A little less than a year after he was arrested as a suspect in the fatal acid attack on Delhi- based nurse Preeti Rathi, (25), walked a free man on Thursday. Out on bail since August, the Additional Metropolitan Magistrate at the Esplanade Court, on Monday, dropped all charges against Pawankumar after the Mumbai police crime branch wrote to it.
The crime branch’s plea was submitted to the court on Monday, two days before it filed a 1322 page chargesheet against arrested accused Ankur Panwar. The crime branch sought Pawankumar’s release as there was not sufficient evidence against him that merited filing a chargesheet.
A relieved Pawankumar was in the city Thursday to collect a copy of the court order. “I can now concentrate on my career.
Firms were not keen to hire me because of my record, but I can now hope to find a job,” he said.
A final-year student of electronics and telecommunications engineering at Bhiwani Institute of Technology and Sciences,
Pawankumar was picked up from his home in Rohtak, Haryana on May 8 by the Government Railway Police (GRP) and brought to Mumbai the next day. The GRP, however, could produce no solid evidence against him.
GRP officers had said at that time that he was a suspect because he made a call to Preeti’s sister a few days after the attack to enquire after her health. In spite of accompanying his uncle Rajbirsingh Gahalon to the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (PGIMS) in Rohtak on May 2, the day of the attack, the absence of CCTV cameras there prevented Pawankumar from proving his alibi to the GRP.
“After my arrest, my father and uncle went back there but found CCTV cameras there were non-functional,” he said.
He also rejects the GRP’s version of the ‘suspicious’ phone call. “A friend from Narela in Delhi had told me what had happened, so I called Preeti’s sister. All she said was that Preeti was alright but was was busy then,” he said.
Three months behind bars, first at Arthur Road Jail and then Byculla Jail, is an experience the aspiring engineer wants to put behind him.
“In prison, the guards and other prisoners are known to be tough on men arrested for attacking women. Initially, I had heard that the guards were going to assault me, but things changed after a hearing in the Mumbai Central Railway Court on May 16,” he recalled.
That day, when the GRP brought Pawankumar to court to ask for further custody, they were forced to admit that no evidence had been found to implicate him. “Things became easier in prison afterwards. It was easier for fellow prisoners to empathise with me,” he said.
“Chaar deewaron ke andar toh zindagi alag hi hoti hai (Life inside the prison’s four walls is different),” he said.
The warden at Byculla Jail assigned him the duty of overseeing that food was properly served to prisoners everyday. “He put six other prisoners under my charge. After a month, my father gave me my course books,” he said.
Like many he knew, Pawankumar, too, was shocked when his childhood friend Ankur Panwar was arrested in January for the attack. “Ankur was a puny kid. We grew up together and played with other boys in Narela. Even if a boy smaller than him hit him, he would do nothing,” he said.
Ankur’s alleged confession in front of family members, neighbours and friends in Narela soon after arrest has Pawankumar convinced of his guilt. “My uncle Rajbirsing Gahalon was there when Ankur confessed to having attacked Preeti. He said he did not intend to kill her. The crime branch also showed me CCTV footage from Nizamuddin railway station. I recognised Ankur clearly despite the cap and mask he had worn,” he said.
Awaiting the results of his final exams, Pawankumar is focused on finding a job and admits to being afraid of staying idle.
“Apart from preparing for my final exams, I also tutored a few local Class X students. I cannot forget what happened, but cannot allow it to remain in my mind all the time either,” he said. He also said he felt thankful to Preeti’s father Amarsingh Rathi, who had opposed his arrest from the outset.
An hour before boarding a train from CST Thursday, Pawankumar said he felt a sense of complete freedom after a long time. “The court order will shut up all those who kept telling my family that I was guilty,” he said.
His release has brought neither joy nor relief to the Gahalon household. “The humiliation my family has endured will not go away. The GRP wasted a year of my son’s life. We have nothing to celebrate,” said father Azadsingh Gahalon.