Most of Yug Mohit Chaudhry’s clients have muddled minds and jumbled speech. “They go mad,” Chaudhry says. Mahindra Nath Das from Barpeta, Assam, for example.
Nath was 33. This is how newspaper reports then and locals of Guwahati now narrate his story: In the early hours of 24 April 1996, a man named Hara Kanta Das was sipping tea at a tea stall in Fancy Bazar, Guwahati. Nath, a truck driver, approached him in precise steps and beheaded him with one swing of his weapon. A few minutes later, he surrendered to the police.
Can a judge, a human being with his own subjective experiences of life and the law, decide that his lunacy should be punished with a hanging? The case engrossed Chaudhry, who was then already a practising lawyer at the Bombay high court. In 2011, when the President rejected Nath’s mercy petition, Chaudhry got in touch with Nath’s family, a family of meagre financial means, and took up his case. “He has been in solitary confinement since 1997. Waiting to be hanged, and hoping not. Why would he not go mad?” Chaudhry says, and pauses. He is speaking at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College on the three cogs in the death row wheel—the police, the judges and executive, and legal aid.
“Afzal Guru was apparently among the few who talked coherently till the end,” Chaudhry says. Guru, convicted for the 2001 attack on Parliament, was hanged on 9 February. Two days later, President Pranab Mukherjee rejected the mercy petitions of four associates of poacher and smuggler Veerappan. Gnanprakasam, Simon, Meesaikara Madhaian and Bilavendran were sentenced to death for killing 22 people, including policemen, in a landmine blast in 1993. “This is another case which is based on extremely weak evidence, and if guilt is to be assumed, the convicts were most undeserving of the death penalty. I wonder if this is the State’s response to (Jammu and Kashmir chief minister) Omar Abdullah’s challenge that the state must prove that Muslims are not being targetted with the death penalty,” Chaudhry guesses.
Forty-five-year-old Chaudhry is a human rights lawyer with a PhD on the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. He is the front-runner and hero of India’s small and unorganized death row abolitionist movement. The cases with him now are, in his words, “the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case (Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan) in the Supreme Court, Mahindra Nath Das in the Supreme Court, Saibanna in the Karnataka high court, 7/11 train blast (accused in the Bombay high court).”
"We find the horrific details of a murder repugnant. The judge’s reaction is also mostly emotive."
At the Multi Media Room of St Xavier’s College that evening was a micro-confederation of the movement, of which Chaudhry is the new pivot. The Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), which is bullish about pushing the abolitionist case into mainstream debate, organized the talk, inviting the former chief justice of the Delhi high court, Ajit Shah, famous for his verdict in the Naz Foundation case which struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and decriminalized homosexual acts involving consenting adults; Justice Hosbet Suresh, a retired Bombay high court judge who is a tireless voice for abolishing the death penalty; and Pushpa Bhave, a writer and activist who famously supported Sheela Kini, the widow of Ramesh Kini, a resident of Dadar’s Hindu Colony, allegedly killed by Shiv Sena workers in 1996. There are a few students, all of them ambivalent about Afzal Guru’s execution.
“He was the only surviving face of the terrorist attacks, so I guess they had to hang him,” says 24-year-old Pradyut. “But there was no evidence,” his friend dispassionately counters. The room is filled mostly with social workers—a congregation in agreement that the death penalty serves no purpose. It does not deter crime and snatches a human being’s opportunity to reclaim his humanity.
In a country where the majority believes our government is soft on crime and terrorism, announcing the death penalty is an act of valour, especially now, after the hysteria following the Delhi gang rape. Two-thirds of the world has abolished it, but here, anti-death row activism is nascent, even muffled. So Chaudhry has a big task. “There is a great deal of support for it, but it is not organized or channelized into a movement or a campaign. A lot of work has to be done, especially research,” he says.
In writing and speech, Chaudhry is astute, articulate, and focused on his cause—he has the virtues of a consummate propagandist. He follows and studies every case on death row in India assiduously. Most often in murder cases, the evidence is circumstantial, and anybody knows that circumstantial evidence can be fabricated easily. “We find the horrific details of a murder repugnant. The judge’s reaction is also mostly emotive. Death penalty is often not a sane judicial decision,” Chaudhry says.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the Union government spends Rs.10,000 per person every year on prisoners. The rarest of rare case doctrine for application of the death penalty has become routine. Death penalty is no longer the exception, but the rule. According to the NCRB’s latest records, 1,455 convicts, or an average of 132.27 convicts a year, were given the death penalty from 2001-11. Most death row convicts are from marginalized communities—in Chaudhry’s words, it’s a matter of “class and colour”. All of them are represented by legal aid—lawyers who get paid a total of Rs.900 for defending a murder case.
