In the dark of night, on a deserted street in Gola Gorakhnath, a small town in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh, a bespectacled young man, scared but resolute, faces up to the owners of a petrol pump he had had sealed some time ago for selling adulterated fuel. The young man, Manjunath Shanmugham, an Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) Ltd executive, had gone on a surprise inspection of the petrol pump. He had resisted bribes and refused to do as bidden. His body, riddled with six bullets, was later found in the backseat of a car being driven by two petrol pump employees.
It could well have been a scene from a gritty Bollywood crime thriller set in a north Indian small town. Indeed it has become one—in Manjunath, directed by Sandeep Verma, released a few months ago. The shocking murder, about a decade ago, stirred people into standing up for those who were incorruptible and whistleblowers who exposed corruption in government and psus. The film brings alive the story of Manjunath, his killing and the investigation. It won the Ramnath Goenka award and Life OK best screenplay award. It seeks to inspire youth but has passed them by.
The petroleum distributor business remains soiled as ever. Adulteration is rampant. Subsidised kerosene, meant for below poverty line (BPL) card-holders, is diverted for adulterating diesel. The IOC, Manjunath’s employer, has not cared to overhaul distributorship and stop adulteration and bribery. It did not bother to send representatives to the numerous court hearings in the case. The lawyer appointed by IOC for the case did not turn up regularly for hearings. IOC officials in Uttar Pradesh refused to comment on the matter.
On November 19, 2014, nine years to the day Manjunath was killed, the appeal of his murderers came up in Supreme Court. Pawan Kumar (Monu) Mittal, the prime accused, had been convicted and sentenced to death in March 2007 by the district sessions court of Lakhimpur Kheri. Seven others had got life imprisonment. They had all been convicted of murder (Sec 302 of the Indian Penal Code), criminal conspiracy (Sec 120, ipc) and destruction of evidence (Sec 201, ipc).
On appeal, the Allahabad High Court commuted Mittal’s death sentence to life imprisonment and let off two of the seven other accused, giving them the benefit of doubt. The next hearing in the Supreme Court is on February 18, where the Uttar Pradesh state additional advocate-general, Gaurav Bhatia, will be presenting his arguments to “defend the death sentence to all those who have been convicted”. The lawyers of Monu Mittal and the other accused have already presented their argument before the apex court.
“The death sentence was commuted to life not because the case of the prosecution was weak but because the trial court failed to accord full weightage to the mitigating factors of the case,” says Bhatia. “The high court has observed that the accused (Monu Mittal) was not to be awarded death as the case—among other things—did not fit the criterion of being among the ‘rarest of rare’ cases, as required by the landmark Machhi Singh judgement.”
However, Manjunath is not completely forgotten. IIM alumni from across the country had come together after his murder and built up pressure through campaigning to see the case investigated and prosecuted properly. They had also come together to set up the Manjnath Shanmugham Trust in 2006 to keep his memory alive. They continue to work to keep Manjunath’s idealistic vision alive. In the years since Majunath was killed, they have travelled from their jobs across the world to mark their presence at court hearings on the case. It’s the last leg of their fight for justice for Manjunath. They say they will keep the faith.