Lucknow: Few jobs evoke as much morbid dread as that of an executioner. So Ahmadullah has wisely kept his double life a secret. To his neighbours in Nakhas locality, he’s a shopkeeper selling candies and pencils.
He describes himself as a “fallen human being”, his work is a depraved one. He bombards us with a litany of excuses when we meet. We are late for the appointment, he protests. He’s not eaten since morning, he complains. He has urgent business to run to, he hints. His previous interview with a Mumbai-based reporter, he informs us, lasted a full 10 minutes. And yes, no photographs.
It’s 8.45am. We are arguing under a giant sandstone canopy on a cool morning in Lucknow’s newest garden district. Miles of super-sized memorials have sprung along the city’s VIP road—and swallowed up in whole the desolate execution ground and the prison that Ahmadullah knew as a famished teenager.
A heavy burden: Ahmadullah prays outside a government building in Lucknow. Photo by Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Now, in place of the gallows stand concrete parks adorned with stone-carved tuskers—the mascot of Uttar Pradesh’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party. The execution stand has moved to a prison in Sitapur, an hour’s drive away. Urban townplanners bulldozed the trees down, covered the dirty drains, and nudged people out to landscape an architectural landmark replete with political symbolism— thus forever burying Ahmadullah’s memories of the dead.
Of a medium build and about 60 years of age, Ahmadullah wears a brown salwar-suit, a crocheted cream skull cap and a silver beard. A lit bidi hangs from his lips. We convince him to join us for breakfast before parting ways. Generation after generation, like his father and grandfather before him, the family served as the state’s official killers.
He was in his teens when he began his apprenticeship with his father. Together, they’d walk the men in their final journey to death. He’d cover their faces with black masks. His father would have already knotted the noose. He’d steady their nervous legs before strapping them with rope. They were a team.
After his father died, he went solo. In 1965, he was about 16, he reckons, when he carried out the first job alone. He spent the night over at prison, waking up at an ungodly hour between midnight and dawn, the time when most executions are carried out in the country.
By his count, he has presided over 38 hangings to date.
Hunger drove him to become a hangman, he says as we move across the street to a small office still maintained by the erstwhile prison, and order a breakfast of buns, pakoras and sweets.
The VIP prison was where he and his father would head for free food. They ate whatever was served to the cellmates. Often it would be their first and last meal of the day. On lucky days, they’d even get a supply of dry ration—white gram—to carry back home. “When you are very hungry, like when you want to sleep desperately, you will do anything to get it,” he says.
Now, he has enough to eat. As a state retainer, he earns Rs3,000 a month, a raise that kept up with inflation from Rs15 in 1965. Greed holds him back from giving it up now, he says.
It’s easy money. He hasn’t killed anyone in 20 years.
Supreme Court advocate Janak Raj Jai speaks about the merits and demerits of capital punishment
As capital punishment has become rarer, so has the supply of hangmen. The last hanging was carried out in 2004. But there are hundreds of convicts awaiting the death penalty, as cases remain pending in courts or lie on the table of the country’s President, who has the power to suspend and commute sentences.
Some legal activists have been pushing for the abolition of the death penalty, saying it has not served as a deterrent. Judges, too, are ambivalent on whether a single judge or an entire bench could approve a death sentence.
Given these wavering apprehensions, the judicial system is riddled with contradictions, according to Janak Raj Jai, a senior Supreme Court advocate who has extensively written on the subject. Mercy pleas to the President rot for a number of years on the shelves of the home ministry, which is the sole authority to review court judgements.
“The government’s law officer usually pleads for death. But it’s again the government which delays decisions when a mercy petition is filed to the President, changing views according to political convenience,” says Jai. Just as the poor become hangmen, it’s rare for convicts without wealth or clout to defend themselves against death sentences, he says.
On the ground, Ahmadullah’s concerns are more immediate and serious. Death must be instant and painless, he says. The trick, he says, is to get the rope as close as possible to the upper part of the neck; it snaps easily then.
It’s about dying with dignity. “There must be no suffering. The job must be neat.”
Sometimes though, things go horribly wrong. One dark, drizzling morning, a convict was dropped precisely according to plan. But the “heavy” man hung on to life, fluttering, for a long time. The passage of the minutes seemed like hours.
He went to watch a film that evening to forget about the incident.
There were other low moments that robbed him of sleep for several months. Minutes before pulling the lever once, a “small and thin” convict claimed his innocence.
That night, he headed for a late film show again. As a thumb rule, he restrains from asking about the convict’s crime; he found out the man was a teacher. He doesn’t recall the name of the film.
On another occasion, he heard a calm exchange between a father and son, awaiting hanging together. “Are you there, son?” the father asked. “Yes,” the son replied. “It was strange because both had their masks on,” Ahmadullah says.
At times, he turned down offers. He once refused to go to the Andamans because it was “at the far corner of the Earth”. He bargained hard for a good fee for a “hard job”. For his last out-station job in 1990, he earned Rs12,000. “I ask for a first-class train ticket, but I travel third class.”
One wintry January morning in 1989, he took a train to Delhi. It was a high-profile case—the double execution of the assassins of prime minister Indira Gandhi. He checked into a hotel in Paharganj. He pulled the sheet from the mattress and spread it on the ground at night, as he’s “not used to sleeping in a bed”.
He arrived at Tihar jail with a police escort the next morning, and discovered that another hangman, Mammu Singh of Meerut, was already there. The authorities had summoned two hangmen—they didn’t want anything to go wrong in the last minute. The hangmen, however, decided that only one—Singh—should take up the job. It was agreed that Ahmadullah would wait on the side—a stand-by.
It was after a very long break that a prison staffer showed up at his home in May this year, with a letter in hand. A hangman was wanted in Assam. In the top-secret prison world, the news of death is always conveyed to him officially, in a sealed envelope, and always hand-delivered.
But Ahmadullah was trussed up in bandages. A freak road accident left him with a broken wrist and dark bruises on his chest. “If they want me, I can do it with only one hand,” he told the carrier of the letter. But Assam, perpetually short of a hangman, is banking on him. For two previous hangings, in 1989 and 1990, Ahmadullah travelled to the high-walled prison in the eastern town of Jorhat, ironically located on a street named after hanged freedom fighter Kushal Konwar.
In hot pursuit of a hangman, state officials had first turned to the Jorhat prison inmates: they promised to reduce a life sentence if anyone came forward for the job. No one came. The hunt led to an unemployed youth in another town, Tezpur, on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra three hours away. But he was rated “inexperienced”.
Ahmadullah has not watched a film in 20 years. And maybe he won’t have to watch one too soon. In June, counter petitions were filed seeking mercy for the man on death row in Assam, Mahendra Nath Das, after the President rejected his request for a pardon. Das had publicly beheaded a rival trade union leader in 1996.
By noon, Ahmadullah rises for his afternoon prayer, hinting we should leave. Mint photographer Ramesh Pathania persuades him to agree to a photograph—“just a side shot”—as he wets his face, eyes and feet with a garden hose. No member of his family will ever be a hangman, he repeats to us. He’s the last of the family’s sordid legacy—an end of his classified story.
He pats his nicotine-stained grey beard with cool water before kneeling on the ground. He has to heal every day, he says. “I ask God for forgiveness every day.”
Next: The Puppeteer