A murder in Manmad

Manmad in Nashik district is still to recover from the killing of its Yashwant Sonawane.

Written by Smita Nair | Published:January 30, 2011 11:07 pm

Three days after the murder,there is a human chain around the spot where 46-year-old Additional Collector,Yashwant Sonawane,was burnt to death in Manmad in Nashik district,nearly 280 km from Mumbai. There is nothing left at the crime scene: Sonawane’s charred body was sent on its final journey following the last rites,scraps of his clothing and other evidence were picked up by a forensics team. His partly charred mobile phone too has been sent for analysis. But a patch of blackened dry grass in the backyard of Sagar Dhaba at Dhondalwadi remains a dark reminder,besides the trail of oil stains along the few metres that Sonawane ran after being doused with kerosene.

The people in the small crowd still wear a shocked expression. Mostly belonging to financially backward families,for them,a Dalit man in a vehicle that flashed a ‘laal batti’ had been a matter of pride.

Vijay Shinde,an employee at the nearest petrol pump and a Dalit,says,“I used to be proud to fill fuel in his vehicle.” Today,Shinde,like the rest of the crowd,is waiting for NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal’s chopper to land. Since the incident on Tuesday,Dhondalwadi village has seen a steady stream of politicians.

The First Information Report at Manmad police station records the names of the main accused and six others. Six of the accused are Dalits,but the police will not say so on record,nor will they say anything else pertaining to this case on record. Privately,officials confirm that a law and order situation would have been difficult to handle had the accused belonged to other castes.

In this Dalit belt that has only one railway station and little else,thousands of men from various talukas and villages around gain employment from the trains that halt at Manmad. “You will find at least one in three houses in Manmad making tea for the passengers who halt here,” says Rekha Sonawane,who sells vada pav.

Crime records in the local police station give a very broad view of the region—so far,the crimes here had been petty,including domestic fights involving alcoholics or chain snatchers. There are plenty of cases of atrocities against Dalits too,including many slapped on policemen. The last time any Nashik newspaper published a front-page story on Manmad was during a summer some years ago when drinking water was available for just one day every fortnight,remembers one weary policeman.

It was on Tuesday that Sonawane,who was driving past Sagar Dhaba,found the “positioning of the tanker and another truck suspicious”,says Raju Kale,Sonawane’s personal assistant. In fact,a number of dhabas like Sagar have cropped up on this stretch close to the oil installations in the area. All big oil companies have their offices in Manmad.

Kale says Sonawane got off the vehicle to inspect the dhaba,owned by Popat Shinde,the main accused. There were ring marks on the floor of the makeshift room behind the dhaba that indicated that containers and oil-cans were being regularly stored for pilferage. He says Sonawane then asked the people involved in the pilfering to stand in a line and took a video recording.

He says Rajendra Shirsat,who worked at the dhaba,was supervising the operation,while the truck driver and the cleaner were transferring the oil to small 40-litre cans. Other employees of Shinde were there too and the other accused are believed to have come later on two separate bikes after Shirsat called them on their cellphones.

Kale says Sonawane then asked him to call the supply officer. “While he was talking to Shirsat,I went to the front yard of the dhaba and started making calls to get in touch with the supply officer. I did not get through immediately,” says Kale.

Investigators say it is odd that the Manmad police station,which is just 12 km from the spot,was not informed that a raid was underway.

At Sonawane’s home,his elder brother Shyam Sonawane,52,breaks down every once in a while. A head constable at Yeola,25 km from Manmad,Shyam finds it tough to speak about his “learned” brother.

The eldest brother,Vidyadhar,a farmer,is still coming to terms with the news. Having graduated from Pune University,Yashwant was the only one in the family who aimed big. Having been picked to the post of an accounts officer after he cleared the Maharashtra Public Service Commission exam in his first attempt,he later became a tehsildar in places like Sinaar,Kalwan,Malegaon and Dhulia. Soon,he returned as the state’s first additional commissioner in Malegaon,a post that was created in 2008.

