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

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe
·3 min read

"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 row. 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.

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

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