Chaudhry is campaigning to change that salary structure. He is known to track death row convicts and visit them, offering legal help. He writes regularly in Indian as well as international publications, including for London School of Economics blogs. In a passionately argued, beautifully worded piece for Kafila.org published in November, on the rejection of 26/11 accused Ajmal Kasab’s mercy plea, Chaudhry writes: “The justification for mercy has its roots not in merit, but in need. We don’t deserve mercy, we need it. I think all of us—the best and the worst—are in need of mercy, and it is only by showing mercy that, morally, we ourselves become entitled to receiving it. Bereft of mercy, our society would be impoverished and inhuman, for mercy is quintessentially a human quality, not found elsewhere in the natural world.”
In Nath’s case, Chaudhry approached the Assam government to delay the hanging to enable him to approach the courts, but they refused to do so unless he obtained a stay order from the court first. They had already sent an official to Lucknow to escort the hangman to Assam, and the gallows were kept oiled and ready. The execution was scheduled to take place within hours of the hangman’s arrival. He had just the evening to draft the petition and email it to the lawyers in Assam, hoping that it could be filed first thing in the morning for a hearing later that afternoon. Early next morning, Chaudhry flew to Assam, arriving a few hours before the train bearing the hangman pulled into the local station.
He recalls: “On reaching the court, I was informed that there was no division bench sitting on that day. We moved the chief judge during the lunch break to constitute a special bench for this matter, and explained that any delay would actually be fatal. At 2pm, a notification was issued about the constitution of the bench for 3pm, and by 4pm, the judges granted us a stay on the execution pending further hearing of the petition.”
Nath has been hospitalized off and on in the recent past because he slips in and out of episodes of mental derangement. “I had worked in jails for many years, and various death row prisoners from across the country were in regular touch with me, but none of them were in imminent danger of execution.”
This was the case that drew Chaudhry to activism. He grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai). He had never intended to become a lawyer, and was determined to spend his life teaching English literature. After completing his master’s in English, he taught at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, where he was earlier a student, and then got a scholarship to Oxford for a doctorate in English. “During my doctoral studies, my interest in the subject was unabated, but I began to get disillusioned with academics and started doubting the social utility of teaching literature in India. I am now not sure whether my reservations about teaching English are valid, but I cannot turn the clock back.” After completing the doctorate, he completed a law degree at Cambridge, returned to Oxford to get a book ready, and then cam back to India to practise law.
The book that was published by Cork University Press in 2001 was on Yeats, his doctoral subject. Yeats: The Irish Literary Revival And the Politics of Print, which is on the reading lists of many university courses on Yeats around the world, traces the relationship between Yeats, literary nationalism and the publishing industry of late Victorian Britain and Ireland, when Yeats wrote. His argument is that almost all of Yeats’ work till the turn of the century, and much of the literary output of the Irish literary revival, was first published in periodicals, which is important to understand the poet’s positions. Unlike most criticism in literature which depends on subjective readings of aesthetic and preceding theories, Chaudhry’s book depends heavily on empirical findings.He believes Yeats has a particular resonance given the similarities in the Irish and Indian social contexts and freedom struggles. “I don’t think poetry helps me in the work I do except to, perhaps, relax me and force me to think harder and more fundamentally.”
Chaudhry believes every hanging is a consequence of deliberation and political strategizing. “When he was campaigning for presidency, Pranab Mukherjee came to Bombay. He met (the late Shiv Sena leader) Bal Thackeray, who agreed to support him in return for Afzal Guru’s hanging,” Chaudhry claims, with the small congregation listening in rapt attention. Mint Lounge could not independently verify this.
After the mandatory vote of thanks, a middle-aged man approaches Chaudhry and says: reflecting the national mood, “Your speech was good, but it was one-sided. I mean, how long can you let terrorists go?”
“Yes, very one-sided,” Chaudhry says. “There’s no other way.”