The timing of the fire, coming as it did in the midst of a fresh agitation by sugarcane farmers lent weight to doubts that the fire could have been an act of sabotage.
All speculation was laid to rest late in the night after the Raghunath Patil faction of Shetkati Sanghatna claimed responsibility.
Speaking to The Indian Express over phone from Satara, Shankar Rao Godse, western Maharashtra president of the Sanghatna said, “We torched the Sugar Commissioner’s car. In the October 15 rally at Sakhar Sankul we had urged Singhal not to grant crushing licence to sugar mills until they pay last year’s dues to farmers. But he showed great enthusiasm in distributing licence and hence had to pay the price. By attributing the fire to short circuit, the police are trying to cover up the case.”
Raghunath Patil said his men will continue the fight through guerrilla tactics. “Minister for Co-operatives Harshavardhan Patil is next on our hitlist,” said Patil.
After the watchmen informed him, Singhal and others in the house doused the fire.
Before the Patil faction claimed responsibility, Singhal had told The Indian Express that short circuit seems a remote possibility as the fire started in the boot area of the car. He had then not ruled out foul play. Hours later, his hunch proved right.
Cane growers had locked up about 200 government officials, including Singhal, for nine hours in Sakhar Sankul at the building housing the Sugar Commissioner’s office last October. Farmers had recently stepped up their agitation.
Police had said the Honda City (MH 12 AH 9797) parked in the compound of Singhal’s residence caught fire around 3.00 am. The fire brigade were called but the fire was doused before they came in.
“The car was parked between 9 and 9.15 pm on Thursday. Around 3.00 am I was woken up by watchmen. All those present in the house tried to douse the fire using garden taps. It took us 20 minutes. There was more than 25 litre petrol in the car. It would have been a big accident had we failed to douse the flames in time.”
Till late Friday night police maintained the fire seems to have been accidental.
Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana president Raju Shetty had distanced himself and his organisation from the fire. He however warned that farmers will be forced to commit such acts or graver ones if the government denied their rights.
“I am at Indapur about 150 km from the city and the incident has nothing to do with me or my organisation. But the incident shows farmers are losing patience. They will be forced to resort to violence if their rightful demands are not met,” he said in the evening. Hours later the Patil faction owned up.