neglected politically, and deprived economically and socially. Of the various tribal groups in TN, a Tamil speaking Malayalee hill tribe is the largest group, with a population of 4 lakh approximately. Alienated from their lands and hills, which were occupied or purchased at cheaper costs by rich people and politicians, they lost their livelihood with the land.
They began migrating towards Kerala and Karnataka in search of estate work. Many young girlsfrom among them became workers in the exploitive Sumangali scheme of spinning mills. The estate work in Kerala and Karnataka were seasonal. For the past 5 years or more, the Andhra Pradesh Red Sanders timber mafia hired the tribal workers as woodcutters. Proximity to the Tirupati forests and experience in woodcutting, as well as unemployment in TN drove them to the killing fields of the Seshasalam forests. They are not smugglers, just woodcutters.
After the double murder of two AP forest officials in the Tirupati forests on 14.12.13 by the Red Sanders Mafia, a spate of arrests took place. More than 350 innocent workers were taken into custody and charged falsely.
After Chandrababu Naidu assumed office as CM by April 2014, things become worse. Approximately 2000 woodcutters were arrested. Those arrested in the double murder case were virtually denied bail and spent 25 months in AP jails. 5 lost their lives inside the jails. Finally but late, the District Sessions court dismissed the case, pointing out that the police and forest officials’ statements during trial were contradictory.
During the middle of 2014, a fact finding team comprising Comrades Chandra Mohan, Varadarajan and Aiyyandurai from CPI(ML), and Kubendran, K Gunasekaran, Stanley Murugesan of the TN-ST Malayalee Peravai visited the Jawadhi Hills area to meet the woodcutters. A comprehensive report was published seeking TN Govt intervention and safeguarding tribal land and employment. Subsequently, 20 workers were gunned down in a fake encounter. While most of the political parties including some Left parties projected this issue as a Tamil Vs Telugu rift, the AIPF raised the issue of tribal livelihoods and took up the cause of 2000 innocent tribal workers languishing in AP jails.
From the very inception of AIPF, we conducted many massive struggles from the hills (coveting Villupuram, Salem, Dharmapuri, Vellore districts) to Chennai seeking the Jaya Government's intervention. The Villupuram collectorate was gheroed in hundreds. We demanded state legal aid to deal with the cases, to work for a speedy release of the jailed. Several organizations were involved in the struggle, including the TN-ST Malayalee Peravai and Dalit Research Centre. Ultimately the movement resulted in DMK also breaking its silence and creating political pressure on the issue. At last by November 2015, the Jaya Government was forced to form a state legal aid team to address this vexed question.
Finally, the double murder case against the tribals was dismissed and they have been freed. However more than 1000 tribals continue to languish in AP jails without bail in illegal woodcutting cases.
2. Rs.10 lakh compensation from AP Govt. & Rs.5 lakh from TN Govt. as rehabilitation assistance.
3. Speedy and special measures by TN Government to get back the alienated tribal lands, employment guarantee schemes, immediate implementation of FRA-2006, (with respect to the latest Supreme Court direction), so far not in force at Tamilnadu.
- Chandra Mohan