Mumbai: As six men accused of killing Yashwant Sonawane were brought to court today, details have begun emerging of the gory and brazen killing that has shocked India.
Raju Kale, who was the personal assistant of Mr Sonawane and a prime witness in the case, said at least 10 people were involved in the attack and there was little what he and the driver could do but try and look for help.
Speaking to NDTV, Kale said, "Sir was recording the pilfering of kerosene on his mobile phone while waiting for force when he was attacked by 10 people. Police have recovered the mobile phone."
He further added, "The motorcyclists tried to attack us as well, but we escaped. I can identify the driver of the tanker, but not the motorcyclists."
Mr Sonawane was set on fire yesterday by the oil mafia in Manmad in Maharashtra, six hours from Mumbai. In court, the public prosecutor said that as Additional District Collector, Mr Sonawane was on an official tour in the area following up on a demonstration by farmers, when he saw a group of people adulterating kerosene in an oil tanker parked nearby. He reportedly stepped out of his car along with his personal assistant and driver, and began taking photographs of the tanker.
According to police, a group of 11 men turned on him, poured kerosene over him, and then set him on fire. Mr Sonawane tried to fight back by grabbing Popat Shinde, the ringleader of his attackers. Mr Sonawane died within minutes. Mr Shinde is now in a local hospital with serious burn injuries.(Read: Who is Popat Shinde?)
The murder - which took place in broad daylight and with apparently no fear of reprisal - has outraged the country, and has brought up the issue of the infamous oil mafia that operates in Manmad, an area famous for its oil depots.
Manmad is at the junction of 4 highways, which makes it easier for the pilferage to take place when the trucks are enroute to other towns.
"We have ordered very strict action against wherever such activities are taking place in the state...we are going to the root of this incident...who is behind it. The main accused is being interrogated in hospital," said Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.
He added that while all officers "have standing orders not to conduct raids unless they are accompanied by police officers," Mr Sonawane was not conducting a raid when he was killed. "The collector was on another duty and acted as a good officer," said the chief minister.
Manmad is home to huge oil depots owned by companies like Indian Oil and Bharat Petroleum. Oil tankers fill up petrol, diesel or kerosene here - and are then fingered by the local mafia.
As Additional Collector, sources say Mr Sonawane must have regularly run into the oil adulteration mafia that runs a strong network here. What the police is now trying to establish is whether Mr Sonawane had initiated action against Mr Shinde before their encounter on Tuesday.
Mr Sonawane's colleagues remember him a dedicated and well-respected officer. A 1994 batch official from the state cadre, he had worked for 15 years before being promoted to the IAS-level rank of Additional Collector in Malegaon. In this communally-sensitive region, he worked hard to promote Hindu-Muslim unity and pushed for a branch of the Aligarh Muslim University to be set up.
He is survived by his wife and two young children. His family wants the CBI to investigate his death.
''The culprits target whoever interferes with their work. My brother did good work. Everyone knew it, including the ministers,'' said his brother, Shyam Sonawane.