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Mumbai acid attack: Preeti Rathi's neighbour held for flinging acid at her

Eight months after Delhi resident was attacked at Bandra Terminus, the Mumbai Crime Branch arrested Ankur Panwar; he says he took the extreme step out of jealousy that Rathi had got a job but he was unemployed

Mumbai Crime Branch have made an arrest in the Preeti Rathi acid attack case 45 days after the case was transferred to them. They arrested Ankur Narayanlal Panwar (23), who was Preeti’s neighbour in Bhakra Beas Management Board Colony in Narela, Delhi. According to the police, Ankur was picked up from his house.

Ankur Panwar was allegedly jealous of Preeti and was tired of taunts he had to listen from his mother, about his own unemployment. Hence, he allegedly attacked her with acid. Pic/Sameer Markande
Ankur Panwar was allegedly jealous of Preeti and was tired of taunts he had to listen from his mother, about his own unemployment. Hence, he allegedly attacked her with acid. Pic/Sameer Markande

The incident occurred on May 2 last year, when Preeti alighted from the Garib Rath Express at Bandra Terminus. A man who had covered his face with a handkerchief came forward and flung acid on her face.

The Mumbai crime branch and the Government Railway Police interrogated several people, including Preeti’s college mates, her colleagues at Batra Hospital where she studied nursing, her neighbours and relatives. However, Preeti had already named the accused as one of the suspects, but the police hadn’t interrogated him.

Jealousy behind crime
Preeti had gotten a job as a Lieutenant in Indian Navy. She came to Mumbai to join in the INHS Asvini, the naval hospital at Colaba. “Ankur’s mother used to visit Preeti’s house, as they are family friends.

Preeti Rathi
Preeti Rathi

As her own son was unemployed, she used to taunt him and compare him to Preeti,” said Himanshu Roy, joint commissioner of police, Crime Branch. This caused Ankur much anger. Police investigations revealed that Ankur was a hotel management graduate from a private university in Orissa and spent a huge amount on his education. Yet, he was jobless and his parents’ taunts got to him.

“Ankur’s mother came to know that the Preeti’s salary would be around Rs 50,000. She taunted him on his inability to get a job. This angered him a lot,” said Anil Dhole, assistant police inspector of Unit VII of the Mumbai Crime Branch, the team that investigated the case for 45 days. Hence, he decided to vent his fury on Preeti.

Ankur stole battery acid (sulphuric acid) from the nearby office of Delhi Electricity Supply Undertaking. “His mother had told him that Preeti was taking the Garib Rath to Mumbai on May 1. He got into the train without a ticket and was searching for the right moment to throw the acid at her. As soon as Preeti got down at Bandra Terminus, he tied a handkerchief to cover his face and attacked her,” said Prafful Bhosale, assistant commissioner of police, Crime Branch.

Police claimed further investigations could throw more light on the exact reason behind Ankur’s actions. Preeti died on June 1 last year. When CCTV footage from Bandra Terminus was shown to Preeti, she had named three people who could be her potential attackers Pawan Gahlan, Ankur Panwar or Satyam Varghese.

The GRP official investigating the case arrested Gahlan, who was later released by the court. Varghese, too, was interrogated but Ankur was never questioned. Police only took statements of Ankur’s father, Narayanlal, who claimed his son was in Haridwar at the time and had gone there for an interview in a five-star hotel.

“After we took Narayanlal’s statements, we showed Ankur’s picture to Preeti’s father, Amar Singh Rathi, who told us he had not seen Ankur anywhere in the train. So we didn’t interrogate him,” said Devram Wadmare, senior police inspector of the Railway Crime Branch. Ankur had gotten a job in a five-star hotel in Ahmedabad, where a break-in occurred. The hotel asked all its employees to obtain no-objection certificates from the local police station in their native areas. Hence, Ankur returned to Delhi.

When constable Hridaynath Mishra, Subhash Mali and Nitin Palande, attached with the Unit II of the Mumbai Crime Branch saw Ankur, they questioned him. “He told them he had gone for an interview in Haridwar during the time Preeti was attacked, but when we inquired with the hotel in Haridwar, they denied that such an interview had ever taken place. This raised our suspicion. We also found some marks on his hands, which we later learnt were due to the acid,” added Bhosale.

Ankur was mostly out of Delhi for his job, so the GRP didn’t really interrogate him. This saved him for 8 months. After the investigations were handed to the Mumbai crime branch, a team of around 11 people was made under the guidance of ACP Bhosale. The team has been working in Delhi for the last 40 days and interrogated several people.

“We interrogated Preeti’s mother, her college friends, her hospital friends, her neighbours. We also took CCTV footage from various places like Delhi station. The biggest fear we had was that since eight months had passed, the clues would have been done away with. But, we managed to solve the case,” said Roy.

When they came to know about the arrest, Preeti’s family said they never suspected Ankur. “We never thought it would be Ankur. His mother used to visit our house most of the time. She also came after Preeti died,” Amar Singh Rathi, Preeti’s father told MiD DAY. “We don’t know why he was so jealous with Preeti. She was just a hard-working girl,” he lamented. Ankur has been remanded to police custody till January 23.

Case timeline

May 2: Delhi resident Preeti Rathi is attacked at Bandra Terminus. She had come to Mumbai to join INHS Asvini, the naval hospital in Colaba, as a lieutenant nurse. She is first taken to Gurunanak Hospital in Bandra and, later, shifted to Masina Hospital in Byculla with 12-15 per cent burns on her face, neck, arms and deep internal injuries in her throat, as she had swallowed acid. Doctors put her on feeding tubes passing through her nose. A week later, at Masina Hospital, doctors treat her for chest infection.

May 8: In her statement, Rathi tells her aunt that the arrested suspect, Pawankumar Azadsingh Gahalon, and the accused are of the same height, following which Gahalon is arrested by government railway police (GRP) from Narela, New Delhi.

May 18: After her condition stabilises, doctors perform gastroscopy. Later in the evening, she is transferred to Bombay Hospital, as she requires specialised medical help.

May 19: A CT scan and bronchoscopy is performed. She undergoes a minor surgery to introduce a feeding tube in her stomach. Her chest infection persists.

May 22: Bombay Hospital doctors inform the media that her right lung has collapsed due to chemical pneumonitis and her left lung is being ventilated.

May 25: Doctors close the hole in her windpipe using glue.

May 31: Her kidney stops functioning.

June 1: She dies of multi-organ failure and cardio-respiratory arrest.

June 3: Preeti, a resident of Narela, is cremated around 5 pm after a day-long protest by her kin and neighbours, who demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into her murder. While extending a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the family, Home Minister RR Patil assures them that the case would be handed over to the CBI.

Aug 5: Preeti’s father, Amarsingh Rathi, approaches the Bombay High Court on Monday, seeking CBI inquiry into the case

Aug 9: The Bombay High Court grants bail to Gahalon arrested for his alleged involvement in the acid attack on Preeti, observing that police had arrested him only on the basis of “suspicion”.

Nov 28: Observing that Railway Police’s Crime Branch was not in a position to trace the man who flung acid on Preeti, causing her eventual death, Bombay High Court transfers the probe to the Mumbai Police.

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