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Manjunathan's murder: body blow to India

November 28, 2005 17:35 IST

There are people who live for their jobs. And a few -- very few -- who die for them.

In the latter category, you generally think of soldiers dying to protect the Motherland. Yes, we have plenty of those, making the ultimate sacrifice to protect our borders.

But Shanmugam Manjunathan was no soldier. He was a sales officer with Indian Oil Corporation. He did not join the company pre-warned about any mortal danger. He paid with his life for doing his job.

The 27-year-old Indian Institute of Management-Lucknow graduate was murdered in Uttar Pradesh on November 20.

Manjunathan had sealed the Mittal Automobile Petrol Pump at Gola, Lakhimpur-Kheri district, for adulteration of petrol. He had also recommended cancellation of the petrol pump's licence, an IOC officer was quoted as saying.

Gaurav Sabnis, Manju's junior at IIM(L), wrote in his blog tribute: 'Manju was murdered for doing his job honestly. Considering the circumstances, this case is no different from that of Satyendra Dubey.'

Dubey was an Indian Institute of Technology graduate and National Highway Authority employee who was murdered by the road mafia.

So, it is little wonder that Manjunathan's murder is slowly beginning to stir the nation's conscience. Ironically, another top story last week was also about a man killed simply for doing his job. Maniappan Raman Kutty was a driver working for the Border Road Organisation in Afghanistan.

And now, the entire Indian team working on the Zaranj-Delaram road project may be in danger. Will 'increased security' ensure their safety? Maybe. But given a choice, most would surely wish to grab the first flight home.

Unlike the BRO workers, Manjunathan had the 'escape' option. His family often pleaded with him to quit his job, especially after Manjunathan told them that petrol pump owners and distributors in Lakhimpur-Kheri -- where he was posted -- nursed mafia links.

But, as his father told The Telegraph, Manjunathan just would not listen. He said, 'It's foolish to compromise or get a transfer anywhere. IOC wants corruption to stop and quality oil to be distributed. Wherever I go, I have to ensure this.'

But can a single officer really take on The System?

Adulteration is the end-result when the process of allotment itself is not based on sound economic principles.

Ironically, on the same night that news of Manjunathan's murder appeared on television channel tickers, this bit of news scrolled by quietly, unnoticed: 'Captain Satish Sharma let off by the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] in the petrol pump allotment scam.'

Ten years after being accused of misusing public office by doling out petrol pump to those politically and personally connected to him, Sharma is free of all charges.

Were the cases against Sharma dropped for lack of evidence? Not exactly. According to the Press Trust of India, the CBI said it was willing to wind up the cases against Sharma as the home ministry 'refused sanction' for his prosecution!

Meaning: He may be guilty, but we don't give you the permission to prosecute the man. Because our party happens to be in power.

The colour of money is black. So is petrol. More recently, the National Democratic Alliance government was rocked by a similar petrol pump allotment scam.

Politicians come and go, but the oil public sector undertakings -- the so called Navratnas -- remain in the clammy fist of mostly unscrupulous politicians.

Yes, oil PSUs do have professional managements but these professional managers -- like Indian Administrative Service officers --

are expected to function within certain boundaries.

Cross the line and, well, you can see what happened to Manjunathan.

Of course, you might argue, the government did not knock off Manju. But those who perpetrated the crime did so to protect their 'basic right' to adulterate petrol. Their line of thought: Bhai sab karte hain... No one has ever dared stop us. Who is this kal ka chhokra?

Echoing this, is a conversation Manjunathan had with his IIM Lucknow juniors a year and a half ago: 'We asked him how it felt to work in a PSU like IOCL. He shrugged, said work was OK and all, but he felt that the business would improve a lot more if there was transparency. Apparently, part of his job was to inspect samples from petrol pumps, and report back to the company.'

Adulteration was rampant, and here is why: 'Manju said the reason why this adulteration happened so brazenly was that the dealers knew that no matter what happens, their licenses couldn't be cancelled. If everyone does it, how many pumps will the company shut down?

'He said he usually tried to cajole, convince and scold the dealers to not indulge in such dishonesty. He said some fell in line, but most of them usually got back to the same old adulteration business. In fact, Manju said some of the petrol pump owners are downright scary.'

But did he ever imagine such an outcome? You and I don't consider bumping someone off a way to settle a dispute.  In UP and Bihar, it must be common enough for someone to believe he can kill off an 'overzealous' officer and get away with it.

It was, in fact, pure luck that the police intercepted the vehicle in which the murderers were transporting Manjunathan's body. They had broken the signal and were speeding. Else, who knows in which river or ravine the body would have ended up.

The cynical have observed that 'discretion is the better part of valour'. And that Manjunathan had no business trying to 'change the world' in the first place. But then, I would like to point out that Manjunathan did not decide to be an activist or crusader. He was merely doing his job.

As friend and classmate Sharad noted: 'He received some threats from the petrol pump owner and bribe offers too, but he refused to change his assessment.'

Perhaps a day would have come when Manju himself would have thrown up his hands and quit. I'm sure there would have been no dearth of jobs for him.

The fact is, Manjunathan stuck on at IOC for two and a half years after graduating from IIM. Despite his integrity being constantly tested. Despite being posted in rural UP.

And no, mentioning his 'IIM background' is not to imply that IIMs routinely produce such extraordinary individuals.  And it does not imply that other IIM grads (or anyone for that matter!) will be willing to take such risks.

But we do feel proud, and humbled, that one such was in our midst. And we want that his sacrifice be noted -- and noticed -- and impact The System. In some way. For the better

As another of his classmates wrote: 'Manju was known to the entire batch as an awesome singer, with a natural feel for music and could light up your day by his presence. That light has been snuffed. That voice has been silenced. But what he stood for -- and stood up to -- that, I hope will live on.

Visit http://manjunathshanmugam.blogspot.com

Manjunathan's classmates from SJCE Mysore have created this blog, dedicated to keeping alive the memory, and the case as it continues to unfold.

Rashmi is an IIM Ahmedabad graduate, co-founder and editor of youth magazine JAM (www.jammag.com). She can be reached at rashmi@jammag.com

Also see

The truth silenced: Satyendra Dubey's murder

Rashmi Bansal