Who gets the death penalty in India? The Death Penalty India Report, brought out by the National Law University last month, attempts an answer. A one-of-its-kind study, it documents the socio-economic profiles of prisoners sentenced to death, as also their engagement with the criminal justice system. Here, rather than the crime they were party to, the focus is on the lives they led and the legal aid they had access to before receiving the death penalty.
The report documents the stories of 373 of the 385 prisoners on death row countrywide. This includes stories of their families, too, some of whom cooperated in the exercise and some didn’t. The two-and-a-half year long study was aided by over 80 undergraduate law students and volunteers. The two-volume, 384-page report attempts to go beyond the ‘for vs against’ debate on death penalty.
“For an issue as grave as this, there have been far too few attempts in India to understand questions about who gets the death penalty, how they get it and what it is like to live under the sentence of death in Indian prisons,” says Anup Surendranath, director of the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic, in the preface.
“The project is not meant to make a case for abolition but is meant to present voices that are rarely heard.”
Here we are reproducing five stories of death row inmates featured in the report. A few of them had their sentences commuted in due course. Names of the prisoners and their family members have been changed in the report to preserve anonymity.
Edited excerpts :
Pranay Singh was sentenced to death for murdering five members of his cousin’s family by setting their house on fire. According to his brother, Singh had been mentally ill a few years prior to the incident. He had stopped farming and was indifferent when his yield was destroyed. Singh left the village and returned 12 years later. He was unkempt, did not eat much and remained withdrawn.
During our interactions, Singh did not seem to remember the incident. He was unaware that he was implicated for murder. Singh remembered going to the court for hearings but did not know the details of the case, and was under the impression that he had been acquitted. He believed he was living in prison out of his own volition.
Although in his ’50s, Singh believed he was 32 years old. He insisted the five people, whose deaths he was convicted for, were alive. No one from his family had visited him in prison and the officials were the ones he communicated with. Despite being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2010, Singh’s mercy petition was rejected by the President. A month after the submission of his mercy petition, Singh was admitted to a mental hospital. About 10 months after being discharged, Singh was informed about the rejection of his mercy petition.
His death sentence was subsequently commuted by the Supreme Court (SC) on the ground of his mental illness. In its judgment, the SC noted that the Ministry of Home Affairs did not make a reference to his mental condition while advising the President to reject the mercy petition.
Singh had at the time of the interview spent 11 years and three months in incarceration.
He was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his employer’s daughter. Inder recounted that he yielded to the investigating officer’s pressure due to the relentless torture and agreed to confess before the magistrate. During the proceeding, the magistrate did not inform him about the effect of the confession nor did he inquire if it was being made under duress. The magistrate only asked two questions, “Did you rape the victim?” and “Did you murder her?”
During his interview, Inder ruefully shared that he was illiterate and did not have a lawyer to guide him through the legal process, else he would have never made the confession before the magistrate.
Inder’s horrors over a 10-day period in police custody were not limited to brutal beatings. The police blindfolded him and fired gunshots in the air, making him dread for his life with every passing moment. Petrol was poured over his buttocks and he was tortured in ways that he felt ashamed to discuss. During his interview, Inder shared that the only way for him to escape this nightmare was to comply with the investigating officer’s demands to confess before the magistrate.
Remembering the torment he had undergone, Inder shared that for anyone who was tortured like he was, “it would no longer matter whether you did it or not, you will agree to anything to make the torture stop.” Inder’s case was pending in the High Court (HC) at the time of the interview in October 2013.
Chetak was sentenced to death for murdering five people in the house where he was a domestic help. He was paid a meagre salary of ₹1,500. His employers often abused him verbally and did not pay his full salary to make sure he continued working.
The economic condition of his mother was worse. When the interviewers met Chetak’s mother she was found wearing a torn sari without a blouse. She had a basket in one hand and a broom in the other. Frightened and bewildered, the frail old woman sat down on her haunches amidst a curious crowd and repeated in a barely audible voice, “I know nothing, I understand nothing.” She lived alone in a dilapidated room surrounded by a yard piled with bricks and rubble. She survived by cleaning cowsheds and making dung cakes. She was not paid for her labour, but given food, sometimes just enough to make a day’s only meal. Often, she did not even get this and would go to bed hungry. The other villagers did not know her name, though she worked in their houses. One proudly whispered, “We do not associate with her.”
