Pawan Gahlan
Pawan Gahlan

New Delhi: Preeti Rathi’s real killer was finally convicted yesterday, but 27-year-old Pawan Gahlan is yet to come to terms with how the police ruined his life three years ago by branding him a murderer. But what he finds even harder to digest is the fact that he was arrested just for doing the right thing and trying to support the victim’s family.

Preeti’s brother Hitesh was his friend and classmate, so when he heard about the acid attack on her, he was shocked. “When I saw the news report about the acid attack on TV, I called Hitesh to ask what had happened. Hitesh was with police that time, so the cops took the phone and asked me for my address. Then they came to my house to interrogate me and, soon, I was arrested,” recalled Pawan.

His father Azad Singh had also called the family to offer his sympathies. “As Preeti was my brother’s friend’s daughter, we treated her like our daughter and wanted justice for her. Pawan was at PGI hospital in Rohtak on the day Preeti was attacked. If we would have not called the Rathis after the incident, Pawan probably would not have been arrested. We paid the price for sympathising with our friends in their time of need,” he said.

Jail time
Remembering his days in jail, Pawan said all the staffers, including the jailer, had shown full sympathy towards him, as they knew he was innocent. “They had made me ‘numberdar’ and I used to assist in distributing food to inmates. They also used to encourage me to continue my studies. But after all, jail is jail. I was not used to sleeping on a mat, and my ankles turned black,” he said. “Although they never tortured me, I couldn’t sleep for a week while I was in police remand. It was shocking how the police could frame me for no fault of mine,” he told mid-day.

Pawan spent three months behind bars before the Bombay High Court granted him bail upon observing that there was no evidence against him. All suspicion against him was finally wiped out when the Mumbai Crime Branch arrested Preeti’s neighbour Ankur Panwar, who was convicted yesterday. Pawan might have been given a clean chit from the police, but he never got the clean slate he deserved. To this day, he is unable to shake off the stigma that comes from being branded a killer. “We want Pawan to marry, but each time the prospective bride’s family finds out about the incident, they no longer want to continue with the relationship,” said Pawan’s uncle, Hawa Singh.

Carrying the stigma
Even his career has gone off-kilter. When Pawan was arrested, he was just a year away from completing his Btech course, and had four job interviews lined up. He missed out on all of them while he was in prison, and was only able to finish the course last year. The 27-year-old and his family are struggling to get his life back on track; just a few months ago, Pawan started a new job in Haryana, but his family revealed that it was not a well-paying position.

“Pawan was in depression after the incident. Although we have been counselling him continuously, we know he cannot recover completely. When we scold him, he never answers us,” said his father, Azad.

Legal battle
But his family is just thankful that he is, at least, no longer behind bars. “We are thankful to Preeti’s father, who not only submitted an affidavit in court that Pawan was at Rohtak at the time of the incident, but also sent letters to the Maharashtra CM, citing that Pawan was innocent,” said Hawa Singh, who had camped in Mumbai for three months to fight the case.

“We had no doubt that my son was innocent, and everyone in the family came forward to help fight the court case. We spent about Rs 7 lakh in legal fees and travelling to Mumbai. I would not have been able to do it if my brothers hadn’t contributed financially and morally,” said Azad Singh, who works with Haryana Electricity Board in Rohtak.

“We had not filed for any compensation for ruining Pawan’s career and life and for all the expenses incurred during the court case. But, there should be a provision to compensate people who are falsely implicated, and the investigators should also be punished,” said Rajbeer Singh, another uncle of Pawan’s.