About a year ago, the four convicts in the Nirbhaya rape case—Akshay Thakur, 31, Pawan Gupta, 25, Vinay Sharma, 26, and Mukesh Singh, 32—were hanged at Delhi's Tihar Jail at daybreak. The jail authorities carried out the execution swiftly, without fuss, as most hangings are, hours after the Supreme Court rejected the mercy pleas of the four convicts. The verdict and the subsequent execution evoked mass laudatory sentiments—they were, after all, the boys we wanted to kill.
Did or will their hanging deter Indian men from raping, killing or brutalising women? Is capital punishment, abolished in most nations (and retained by 58 countries, with China being the most active death penalty country in the world), more effective in deterring crimes than, say, a life sentence?
There are no simple answers to these questions because the death penalty is the most severe punishment permitted in our criminal justice system—a system notorious for its dubious evidence-collecting processes and minimal access of citizens belonging to poor and marginalised sections of society to legal representation. But what the Nirbhaya hangings did unequivocally do was throw India’s death row abolitionist movement off course by decades.
Dialogues around the death penalty in India—in media, academia or in public activism—are scarce. The promise of retributive justice, or at least the perception of it, effectively buries the moral-philosophical question at its heart: Should anyone or any entity, even the state, have a right to end a human being’s life?
In this context, the work of Project 39A, a criminal justice research and litigation centre based out of National Law University, Delhi, is groundbreaking. Their work, which includes a staggering archive of recordings with hundreds of people on death row either awaiting their execution or acceptance of their mercy pleas, offers powerful glimpses into the emotions, the psychological knots, the inexplicable madness and the dire social circumstances that lead human beings to heinous crimes.
Jahnavi Misra’s anthology of fictionalised stories, The Punished: Stories of Death-Row Prisoners in India, which is based on some of these recordings, is therefore a book that forces us to think beyond what’s “deserved”, what’s “justice” and what’s “a lesson”—to think about what our standards of collective morality often obfuscate, to think humanly about the people we want to suffer and wait inexorably for their deaths. These are vignettes, not stories. They are evocative peeks into the emotional and social maelstroms that can propel people into unimaginable brutality. Misra fictionalises real stories based on the recordings and effectively retains the lens on the severity of the crimes. It is a delicate balance, and through the right details, the stories become compelling.
Chanda, known as “the tantric gurumata”, who executed a gruesome sacrifice of a two-year-old child in the name of a religious cult, had joined her tantric guru husband in his practice as a means to avert domestic abuse. Sanjeev Sharma, hanged for raping a minor girl, vacillated between dread, boredom, numbness and fear after being brutalised by the police and ignored by his own lawyer given to him through the state’s ineffectual legal aid system.
Manpreet, a man whose family resented his friendship with another man, killed his entire family one by one during the course of a sultry night and willingly admitted to his crime after his friend was killed while on parole. Rukhsar, a woman from Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, was ridiculed for her dark skin and physical appearance all her life. When her family members threatened to kill her if she married the only man, a Hindu, who wanted to love and accept her for who she was, the entire family was found dead, their throats slit to precision.
All the characters in this anthology are people who don’t understand the workings of the legal system and are unaware of their own rights. They are legal, social and cultural pariahs. Because government legal aid is poor and uncaring, lawyers don’t invest enough in their cases for a fair hearing. Many of them are incoherent after relentless police brutality. Their families face economic and societal ruin for generations.
In jail, Rukhsar receives a letter from a man from her past who wishes to adopt her son. Misra interprets from the interview with Rukhsar, in her retelling of a moment of joy before she goes to the gallows: “She knew that the world considered her evil, so then what was this letter doing on her bed? How did this pure and beautiful gesture find its way into her extraordinarily ugly life? She did not believe in god, but for a fleeting moment felt a warm golden grace light her from within.”
These stories aren’t, in any way, complete portraits. They capture only the essence of the humanity that the interviews reveal, but what Misra’s book does is put the spotlight on the groundbreaking work that Project 39A has been doing in India—to trigger new conversations on legal aid, torture, forensics, mental health and the death penalty.
Among their several publications, Project 39A, under the leadership of Anup Surendranath and his team of passionate lawyers and students, has brought out a set of books called Matter of Judgement, which lucidly explains the findings of a study they conducted with 60 former judges of the Supreme Court to understand the reasons they saw for both abolition and retention of the death penalty, what the “rarest of rare” doctrine, which is applied in most death penalty cases, meant to them and to locate all these discussions in the context of the criminal justice system in its entirety.
The study concluded, among other things such as the unpreparedness of the “Indian psyche” to abolish capital punishment, that at best, it is “retributive instinct” in response to brutality that drives legal discourse on the death penalty, rather than the goal of deterrence of crime.
In celebrating tough verdicts, have we then become more sensitive or more coarse? The assiduous work of Project 39A suggests that reform and rehabilitation of hard criminals is the only constructive response.
Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based journalist and screenwriter.