IN the debate over whether Yashwant Sonawane, the 46-year-old Additional Collector of Malegaon, was corrupt or not, the key issue of the way in which he was killed gets diluted. Two facts stand out: the audacity of a petty criminal, Popat Shinde, who assaulted and burnt alive the government officer, and allegations of corruption flung at Sonawane by Shinde's family immediately after the incident.
The family of Shinde, the main accused who died of burn-related injuries, alleged that Sonawane had been harassing him for bribes. They said they had complained about this long before the incident. It is a fact that the Anti-Corruption Bureau had acted on allegations and attempted to trap Sonawane, but nothing came of it. Whether the complainant was merely harassing Sonawane because he was a good officer or whether Sonawane got wind of the ACB's plans is not known.
Two other incidents are being used to build a case against Sonawane. He was present at Shinde's house-warming ceremony and he had released one of Shinde's tankers after it had been confiscated.
Police sources are non-committal on the record but in private express doubts about Sonawane's integrity. His colleagues, however, defend him. Somnath Gunjal, Additional District Collector, Dhulia, who had worked with Sonawane, said: At some point the charge of corruption is hurled at every revenue official.
P. Velrasu, District Collector of Nashik, said: In the two years we have worked together, nothing adverse has come to my notice about Sonawane. No one has complained either orally or in writing. He described Sonawane as a sincere officer who always tried to help people. He was affable, hardworking and did his duty. Velrasu said that Sonawane was not a hard-hitting officer. He was quite a soft person. He didn't take issues head-on, but he did his share of the work. He was very fit for his post.
Velrasu recalled the horror of that afternoon when Sonawane's personal assistant called to say: Jaalun takla (He has been burnt). Some people are trying to say that Sonawane was on a raid. Would he go on a raid with just his driver and PA and no police support? I will flatly say it was not a raid. It was a chance sighting, he said.
Sonawane was not particularly crusading against kerosene pilferage. Velrasu said that stopping and checking the suspicious activities of the two tankers was something that any officer would do. Since Maharashtra is not a lawless place it is common for officers to stop and check if they saw anything out of the ordinary and then to call for support.
Another officer, who requested anonymity, said, It is very possible that the killer had political connections and thought he could get away with it. This is all about erosion at the tehsil level. The tehsildar is the cutting edge revenue official for implementation of government schemes. Elected members of the zilla parishads, MLAs and the mafia gather together and completely erode the authority of the tehsildar. If anyone tries to object, they are taken to task. There are so many incidents of officers being told what to do by MLAs, and if officers do not oblige they are hauled up in public, or given humiliating postings. I am afraid that the disrespect to officers is very visible now. This issue has to be addressed.
Velrasu said Sonawane had the special record of having maintained communal harmony in riot-prone Malegaon. He had good skills of mediation, reconciliation and maintaining harmony. He could deal with communal matters very smoothly because he had an excellent rapport with local religious leaders. He could reason and convince them that was his ability. During polio vaccine drives, he convinced the parents that the vaccine did not contravene their religious teachings. He had devised an ongoing door-to-door action plan that was very successful. He did some extraordinary work in this respect.Lyla Bavadam