Chetak’s mother visited him once in jail.
In the jail, Chetak was not allowed to work or earn. His legal aid lawyer told him that he would fight the case well only if he was paid. Chetak was convinced that his fate would have been different had he been able to afford a private lawyer. Represented by state-appointed counsels throughout the trial and appeal process, Chetak never had an opportunity to discuss the case with his lawyers.
After the confirmation of his death sentence by the SC, Chetak remained unaware of his remaining legal recourses. Fellow inmates told him about clemency and his mercy petitions were sent to the President and the governor through the prison. Chetak did not receive any legal assistance in preparing these petitions nor did he have their copies.
While the President denied Chetak’s request for pardon three years later, the prison received an official communication after a delay of three months. Chetak learnt about it through a local Hindi newspaper. He was not given a copy of the letter.
Chetak despaired that he was alone throughout this complex process, with “no one to listen to his voice or look out for him.”
Subsequently, the SC commuted his death sentence considering the delay of three years and 10 months in disposal of his mercy petition. The court also took into account his solitary confinement for six years and seven months after he was sentenced to death by the trial court.
He had at the time of the interview spent 10 years and eight months in incarceration.
Nimish, along with his co-accused, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of six members of a family and their help. Their death sentences were upheld by the SC. After his review petition was dismissed, Nimish tried to seek legal assistance in preparing his mercy petition but without any results. In order to understand his rights, he also asked the prison officials for a copy of the prison manual. His demands irked the officials and were rejected.
It compelled him to prepare his own mercy petition. When he received no news about the fate of his mercy petition for 10 years, Nimish sent an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005, to the President’s Secretariat. He learnt the petition was still pending before the governor. However, on enquiring with the state government, Nimish learnt that his mercy petition had been rejected by the governor, but the relevant documents were destroyed in a fire in the department. Fourteen years after submitting his mercy petition, Nimish is still awaiting the outcome of his plea.
Nimish had quit school after Std VII due to financial difficulties. He migrated to another state from his native village, and was only 20-21 years old at the time of his arrest. In the two decades that he has spent in prison, he has completed his Bachelor’s degree in commerce and political science, as well as a certificate course in tourism. Currently, he is pursuing Master’s in sociology from prison.
He wonders if the President would consider his endeavours to educate himself while deciding the fate of his petition. He hopes that someday he will “get back to society and lead a life of dignity.”
He had spent 19 years and seven months in incarceration.
Ranjay’s trial lasted three months and he was sentenced to death for murdering a one-year-old child. The trial court and HC rejected Ranjay’s claim that it was an accident under the influence of alcohol.
Shivmani, Ranjay’s wife, recounted that she had got Ranjay to give up a life of petty crime and take up a stable job after nearly two decades of struggle. They were content before this incident destroyed their lives. Overnight, they had to sell most of their possessions to secure legal assistance for Ranjay.
His case was pending before the SC at the time of his interview in December 2013. His narrative is of significance in the discussion on surrender by prisoners. According to the prosecution’s case, Ranjay had demanded ₹100 from the child’s grandfather, and when denied, he fired his pistol, which killed the child instantaneously.
Shivmani said Ranjay was an alcoholic and, on that particular evening, had come home in a heavily inebriated state. She tried coaxing him to go to bed. However, he insisted on going out to buy gutka (chewing tobacco), and took his pistol along as he was afraid that someone was trying to kill him.
According to her, Ranjay fired at a wall but the bullet ricocheted and hit the child. The child’s grandfather stabbed Ranjay in the neck with a pair of scissors. Thereafter, he staggered home and asked Shivmani for the keys to his autorickshaw, saying that he needed to take a child who had been shot to the hospital.
She was informed that people were beating up Ranjay, and at the scene she saw the entire neighbourhood assaulting her husband. The mob started beating Shivmani and her children as well. Her younger daughter was stabbed in the abdomen. Upon Ranjay’s request, she took him to the police. The mob surrounded the police station and the victim’s mother threw a stone at the station-in-charge and asked him to hand over Ranjay so they could “take care” of him. Ranjay was admitted to a hospital and was so intoxicated that he was not sober until the next afternoon.