“I have the right to know how my grandson died”: Grandfather of farmer Navreet Singh approaches Delhi High Court

12 February 2021
Hardeep Singh Dibdiba has filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, seeking an independent investigation into his grandson Navreet Singh's death. CK VIJAYAKUMAR FOR THE CARAVAN

Hardeep Singh Dibdiba has approached the Delhi High Court for a court-monitored and time-bound investigation in the death of his grandson Navreet Singh, who had died on 26 January in Delhi during a tractor rally to mark the ongoing farmers protests. Navreet’s family believes that the police shot and killed him. The Delhi Police has denied this allegation. 

In his petition, Dibdiba asked for a “court appointed and court monitored Special Investigation Team comprising police officers with a demonstrable impeccable record of professional integrity, honesty, and efficiency, to carry out a time bound investigation” into his grandson’s death. He also sought directions from the court for the authorities to provide his family with copies of an X-ray report of the body and the video recording of the post-mortem, which was conducted in Rampur district of Uttar Pradesh, as well as a first-information report mentioned in the post-mortem report. Dibdiba also asked for the raw CCTV footage from the area where Navreet died to be placed on record. The court of the judge Yogesh Khanna heard the petition on the afternoon of 11 February and issued notice to Uttar Pradesh police and the chief medical officer of the District Hospital in Rampur. 

Rahul Mehra, the standing counsel for the Delhi Police, assured the court of the police’s cooperation and promised to provide the petitioner with the CCTV footage. “We don’t have a difficulty in sharing the documents, including the CCTV, with the petitioner, but I would like to seek some time to file a detailed status report,” Mehra told the court. 

Vrinda Grover, arguing for the petitioner, apprised the court in detail on the grounds of the petition. She referred to testimonies of eyewitnesses Harmanjeet Singh and Balwinder Singh, both farmers from Uttar Pradesh, who were quoted in a report by The Caravan, detailing the circumstances and the aftermath of Navreet’s death. Both eyewitnesses had told The Caravan that they saw police personnel fire at Navreet’s tractor, which overturned seconds later. Grover also quoted the opinion of Dr Basil Purdue, a pathologist in London, offered to The Guardian after examining the Navreet’s post-mortem report. The Caravan report discussed the port-mortem over six paragraphs, quoting an Indian forensic expert at length. Grover read out these paragraphs verbatim in court. She noted that both forensic experts, who spoke independently to different publications, found the injuries on Navreet’s body to be consistent with bullet wounds. Grover also noted that the post-mortem record did not include any injuries that would be consistent with a road accident, such as grazes or abrasions. 

Grover further argued that the Delhi Police had committed grave procedural errors after Navreet’s death, and that it had prematurely concluded that Navreet died as a result of tractor accident. She stated that the police had not conducted a mandatory inquest into the death—a violation of the Code of Criminal Procedure. “The police cannot decide on its own that it is a death by road accident,” she said. Even if the police was certain of the fact that Navreet had died in a road accident, Grover pointed out, it was duty-bound to conduct inquest proceedings. “Delhi Police cannot abandon the Code of Criminal Procedure at will and make unverified and unsubstantiated claims,” she said.

The Caravan had reported that the police appeared uninterested in securing the spot where Navreet had died. According to eyewitnesses, Navreet died at around 1.30 pm on 26 January. The Caravan’s reporters were on the spot of the crime starting at 2.30 pm, for over three hours. During this time, no police officials arrived to secure the crime scene. Around 4.30 pm, a posse of policemen arrived, in riot gear, but only to take custody of the CCTV footage from the Andhra Education Society building, directly overlooking the spot where Navreet had died. After a policeman put the CCTV tape in his chest gear, the policemen, led by the assistant commissioner of police HSP Singh, left from the back of the building. A pool of blood lay on the road outside the AES, the spot still unsecured.

A few hours after news of Navreet’s death broke, some journalists and media organisations began to share a blurry, sped-up CCTV clip recorded from afar, that showed Navreet’s tractor overturning. Asian News International attributed this clip to the Delhi Police. At the time that this clip began to be posted by the media, the Delhi Police was yet to issue a formal statement on the death. Even the post-mortem had not yet been conducted. 

Many news organisations and journalists concluded on the basis of this clip that Navreet had died in a tractor accident—even though the footage did not prove this claim. Later, the Delhi Police told The Caravan that “no bullet was fired.” The police did not answer our detailed queries pertaining to the circumstances of Navreet’s death.

Referring to the circulated CCTV clip, Grover argued: “The movement of the tractor and the falling down had been seen, but what caused it?” She stated that the police had yet to release the CCTV footage it had acquired from the AES building, which would have recorded Navreet’s death at much closer quarters than the clip in the public domain. “That CCTV footage is the only thing that explained what happened. That evidence the police has taken, but apart from that the Delhi Police has not conducted any investigation,” Grover said.

Despite failing to do inquest proceedings, she continued, the Delhi Police commissioner had claimed on 27 January that no deaths have been caused due to police action. “With every passing day, the actions of Delhi Police are becoming more suspicious,” Grover told the court. 

In days following the death, several FIRs were registered against journalists and news outlets that reported on Navreet’s death or posted tweets about it, as well as the owners or editors of these publications. Ten FIRs were registered by different police stations in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka and Delhi. The FIRs name seven people—including editors and owners of The Caravan­—and accuse them of a wide range of offences, such as sedition, promoting enmity, outraging religious feelings and criminal intimidation. Grover pointed out that the Supreme Court, which was hearing a petition asking for these FIRs to be quashed, had stayed the arrests in all these cases.

Grover concluded her arguments by saying that the petitioner had the constitutional right to the information he was requesting. Speaking on behalf of Dibdiba, she said: “I have lost my 25-year-old grandson. I have a right to know how he died. I have a right to a fair and timely investigation. The Delhi Police has continuously conducted itself in a way which does not inspire a shred of confidence in me. I have a right to know the truth.”

Mehra, the standing counsel, called Navreet’s death “a very unfortunate incident.” Quoting instructions received from Delhi Police officials, he said that “our stated position is that the death is the result of a tractor overturning.” He added that the CCTV footage had “been seized and examined.” He also assured the court that “the family had taken the body to UP, otherwise the post-mortem and other examinations would have been done in Delhi itself.” The Caravan had reported earlier that Navreet’s body was lying for hours at the ITO junction, a stone’s throw away from the commissioner’s office. 

The standing counsel also told the court that an FIR number 19 of 2021 had been registered at the IP Estate police station. On 26 January, reporters from The Caravan had visited the station at around 6 pm, to inquire if it had received any complaints about Navreet’s death. The duty officers stated that they had not received any call, and denied receiving a call on 100 about the incident. My colleague and I informed them that we had witnessed farmers outside the Andhra Education Society repeatedly try to call the police. The duty officer then stated that they had just received one complaint moments before we reached the station, and that it was yet to be recorded as an entry in the daily diary.

Mehra promised to share the documents and the footage with the petitioners. He sought time to file a status report, which the court granted. The next hearing is scheduled for 26 February.

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.