Ehsaan Ansari,a local social activist,recalls the many campaigns that Sonawane personally conducted,especially towards bridging the communal divide in the infamously sensitive Malegaon. Calling him a ‘meticulous researcher’,his friend Arun Ghangurde,65,speaks of him as a man who “always thirsted for more information,more education”. “He never let his position reach his head. He was humble enough to sit on the floor during Ambedkar Jayanti functions. Look at his house—a Class I officer and still so simple,” he says.

Always ready to help people from every community and a devoted follower of Dr Ambedkar’s principles,he’d even distributed books on Ambedkar at a grandparent’s death anniversary,remembers Kunal,a nephew.

As more dignitaries arrive to pay homage,Sonawane’s younger son Pankaj is busy preparing for his examinations. The elder son,Kunal,says,“My father was very strict with me. When I asked him for a car,he said I would have to earn it myself.” Kunal last met his father a month ago. “I got scolded when I showed him my marks. I had fared poorly in mathematics. When I started crying,he comforted me saying marks are not important so long as I understand the subject. I would be scared of him,but now I miss him,” says the 16-year-old,who lives and studies in Pune. Sonawane’s only dream for Kunal was to send him abroad,“away from here”.

Sonawane’s wife,Vijaya,remembers his time management and zeal for work. Lines were always drawn—no professional talk or work at home,and when out at work,the family always came second. “He worked a lot,” she says. “That day,a lot of people called me,asking if I had heard about the incident. They asked me to switch on the television but there was no electricity. It was traumatic”

Meanwhile,outside the Manmad police station compound,a gaggle of men insists on presenting “the other side” to journalists and anybody who cares to listen. That other tale is one of acute poverty and an illegal business gone wrong.

Popat Shinde,main accused and now in Mumbai’s JJ Hospital with 70 per cent burns,was a habitual offender. He did petty jobs,made enough money to get contracts and tenders related to oil supply and until recently,owned two tankers. He has at least seven police complaints filed against him. An externment order passed in 2006 was cancelled on January 9,2007,after he went in for an appeal to the Home Department.

Just 20 minutes away from the crime scene stands a white house in a Dalit colony called Bharat Nagar where Shinde lived with his family. Sonawane had reportedly conducted two raids on Shinde in the past,one dating back to the period when he was SDM. “He (Shinde) is a rogue. We accept that. He was into pilferage. We accept that. But he is not the kind to just set a man on fire without a reason. We want to know why he took that extreme step,we need it on record. We are only asking for a just representation of both sides,” says a relative from Shinde’s maternal family.

A relative of Shinde says another accused,Rajendra Shirsat,spoke with him before he was arrested and told him Sonawane was negotiating for a “settlement” and had asked them to call Shinde over to the dhaba. Shinde’s family and friends are now trying to engage a lawyer,but no one has yet agreed to take up the case.

In May 2010,Shinde’s tanker was caught with pilfered oil. He appealed and sought custody of the tanker,but the final release order was to come from the office of the Additional Collector of Malegaon,Sonawane,under whose jurisdiction Manmad falls. After several appeals,Sonawane released the tanker,but not before imposing a stiff penalty.

That case lent a blow to Shinde’s already failing business,say his family members. Shinde,whose house and dhaba were already mortaged,sold his tankers in December 2010 after his wife became terminally ill. She died on January 15 of a kidney ailment.

“They brought the woman’s body in the night in an ambulance without paying the hospital charges,” says a source. “The anger,frustration all boiled into that one step.”

Versions of the other accused match. Reportedly,it was a gruesome sight as Shinde first hit Sonawane on his neck and then doused a full can of kerosene on him even as the latter attempted to stand up. Within seconds,a match stick was brought out and the deed done. A crying Sonawane is believed to have scrambled and had started running as he was chased around by an angry Shinde with the leftover kerosene in the

can. Seconds later,there was an explosion as the kerosene in the can caught fire as Shinde grappled with a burning Sonawane. The other accused are believed to have helped douse the fire on Shinde with soil and a thick blanket,while Sonawane already lay dead.

Inputs by Mahendra Parikh

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