Tarun Preet Singh struggles to plot the events of March 31, 1997, when a vehicle in which he was traveling with his two friends was sprayed with bullets in a bustling marketplace in Delhi.
While Singh, 47, walked out of the botched police operation alive, his friends were not as fortunate.
Twenty five years later, the Delhi High Court recently granted him compensation for the injuries he sustained. While doing so, the Court lamented the fact that he had not been granted the same in 1997.
Justice Pratibha M Singh on April 26 held,
"The fact that other two friends passed away but the petitioner was merely injured cannot result in different standards being applied, inasmuch as even in the case of petitioner, who is alive, he has lost the prime of his life. He is working in a cloth shop, has two children and a family to take care of. The time that has gone by also cannot be compensated for him."
Singh echoes a similar sentiment, saying,
“Sarkar ko sochna chahiye. Itna time nahi lagna chahiye. 25 saal me banda boodha ho jaata hai…Kam se kam samay lagna chahiye tha (The government should have thought. It took so long. In 25 years, a young person becomes an old man. It should have taken minimal time).”
When the incident took place, Singh was only 22. The years that followed shaped him for a struggle - both physical and mental - besides a prolonged court battle, which, at one point, he had almost given up on.
Two-and-half-decades later, he thinks the money could have helped him provide a better life for his children.
“I just felt I need to do something about my children. They would ask me for fifty rupees and I used to tell them I didn’t have it. They have struggled with me. I felt helpless,” says Singh, who works at a garment shop in Kurukshetra, Haryana.
Singh's father had plans to set up an oxygen plant, and so he went to Delhi to talk business with his friends. The three friends were going to be business partners in the venture.
“We were in Delhi and the third partner Pardeep said as it was (accounts) closing, he had to sign some documents at the bank, so we went to the bank. Later, when we were in the car at a traffic signal in Connaught Place, that’s when the firing started,” he recounts.
Singh was in the back seat at that time, clueless about the events that had transpired.
“Us time idhar udhar dekha. Matha pakda. Bas uske baad hosh aaya. (I looked here and there. Held my head and later gained consciousness),” stutters Singh.
The severity of the injuries he sustained can be found in the discharge summary of the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.
"A case of firearm injury came to SoS -12 on 31.3.97. Patient was conscious. Vitals maintained. He was taken up for exploration under GA and 1 bullet extracted from the right pectoral region. There were no haemo preums thorax. Post operating. There was some restriction in right shoulder movement for which he was advised physiotherapy. Now he has recovered well, can be discharged," the summary stated.
Singh recollects a bullet grazing his head, followed by policemen beating him up with their butts of their rifles. He now lives with painful memories and shrapnel still lodged in his body.
“Tab nahi laga ki goli lagi hai. Kuch dauraan mujhe peet rahe the policewale gun ki backside se. Meri collar bone tod rakhi hai (I didn’t realise then that I had received a bullet injury. For sometime, I was being beaten up by policemen with the butts of their guns. It broke my collar bone),” he says.
What followed is a blur to him.
During this time, Singh and his friends were taken to Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. While Singh was treated for his injuries, the two friends were declared dead on arrival.
A first information report (FIR) was registered under Sections 302 (murder) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code the very next day against the guilty police officials. They were chargesheeted on April 2, 1997.
Singh was discharged from the hospital on April 15, 1997, and in December 1998, he sought ₹1 crore compensation by way of a petition in the Delhi High Court.
One of the important grounds raised before the High Court by Singh’s lawyer Sachin Jain was how his deposition as a prosecution witness proved to be traumatising.
“Greater mental trauma and harassment was endured by the petitioner as he was subjected to enormous harassment by the police personnel, since he was one of the witnesses who had deposed in the criminal cases filed against the police officials, which lead to their conviction. During the entire process of trial, the petitioner had to repeatedly attend court proceedings and appear as a prosecution witness,” he argued.
After the trial ended, ten policemen were convicted on October 16, 2007, and they were sentenced to life imprisonment soon thereafter.
Their conviction was upheld by the High Court on September 18, 2009 and by the Supreme Court on May 2, 2011.
Apart from the financial stress that came with the hospital bills, the family faced harassment from the media and relatives, after some news reports had branded Singh and his friends as 'terrorists'.
“The relatives naturally felt I had done something. I struggled a lot dealing with everything. Kept listening to their taunts for half of my life,” he says.
Ever since the compensation order received wide publicity in the media, Singh revealed that people who never checked on him during his dark days have now emerged to congratulate him.
“Ab woh aana shuru ho rahe hain. Beech me koi poochta bhi nahi tha. Tarun kaisa hai. Tera order aa gaya bhai. Maine kaha ab bas karo (They have all started to enquire about me now. No one cared earlier. They ask me now, how am I doing. I told them just let it be),” he says.
He generally avoids talking about the incident, owing to the painful memories attached to it.
“Soch ke rona aata hai. Main kehta hoon pooch hee na merese. Tang aa gaya tha bilkul ekdum. Abhi phir dil nahi kar raha batane ka…Kisi ne nahi pooch tu zinda hai mar gaya (Thinking about it makes me cry. I say don’t ask about it. I was fed up. Even now I don’t want to tell about it. No one asked me if I am dead or alive),” says Singh.
Singh was ordered to be paid compensation of ₹15 lakh at 8 per cent interest and an additional ₹2 lakh. And while it has taken more than two decades to secure justice, Singh now looks to the future with hope.
“Neither do I own a house, nor do I have a job. The money cannot buy me a house. But I will utilise it towards the future of my children,” he says.
While his 22-year-old daughter is in the final year of her Bachelor’s course, his 18-year-old son is pursuing a diploma. On how he will utilise the money, Singh concluded,
“The money won’t be enough for sustenance, but with it, I can marry off my children without asking anyone."