Pawan Kumar is looking for a job. Not just any job; he wants to be India’s newest hangman.
Kumar, 50, an apparel salesman from a family of executioners, says it’s in his DNA, demonstrating with well-callused hands how to slide a hood over a condemned person’s head, grease the noose and wrench the lever so the floor parts like a wave.
He acknowledges that he’s never performed a hanging, India’s preferred execution method, but says he’s witnessed several and practiced using sandbags.
“The important thing is to ensure the neck snaps and there’s a quick death,” he says.
As several high-profile executions loom in India, critics argue that it’s high time that a land famous for its belief in the sanctity of life, not to mention for a flawed justice system, abandon the practice. But some say India’s reputation as a repository of spiritual values is outdated, even misguided, particularly as the country grapples with growing crime, militancy and the spread of cheap weapons.
“The idea of Hindus being otherworldly was a good marketing device, part of exotic India,” says Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist and board member at the Doon School, a private institute in the city of Dehradun. “But it’s not true. We can be very cruel to animals or human beings. Even during [Mohandas] Gandhi’s time, it took the force of his charisma to prevent people from killing each other.”
India’s last hanging was in 2004, and the one before that in 1995, long ago enough that most executioners have retired, died or moved on, leaving states in the lurch.
But with several executions apparently imminent, including that of the lone surviving gunman in the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 166 people, wannabe executioners are practicing their noose knots.
“Lots of unemployed people would be happy to do it,” Gupta says. “You could have a whole rush tomorrow.”
Mumbai prison officials have received more than 50 applications to hang the gunman, Ajmal Kasab; it’s a poorly paid job (past hangmen received $60 or less per hanging) with no benefits and lots of potential anguish.
Another candidate, Kolkata municipal worker Mahadeb Mullick, says he’s the best choice because his father executed 25 people and his grandfather more than 600.
The Jorhat Central Jail in the northeastern state of Assam and others have been busy repairing collapsing-floor mechanisms and repainting iron plates.
“The gallows is pretty much ready,” says jailer Brojen Das. Mahendra Nath Das, who is not related, awaits execution in the prison, convicted of murder after decapitating a rival union chief with a machete in public, then carrying the head through the streets.
India is one of 58 countries that utilize the death penalty, with 130 having stopped it by law or in practice, according to rights watchdog Amnesty International. Indian executions are reserved for the “rarest of the rare” crimes, including murder, terrorist acts, mutiny and repeated drug trafficking.
Supporters argue that capital punishment deters criminals and sends a message to archrival Pakistan that India follows the rule of law but isn’t a pushover, particularly in the case of Kasab, a Pakistani national who was captured on video smiling as he shot people in a Mumbai train station.
“It’s a warning to like-minded persons,” says special prosecutor Ujjawal Nikam, who helped convict Kasab.
Critics counter that executions are morally wrong, particularly in a system where investigations are often shoddy and forced confessions common. According to a 2007 Amnesty report, evidence is often circumstantial and witnesses frequently perjure themselves for caste or religious reasons.
“It’s so arbitrary that it defies definition,” says V. Suresh, a local president of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a civic group, and the report’s coauthor.
India doesn’t say how many executions it has carried out, although in 2007 it reported 52 at one jail alone since independence in 1947. Civic groups place the total between several hundred and a few thousand over the last six decades. About 350 people are on death row.
Although there’s strong support for Kasab’s execution, opinions are often divided in ethnically or religiously sensitive cases. Three ethnic Tamils given the death penalty for plotting the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 have seen their execution stayed twice for political reasons, analysts say, given strong opposition among Tamils in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The next hearing is scheduled for January.
Mercy pleas are also frequently beset by delays. The three Tamils waited 11 years after bureaucrats reportedly “lost their file” for four of those years. In a June 2010 statement, Mohammed Afzal, convicted in a 2001 Parliament attack that killed 14 people, publicly wished that the government would hurry up and hang him. “At least my pain and daily suffering will ease then,” he said.
Executions in India, as elsewhere, are probably as old as civilization, historians say. Traditionally, a common method was “execution by elephant,” outlined in the Laws of Manu around 200 BC. During the 1526-1858 Mughal Empire, stomping pachyderms had knives attached to their tusks for slicing up prisoners.
Veda sacred texts suggest that upper-caste criminals were rarely executed, even for murder, whereas the lives of women and lower-caste men were worth comparatively little, equal to that of “a peacock or a crow,” says V.S. Elizabeth, a history professor at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore.
Most of today’s gallows, and India’s preference for hanging, are a British legacy. At New Delhi’s Tihar prison, guards prevent visitors from chipping bits of wood from the aging device. “People mistakenly believe it’ll bring them luck, help their children in school,” says Sunil Gupta, a Delhi Prisons official who says he has heard that one book even mentions the superstition. “We never entertain these weird demands.”
In the weeks before India’s last hanging, of a security guard convicted of killing a 14-year-old, on-camera demonstrations by hangman Nata Mullick (Mahadeb’s father) reportedly led several impressionable children to hang themselves. Mullick also sold strands of the noose, which some believe have magic powers.
Even as Kumar, the clothes salesman, and other wannabe hangmen embrace the limelight, one of India’s only remaining executioners studiously avoids it.
“People don’t see our profession favorably,” says Ahmatullah Khan, meeting in a park in the city of Lucknow to avoid neighbors. “If people knew, they’d gawk.”
Khan, who’s “around 60" and still receives a $60 monthly hangman’s stipend from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, executed 40 people between 1965 and his last hanging in 1990. As a boy he’d accompany his hangman father, absorbing his skills. An added incentive: They were poor and he’d get fed at the prison.
He prides himself on carrying out near-instant executions. “I don’t look at the face because it would remain with me,” he says.
One time, early in his career, he misjudged the weight and watched the convicted man writhe in pain. Another time, he recalls, he executed three brothers convicted of murder; one, a teacher, pleaded his innocence. The mental trauma stayed with him for years, he says.
Khan says he’d consider hanging Kasab if the New Delhi prison’s price is right.
“It’s just a job,” he says. “I’m good at it and I do my best.”
Tanvi Sharma in The Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.