The Foul Forest - Part 2 | Marayur: Where sandalwood smells of blood

Santalum album or the Indian sandalwood tree.

(This is the second part of 'The Foul Forest' series. Click here to read the first part. Onmanorama will publish more on this in the coming days.)

The sandalwood forest of Marayur has the smell of blood wafting about it. The scenic fragrant forest sits on a network of deceit, betrayal and violence. Local residents and forest dwellers are driven to the crime syndicate in their desperate attempts to eke out a living. Any sign of betrayal is rewarded with death though.

Marayur and the nearby Palappetty tribal hamlet inside the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary were shocked by the murder of a 30-year-old indigenous woman in August 2020. Chandrika was shot dead by her nephew, the 21-year-old Kaliyappan. He was accompanied by their neighbours, Manikandan, 22, and Madhavan, 18. The trio suspected Chandrika had been informing the forest officers about the nefarious activities of the sandalwood smugglers.

Manikandan was arrested by the forest guards earlier in July for cutting down the protected sandalwood trees. On the way to the jail, he was heard warning the informants with death. As soon as he was released, Manikandan and gang went to their colony to get even with their neighbours who worked as temporary watchmen for the forest department.

The trio searched for the watchmen among the people who were keeping a night vigil in their farm land to ward off raiding wild animals. The drunk invaders were so angry when they could not find their targets that they soon turned towards the women who were spending the night in the farm.

The sandalwood depot at Marayur.

Kaliappan pointed a gun to Chandrika’s neck. He then shot her. He tried to flee but was overpowered by the others. He was tied to a tree until the police arrived at the scene. Manikandan and Madhavan were arrested later. The police seized three elephant tusks from Manikandan’s house. The forest department says that Manikandan was the local kingpin of sandalwood smuggling. The racket even employed minor children in the illegal trade.

Chandrika, an unmarried woman who had lost her mother at an early age, was living with her aged father. The family’s sole livelihood was the ragi cultivation on a piece of land about 2 kilometres from their hamlet. Her dead body was carried on shoulders for 8 kilometres along the forest path.

The Palapetty firing was suspected to be the brainchild of Binu Kumar, who earned the moniker of ‘Mini Veerappan’ for his infamy. He faces 11 cases charged by the forest department. His father, Kuppan, has also been accused in several cases. Both of them have been accused of assaulting an accomplice-turned-forest watcher, Sekhar, on suspicion of passing on information to the officers.

“My only means of livelihood was grass cultivation. I turned to sandalwood smuggling because of extreme poverty,” Sekhar said. “The forest was nothing like what you see now. The place where the Vannanthura forest station stands now used to be a dense forest. People in our colony and people from Tamil Nadu cut down sandalwood trees at will.”

Sekhar called it quits when he was faced with the prospect of being framed in smuggling cases even if he had no part in it. He contacted the forest officers and obtained a job as a temporary watcher. He secured himself against official harassment but earned the wrath of many of his own people. The rampant theft of sandalwood trees prompted the forest officers to seek the help of Sekhar. Sekhar pointed a finger at Kuppan.

Kuppan was arrested a few months later. Binu Kumar told Kuppan that the arrest was the result of betrayal by Sekhar. They waylaid Sekhar and hit him on his head with an iron pipe. Sekhar spent 13 days in the hospital. He still bears the deep scars from the attack. He can’t be out in the sun or drink cold water. He still does not feel safe in his own colony. He depends on the support of the forest department.

Binu Kumar aka Mini Veerappan flaunts his gun to create a heroic image in the colony. He recruits tribal youths into his crime syndicate. His recruits included Kaliappan, who shot his aunt without any mercy. He lures in the youngsters with money, mobile phones and a false promise of protection from the authorities even if they indulge in crimes.

The gun that fell Chandrika was presented to Kaliappan by Soman, another hinge in the smuggling network. The 55-year-old was arrested in connection with a murder case the day he was seen complaining to the media about his children’s inability to pursue education for want of a television, mobile phone and internet connection. The police found parts of the gun, cartridges and animal tusks from his house.

A raid held at Soman's house.

A few days earlier, Soman had lodged a complaint with the police that a sandalwood tree on his property had gone missing. It later transpired that he himself sold the tree to the sandalwood mafia. He had reported at least five of his trees as “stolen”. Only five trees remain in his property.

Marayur had witnessed a slew of murders related to sandalwood smuggling. More than six people have been killed since 2001. In January 2002, the bodies of George and Azhagan were found on a railway track near Udumalai. The jeep drivers were killed by the smugglers who used the vehicles for smuggling.

The sandalwood pieces captured from Soman's house during a raid.

In 2016, Chandra Bose was shot dead and his body was left by the railway track near Udumalai. The Kanthallur resident had been accused in several smuggling cases. He was beheaded and his face disfigured before dumping the body. The police suspect his associates killed him in fear that he might rat on them.

In 2018, Ayyaswami, another sandalwood smuggling accused, was found dead in a gorge, his head smashed in by a boulder. The suspect, Puthran, is still at large.

Forest officers have also been at the receiving end of the violence. There had been instances of guards being attacked by sandalwood smugglers, even women, who made away with the contraband.

(to be continued…)

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