Mumbai: On February 6, hours after a Ratnagiri-based local daily carried a front-page story about a land agent with alleged criminal antecedents, the story’s reporter was mowed down by a car allegedly driven by the subject of the story.
Shashikant Warishe, the 48-year-old regional head of the Mahanagri Times newspaper had written a report on local heavyweight Pandharinath Amberkar.
The report had asked: “Why is a man who is a known tout and a pro-refinery agent, publicising photos of himself alongside the prime minister, chief minister and deputy chief minister?”
The land agent had indeed put up posters with photos, “thanking” the PM, CM and deputy CM for bringing a refinery project to Konkan. The news article did not carry Warishe’s byline but his colleagues say Amberkar was well aware of who had written the piece.
At around 1.30 pm on the same day when the story was published, Warishe was mowed down, allegedly by Amberkar.
The chilling incident occurred outside a petrol pump in Rajapur, a municipal council in Ratnagiri. Warishe had stopped to refuel his two-wheeler when Amberkar allegedly rammed his Mahindra Thar SUV into Warishe and dragged him for around 100 metres. Warishe sustained serious injuries and was rushed to a local hospital. He succumbed to his injuries a day later, on February 7.
Amberkar, who fled from the spot, was arrested on the evening of February 7 and produced before a local court.
“We had initially booked him under section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code but enhanced the charges to section 302 (murder) of the IPC after the complainant testified that Warishe was murdered with a motive. Prima facie evidence too pointed to Amberkar’s intention to kill,” said Ratnatgiri Superintendent of Police Dhananjay Kulkarni. Amberkar has been sent to police custody till February 14.
Soon after Amberkar’s arrest, the local reporters’ association had appealed to the police and state government to treat Warishe’s killing as a “murder” and not a mere case of culpable homicide.
Prasad Ranade, an online reporter with Maharashtra Times said that the media fraternity has been shaken since the incident. “It could have been any of us,” he said.
“The journalists association had given the police an ultimatum to enhance charges. We had resolved to go on a strike from tomorrow onward. But the police have taken note of the seriousness of the issue and have acted promptly,” Ranade added.
The Mumbai Press Club in a statement said that the Maharashtra government “must initiate severe and immediate action” against Warishe’s killers.
— Mumbai Press Club (@mumbaipressclub) February 8, 2023
Warishe had worked with Mahanagri Times for close to a decade. The editor of the newspaper, Sadashiv Kerkar told The Wire that Warishe had been writing about the refinery project in the region for a long time. The land acquisition process that is going on in the region continues to be vehemently opposed by locals.
“The locals have been opposing the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (RRPCL) project in the district. Warishe had been reporting about it continuously, publishing stories of villagers and their woes. While doing so, he had also highlighted Amberkar’s role as a pro-refinery man who had been targeting locals,” Kerkar claimed.
In the past, Amberkar had been in support of the Nanar oil refinery, which too was vehemently opposed by the locals. The state government had to eventually drop the project.
Warishe is survived by his wife, a teenage son and an elderly mother. Kerkar said that Warishe was the only earning member of the family. “He was a farmer’s son. The family barely own any land. Like any other journalist working in a small district, Warishe came from a humble background,” Kerkar told The Wire over the phone.
Amberkar, meanwhile, had been trying to build his presence politically. In 2019, he contested both the assembly and general elections. He was a pro-refinery face at that time and contested as an independent candidate against Shiv Sena’s Vinayak Raut and Maharashtra Swabhimaan Paksh’s Nilesh Rane. Back then he had told The Indian Express that “the opposition to the project was based on rumours and misgivings.”
Kerkar says that he always worried for Warishe and his “daredevil” approach to news.
“I would tell him to go easy sometimes. But he wouldn’t. He didn’t fear anyone and was always willing to take a risk. Yet, I never imagined that someone could kill him for doing his work.” Warishe had apparently shared the news article in a few anti-refinery social media groups and that had allegedly alerted and angered Amberkar.
The Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists and the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (Maharashtra) have all expressed shock over the incident. The organisations have said that Warishe’s killing was clearly designed “to silence and intimidate all those who dare to speak up and to uncover the intimidation and land-grab that has been going on in the name of acquisition of land for the project.”
“Photographic evidence clearly shows the manner in which Warishe’s two-wheeler was crushed under the wheels of the SUV. While details are awaited on the entire case, it was apparent that Warishe was targeted for his article in the newspaper that said that FIRs had been lodged against Amberkar for land grab intimidation,” the PUCL statement read.