Dead man waiting

By Prasanta Mazumdar

Mahendra Nath Das (48) has spent the last 15 years of his life in Guwahati Central Jail. For 12 of those years, he was on death row, waiting to hear whether the President of India wants him to live or die. Last month, the President finally decided that Mahendra must die. His mercy petition, filed in 1999, was rejected, and on May 27, the convict was moved from Guwahati Central Jail to the 100-year-old Central Jail in Jorhat, which is the only jail in Assam with all the ‘facilities’ needed to execute a human being.
Even as the jail authorities began preparations to execute Mahendra, his mother, Kusumbala Das, filed a writ petition in the Gauhati High Court questioning the delay in deciding on the mercy petition and stating that her son had to endure severe mental trauma and physical agony because of it. So on June 7, the High Court issued an order staying his execution of the death sentence. The court issued notices to the Assam government, Union home ministry and Jorhat’s jail superintendent, asking them to file their responses, explain the 12-year delay, by June 17. The Gauhati High Court further extended the stay on June 17 till July 21. This came after the central government sought time to file affidavit before the court explaining circumstances that led to inordinate delay that had occurred in rejecting the mercy petition of the convict.The state government of Assam, however, filed the affidavit.

Mahendra was sentenced to death by the Sessions Court in 1997. Subsequently, he fought his case in the Gauhati High Court and the Supreme Court, but both upheld the Sessions Court judgement. Mahendra’s parents visited Delhi in 1999 to meet the then President APJ Abdul Kalam and seek mercy for their son. But after waiting for 10 days, they ran out of money and eventually returned home without meeting the President.

All this raises a critical question: when even life imprisonment entails 14 years in jail, is it fair to inflict the death penalty on a convict who has already served 15 years in jail?

The day he took his head

On April 24, 1996, the people of Guwahati woke up to news of a grisly murder. Mahendra, who was then 33, had beheaded 68-year-old Hara Kanta Das in broad daylight. He then held the severed head by the hair and calmly walked the 100 metres to the nearest police station, where he surrendered.

According to Amal Das, the only son of Hara Kanta, Mahendra was a hardened criminal. “Many in Assam know he had killed one Rajen Das in 1995, a year before he killed my father. But he went scot-free as the police failed to file a charge-sheet against him within the stipulated 90 days,” says Das, a businessman.
Das believes that his father was killed because he stood up to the accused. “My father owned couple of vehicles and was the secretary of the All Assam Truck Owners’ Association. Mahendra held the same position in a transporters’ union. He used to demand exorbitant amounts as fee from truck drivers. My father spoke up against this and was killed.” Adds Amal, “Since he got away with his earlier murder, it encouraged him to commit the murder of my father as well.”

Amal, of course, can never forget that fateful day. His father had stepped out that morning to buy fodder from Guwahati’s Fancy Bazaar. He was about to take a rickshaw home when one of his friends called out to him, inviting him for a cup of tea. Just then, Mahendra materialised out of nowhere and struck him on the neck with a ‘four-five kg’ machete. Hara Kanta died instantly.
“My father died at the first stroke. But Mahendra didn’t stop, he went on striking him over and over again,” says Das.

Das’ family was relieved to hear about the President’s rejection of Mahendra’s mercy petition. “Now we will finally get justice.”
While many in Assam hold the opinion that Mahendra should be imprisoned for life and not hanged as he has already spent 15 years in jail, the victim’s family wants law to take its own course. “We are neither in favour nor against his execution. We want the law to take its own course. We’ll honour whatever happens in the long run,” says Das.

Says Das’ wife Sarada Das, “We feel sorry for Mahendra’s mother. We’ve seen her (ailing) condition on television. But we also went through a difficult phase when my father-in-law was murdered.”
‘Why kill him twice?’
The scene at Mahendra’s village Kumarpara in Barpeta district is grim. Everyone understands the gravity of Mahendra’s crime. But what they do not understand is, why kill the convict when he has already spent 15 years in jail?

Even Mahendra’s sisters Bijuli, Pratima and Latuki ask the same question. “He has died once by already spending 15 years in jail. So why kill him again?” They add, “If there is God, our brother will surely returnhome someday.”

Mahendra’s mother, Kusumbala, is sick and bed-ridden. She cannot move without assistance. “I want to see his face once before I die,” says the 78-year-old said, breaking down,
eyes brimming.

Deepak Saloi, 32, a small businessman, first met Mahendra at the Central Jail in Guwahati in 2005, when he was serving a seven-month prison term in another case. “I found him to be a thorough gentleman. Maybe he had reformed himself in jail as it often happens with some people,” Saloi says. “It is sad that his mercy petition has been rejected. When my father died, it was Mahendra who helped me in performing the last rites in jail.”
Saloi says that in 2005, Mahendra had staged a fast-unto-death for five months inside the jail premises in protest against his death sentence. “He always behaved well with all of us. We don’t know what provoked him to commit the decapitation murder,” says Ram Kalita,who worked with Mahendra at the transporters’ union.

In search of a hangman

The inmates of Jorhat prison have jointly petitioned the Assam Human Rights Commission to take up the case of commuting Mahendra’s death sentence. “Two Mumbai-based lawyers and human right activists are planning to file a writ petition in the Supreme Court to commute his death sentence. We have already filed two petitions with the governor and the chief minister, requesting them to ensure that the convict is not hanged till
the apex court delivers its verdict,” says advocate Nekibur Zaman, who is assisting Mahendra’s family.

“Our logic is based on a 1989 case in which a convict’s death sentence was commuted to life term because the President took eight years to reject the mercy petition,” Zaman says. “A convict, if sentenced to life imprisonment, can come out of jail after 14 years. So, if Mahendra is hanged now, how will his agonies be compensated given that he has already spent such a long time in jail?”

Public opinion, too, seems largely in favour of commuting Mahendra’s death sentence. “The convict has already spent 15 years behind bar and so, if he is to be hanged now, then why aren’t those involved in the Godhra carnage and the Kashmiri jihadis hanged? Mahendra killed one but they committed mass murders,” a blogger argued.

“We understand the magnitude of the crime Mahendra committed. But it will be cruel to hang him now given that he has already spent a life term in jail. If he was to be executed, why wasn’t it done earlier? Why did the President take such a long time to reject his mercy petition?” asked an academician.

Meanwhile, in Jorhat Jail, Mahendra himself seems to be taking it all calmly, if Brojen Das, the jailor, is to be believed. “Mahendra doesn’t seem frightened. He is behaving normally,” he assures you. “He doesn’t speak much. He spends the day reading newspapers and the Bhagavad Gita.”

The convict has been kept in solitary confinement in a cell similar to the one occupied by freedom fighter Kushal Konwar before he was hanged by the British in 1943. Former President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed was also incarcerated in the same jail during the freedom struggle. The last hanging here took place on July 27, 1990, and was of a man named Kanpai Buragohain, for multiple murder.
Though the date of Mahendra’s execution hasn’t been fixed yet, the authorities are scrambling to find a hangman. But so far, they’ve had no luck. “He will be hanged,” says S Thakuria, IG (prisons), but does specify when. Asked if they’ve found a hangman, he says, “We’ll get one…We’re bringing one from UP. You will get to know soon.”