The arrest of Maruti Hari Sawant, the 59-year-old director general of the Maharashtra Council for Agriculture Education and Research (MCAER), for allegedly sexually assaulting four minor girls, has dented public confidence. This may be the first time a top officer has been found involved in a case like this in Pune. Sawant’s behaviour has shocked and raised concerns among parents, some of who now believe children need constant protection.
The senior official, police say, “raped” one of the four girls for over three years when she accompanied her mother to Sawant’s apartment where he spent his weekends alone. The girl, who is now a student of class VII, was being sexually abused by Sawant since she was in class IV, police say.
According to police investigating the crime, the alleged abuse by Sawant would have continued had Waghmare not probed the girls about certain “suspicious things” during a counselling session. “Almost all the girls that study in this PMC school come from families with weak financial background. I had noticed that a girl in this class used to have quite a bit of cash on her all the time. She also had chocolates that were quite expensive. During one of my routine counselling sessions, I casually probed her about it. After some hesitance, she told me that one ‘Sawant Uncle’ gave her and three other friends cash and chocolates. After further probing she told me that they went to see ‘Sawant Uncle’ frequently as he gave them goodies and cash. She told us that he also showed them videos on his computer and that he made them do things,” Waghmare told The Indian Express.
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After confirming these claims with the other three girls, the school authorities called up the parents and later decided to lodge a formal complaint against Sawant for raping one girl for three years and molesting three others. As per the school authorities the parents were initially reluctant to go ahead with the complaint against such a ‘bada officer’ (top officer).
Sawant has been booked for rape (Section 376 of Indian Penal Code), molestation (IPC 354 B), Sections 4,6,8 and 10 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and several sections of the Information Technology Act.
The victims — ranging from class III to class V students — are in a complete state of shock, say their parents. They refuse to come out of their homes and mingle with other children. In fact, they even refuse to appear for their examination.
“After much persuasion by parents, relatives and friends, the girls agreed to appear for their exam. This only shows how much they have been affected by the entire episode,” said local corporator Manjusha Nagpure.
Their parents said they don’t want to discuss the issue over and again with anyone. “Our family is going through a very difficult time. We do not know what to do and whom to approach. Our child has become fearful and introverted and speaks only after great persuasion,” said one of the parents.
Anita Pasalkar, a local resident, said, “When I tried to calm down one of the parents, they sounded completely shocked. They told me please tell everyone not to disturb us or our child as we are finding it extremely difficult to handle the situation.”
Nagpure said the incident spotlights the fact that everyone needs to be alert, especially about what their children are doing or with whom they are meeting. “After this incident, one hopes that society remains awake up vis-a-vis the safety of their children.”
The building in which the alleged crime took place came up in village Hingane Khurd about two years ago at the place of a chawl. According to police, the 1,200-square feet apartment in which Sawant lived is owned by a relative. Sawant’s friends say that he used to spend a lot of his time there, mostly alone but sometimes with friends, away from his family which stayed at a house close to the MCAER headquarters.
Kanhaiya Chaudhari, who owns a motor rewinding workshop right opposite the apartment building where Sawant stays, said that he, like many other residents, was aware of Sawant visiting and leaving the building due to the high-end car with a beacon. He added, though, that none of them had an inkling about what he was up to in his apartment.
“We saw him coming and going. Occasionally, he used to smile at me, but I never talked to him. We are poor people and his apparent high rank intimidated us. Nobody dared to approach and talk to him,” said Chaudhari.
After the news broke, some neighbours were furious and felt ashamed about the fact that they failed to notice something. “We actually wanted to hit him, but the police had come with its full force to arrest him. The incident has angered us,” said Rohan Bhise, a youngster who stays in the same building.
Bhise said the society’s residents have now decided to set up a gate at the entrance to the building. “There is a desperate need for a gate as well as CCTV cameras. Had CCTV cameras been there, we would have come to know what is happening in our parking lot. Every society should learn from this incident and install CCTV cameras,” he said.
Defence says framed
Sawant’s lawyers have maintained that their client was framed by a local corporator who had had a tiff with Sawant some time ago. They say the allegations are a backlash by the corporator who, they say, pressurised the families of the victims to lodge a false case.
“Allegations against my clients are due to other’s ulterior motives. The local corporator bears a grudge against him due to an altercation. My client had told me that a few months ago, Sawant’s vehicle had accidentally erased the rangoli which led to an altercation between the two. It seems this tiff has snowballed into the present allegation,” Sopanrao Mane, Sawant’s defence lawyer, said.
The corporator in question — Shrikant Jagtap — has rubbished these allegation.
“I saw Mr Sawant for the first time after I accompanied the police to his apartment in Hingrane Khurd. What his lawyer is saying is laughable. It’s fiction. Also, who would believe that a corporator can frame such a big officer in a false case? I was approached by the school authorities. When they told me about the incident, I know it was a senior incident and once we confirmed the allegations with the parents of the girls, we went ahead and registered the complaint,” said Jagtap.
Under the newly amended Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, it’s not clear if the conducting of a potency test is mandatory for a rape accused as under the new law, any act including inserting “any object or a part of the body” into female genitalia amounts to rape.
The special judge, Mangala Dhote, who is hearing the case, has taken the view that Sawant must undergo the potency test. The test has now become a bone of contention, with Sawant refusing to undergo it and saying “it might affect his health in future”. This consumed much of the 14-day custody time and resulted in a stagnant investigation, police sources said.
“The potency test that the police intend to conduct required the administration of drugs which might affect his health in the long term. Hence, my client is opposing the conducting of any such test on his,” submitted defence lawyer Mane. The judge consulted a urologist and directed the cops to conduct a Nocturnal Penile Tumescence (NPT) test which doesn’t require the administration of drugs.
Police later submitted that the equipment to conduct the NPT test was available with only one private hospital in the city and the equipment had been sent to Chennai for repair. Police are now waiting for the equipment to be returned in order to carry on with the procedure.
According to investigators, Sawant is using his 35 years of experience with the government as a senior officer to stall the probe and exploit the loopholes in the law.
“He is not only non-cooperative, he’s also intelligently manipulating the loopholes to delay the investigation and buy time,” said an officer involved in the investigation.
When he was picked up by Pune Police from the apartment at village Hingane Khurd on March 19, Sawant was exactly three months away from his retirement.
An officer from the Maharashtra Public Service commission, he was promoted to the IAS cadre in 1998.
He was appointed as Director General, MCAER on June 26, 2011.
Before this appointment, he has served in the Sports and Youth Affairs Department, Tribal Development Department and Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Department of the state government. He also served as a resident deputy collector with Pune Collectorate.
In 2008, after being posted in Buldhana district as the chief executive of the zilla parishad, Sawant was embroiled in a recruitment scam.
MCAER is the apex regulatory body that controls the four agriculture universities in Maharashtra, overseeing the educational and research activities conducted by four universities and over a hundred colleges conducting undergraduate and postgraduate courses in agriculture and allied fields.
Even after 14 days of police custody, the investigators are yet to record the statements of Sawant’s colleagues at MCAER headquarters. “The police did not even pay a single visit there, although it’s the first thing they should have done after arresting him in such a serious case,” said an MCAER official.
Probing independently, The Indian Express found out that there is a committee to address complaints of sexual harassment of female employees headed by a woman director. SD Mane, who heads the panel, said it has not received a single complaint against Sawant or any other employee.
The state government suspended Sawant from his post a day after the allegations against him surfaced.
(inputs by Manoj More)