On death row in India: A new book draws on criminal justice research for a reconsideration of the death penalty

"For the harshest punishment in our system, we know very little about the death penalty in India. A prime example of our callous approach to such a punishment is that there is no reliable information on the number of people independent India has executed," notes Anup Surendranath, the executive director of Project 39A, a criminal justice research and litigation centre working out of National Law University, Delhi.

Project 39A embarked upon an ambitious investigative assignment in 2013 and over the course of three years, interviewed 400 prisoners sentenced to death as well as their families. The research study was a quest to find a response to "very basic questions" which "barely had any answers": "Who gets the punishment? Are there patterns that emerge? How do they get sentenced? What are the conditions on death row in Indian prisons?"

As many as 100 law students contributed to the study and according to Surendranath, what the findings indicated were the cracks within the system which spoke of the lack of adequate legal representation available to the prisoners on death. A large part of Project 39A's initiative was to study the concerns of the families of the convicts, and their research illuminated the alienation and contempt that they suffer from as a result of the punishment.

"Far too often," he says, "their houses and they themselves are attacked for what the prisoner is alleged to have done." While some are driven away, he rues, others are compelled to sever all ties with the prisoner to continue living in the community.

"But there were also these rare exceptions," Surendranath concedes, "where communities supported and stood with the families for what they saw as gross injustice being inflicted on the prisoner."

Based on research conducted by Project 39A and the narratives that cast an alternative perspective on the death penalty, its social and cultural impact, is author Jahnavi Misra's work, The Punished: Stories of Death Row Prisoners in India.

For her work of non-fiction, Misra delves into Project 39A's findings to piece together stories of death row prisoners and the families of some of these convicts, to cast a more humane gaze towards those who have been condemned for life by law, and by society. Her short narratives are picked from interview transcripts she received from Project 39A, and without revealing the prisoners' identities, Misra delivers prose which becomes a call to society to discover its collective humanity.

In a conversation with Firstpost, Misra discussed her stance on the death penalty, the challenge of seeing death row prisoners in a more humane light and how she steeled herself in order to write about some of the harsher episodes of their lives. 

Edited excerpts:

What got you interested in the research Project 39A was conducting with death row prisoners and their families and how did you decide to put all of that in The Punished?

I think it’s just a really great cause to give voice to people who are generally not represented in the media at all. And I was very honoured to be part of it. That’s how it started. It was a difficult process. It wasn’t enjoyable in the regular sense. It was emotionally taxing to try and get into the headspace of the convicts, to write their stories. But the whole process involved my having to put aside my conditional responses to people like that, to people who have been damned in such a way and who have been accused of crimes such as these. I had to put aside those kinds of first reactions to be able to empathise and to be able to write for them.

Through the stories that Misra writes, she tries to shed a more sympathetic light on death row prisoners to point out the cracks in our legal and social structures.

Reading the anecdotes or episodes in the interviews again and again must’ve been a difficult experience. How did you steel yourself, or brave the process of studying such jarring accounts?

My research in this was two-pronged. The first stage was the reading of the interviews of the prisoners. The second stage involved going through media reports on the prisoners. So there were these two perspectives that I was working with, one was the experience of the prisoners themselves that they laid out in the interviews and the second was the outsider’s perspective by the media. And somewhere between those two is where the characters came alive. Doing all that research was kind of a defense mechanism actually, not getting too involved, in doing all the research that I could to kind of hone these characters. That helped me to distance myself in a way from the stories. But yeah, it was an emotionally difficult process nonetheless.

You have created an animated short film, I am Ramdeen about the death penalty in India. Could you tell us more about it and what it explores?

I am Ramdeen is entirely fictional, of course. The poem happened from that experience of reading the transcripts and doing the research. And  it was a bit of a cathartic experience trying to make this film. Stop-motion animation is almost a tedious process because you have these characters that you have to kind of manipulate and it’s a long and tedious process and it was very cathartic to make this film. It came out of the experience of writing the book but it’s related to the book only in the sense that it says the same thing: that we have to reconsider the death penalty, we need to look at it more closely.

What was your stance been on the death penalty when you started working the book and how did it change or evolve over time?

From the beginning, I have always questioned how morally sound it is for systems to be able to take another person’s life. So, I have never been for the death penalty, I have always been against it. Also, I think it doesn’t resolve anything as we know so clearly in the Indian context, it hasn’t really changed anything, has it?

So one has to look at why something happens. Killing one person doesn’t really do anything. The experiences in the book only strengthen my position that one has to acknowledge society’s role in violent crimes, why something happened, where things went wrong, whether it be education or the structural inequalities that lead to these crimes...

What were you able to discern from the interviews you conducted about what the prisoners were feeling at the time? Were they consumed with guilt or remorse, or helplessness, in those cases where they hadn't received proper legal representation?

The big feeling that stood out was despair and helplessness. Those were the two big feelings. I think a lot of them were very, very unhappy with their condition, with the expense that their family had to incur to meet them, those were the big problems. I don’t think any of them felt that their lawyers were suitable, that they were represented well by their lawyers. Often there were language problems, they couldn’t understand English and the lawyers would sometimes insist on talking in English. So these were the problems. Mostly there was a sense of desperation and despair.

The coronavirus crisis has put into sharp perspective the importance of being more humane towards each other as a society. Yet, could you elaborate on how easy or how difficult it is to be sympathetic or empathetic towards death row prisoners – because they have committed heinous crimes and there is no getting around that?

I think it is very difficult to do it as I also admit in the author’s note. But it is extremely important as well because I think justice doesn’t get served by simply demonising particular individuals and it doesn’t resolve anything. It is very difficult to sympathise. But also, simplistic sympathy is not what I am looking for through the book. Because sympathy is a very tricky thing, isn’t it? It is because of the sympathy that we feel for the victims that we find it so hard to understand the accused. So simplistic sympathy is not what I am talking about.

A sense of understanding, a sense of empathy for everybody’s condition in life, a sense of understanding of both the victim and the accused, that is an extremely important thing and a very challenging thing to do. But I think it’s important to do that for justice.

And it’s really difficult to do that, we find it difficult to do that with each other even in every day lives. That’s why even the coronavirus [crisis], things are so difficult, but the one thing we are doing more now, is trying to connect more with each other, isn’t it? Stories help us do that I think, stories are important there because they open us up to experiences that otherwise seem difficult to understand.

Jahnavi Misra's The Punished: Stories of Death-Row Prisoners in India has been published by HarperCollins India.



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