My story is just one amongst everyone else’s here.
That thought has always crept in and amused me when I’m in a populated space and I allow my mind to wander. When I’m standing in the bus or the metro and not in the mood to read or waste time on my phone, I think about random things. This is often followed by the thought that everyone there has a story to tell, and I look around and figure out who would have the best story. Of course, I have absolutely no idea what their story might be, but it is fun to speculate nonetheless. This trail of thought always takes place when I am in a train and I look at the houses along the railway tracks. It starts with how annoying it must be to live with that constant noise day in and day out, which morphs into curiosity as to the lives of these people. This is the story of how I found myself bang in the middle of the lives of one such family. It has been an experience I was extremely fortunate to have had, and one I will never forget.
The family consists of the mother, her sister, her three sons, her daughter-in-law, her two grandsons and her granddaughter. The sons (Suresh, Param, and Ram) work as scrap dealers and travel to nearby district to sell their scrap and make a living. In 2004, when Param was 16, he went to sell their scrap to one of their frequent customers and returned. An hour later, five members of that customer’s family were murdered in some dispute and the murder was pinned on Param and his brother Suresh, who was 12 years old at the time. The police arrested them and their age was recorded in the chargesheet as 21 and 23 respectively. In 2006, after spending two years in jail, the trial court convicted them and sentenced them to death despite Suresh providing his grade sheet from school showing his age. As per criminal procedure, the case was heard by the High Court for confirmation of the death sentence, and after six more years in jail, the High Court declared that Suresh was a juvenile at the time of the offence, but confirmed the death sentence of Param. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal against the confirmation and the death sentence on Param was upheld. Since then, the mercy petition has been rejected by the Ministry of Home Affairs and is currently pending before the President.
Param did not have any documents to prove that he was a juvenile at the time because his late father had admitted Param (his name at home) into school under his official name, Paramveer Kumar, and Param had no other documents to prove his age. More tragically, the mother admitted Param to school with his elder brother Ram, with his age entered as two years above his actual age, because she could afford it at the time and feared her inability to afford it later. As a result, the school records showed Param to be two months over 18 at the time of the offence. Having already spent more than three years in jail, Suresh was released and returned home. His father had died, the family was in debt, and his brother Ram had three children, two playful, happy-go-lucky boys who knew nothing of all that had transpired, and a mentally handicapped girl, who could still not speak at age 5. This family continued on with their lives as they waited to hear from the President as to whether Param would be granted mercy or be hung till death for a crime he did not commit.
As I stood at the door of the train and stared outside, sometimes I would catch the eye of those living near the railway tracks. They would smile and I would return the smile and wonder what their story may be. Not in my faintest dreams would I have imagined this. But here I was, in the middle of it all, trying to arrange for documents to prove that the name Param went by in the school records was indeed the same person and thus a candidate for commutation of sentence. How did I get here?
There was a call for an urgent meeting of all those involved in the Death Penalty Research Project. I went begrudgingly; because I had been absent from the project this semester and I hoped it would not be too much work. My intention was merely to mark my presence in the meeting as a formality. To my surprise, it was not a compulsory meeting, and only a small group of eight showed up. My entry into the meeting room was noted by the project Director with surprise because he thought I had quit the project. He told us about the case and the rejection of the mercy petition by the Home Ministry. With a reinforced interest in proving my continuing involvement in the project, I began research to show that young age marginally above 18 was grounds for commutation. Later, two people had to go to Chhattisgarh to get certain documents from the family to verify his age and I volunteered solely because I wanted to travel.
Take a moment to think about that. Here is a mother who does not know what is going to happen to her son and does not know how to help him. From nowhere, two students from Delhi come to arrange for documents to establish his age and commute the death sentence. At a time when she told us she was losing hope due to her genuine inability to do anything, we re-instilled faith that there was hope for her son yet. The brother who got commuted told us that when he heard that we were coming to help with the case, he climbed the 1500 steps to pray at the temple in the hope that we would get him commuted.
And then there’s me. I volunteered because I wanted to travel.
The ways of the world are random and terrifying. The cause of one particular decision and the effect that it will have is unpredictable and uncontrollable. When Param was admitted into the school at the age of four, with his age entered as six, no one could have known that years later he would be sentenced to death and a difference of two months could have saved him. The family had no idea that a project—originally envisioned to be on a much smaller scale and ending in August last year—would continue as long as it did and allow us to play such an important role in their lives. When I decided to go for that meeting, little did I know that a week later I would travel to a house near the railway tracks in a remote village to arrange for documents to save a man from a terrible fate.
After collecting affidavits from Param’s mother, his school teacher, and the village sarpanch that Param and Paramveer Kumar were names of the same person, in order to establish the veracity of the school records, we came to Raipur with the mother to meet Param in jail. In the evening, she sat across me in the hotel room and we spoke for a while. She spoke of admitting Param to school, of how strong Param had been when she visited him and how he never cried or showed any weakness. She spoke softly and tired, never looking at me directly, staring at the wall and speaking almost to herself, as if she weren’t speaking to me, but needed someone to listen. I showed her pictures of her grandson on my phone, and a faint smile lit up her face, but it was fleeting and replaced almost immediately by the helplessness and sorrow she was unable to escape. I knew it was time for her to leave and catch her train back home, but she was delaying, hoping for reassurance from me. There was none I could give her. She sat there quietly, looking at the wall, contemplating things in the past and things yet to happen. I had no kind words of reassurance, but I hoped that I had kind eyes for her.
The next day, we met Param in jail. He had been told by his mother that the Ministry of Home Affairs had recommended the rejection of his mercy petition and that it was pending before the President. His brother and co-accused in the case, Suresh, had told us that his brother was always calm and relaxed. The man we met was far from it. His hands shook as he signed the Vakalatnama we had brought. A bead of sweat dropped from his brow onto the Vakalatnama and he hastily tried to clean it. His voice faltered as he spoke about what had happened. He had written a letter detailing the arrest and how a false charge-sheet had been framed against him. He spoke of his innocence – of how the police often beat him to the point where he lost consciousness, of how he was made to pick up weapons after his arrest to get his fingerprints on them, of how he was made to sign papers without being explained their content. There was more in the letter he could no longer remember. He spoke to us about the Shatrugan Chauhan case where the sentence of 15 death row convicts was commuted and asked us whether he had a chance as well. He told us that his only regret was that he had done nothing to help his mother who had done so much for him. And he too told us how he was losing hope, and from nowhere, we had come and instilled hope in him once more.
The Death Penalty Research Project has provided all of us involved an opportunity that we are unlikely to ever get again. It is an opportunity to be part of something greater than any of our individual lives. It explores the flipside of the criminal justice system and its tendency to prey on the weak and powerless. It teaches us how the misfortune of being born into poverty does not end at that, but multiplies and reinforces itself in ways that we could not have imagined. It allows us to hear and understand the perspective of people whose stories are left unheard because they do not have the resources to tell them loud enough. And of course, I get to travel.
Our stories intersected here by pure chance and I struggle to articulate my incredulity that a fleeting thought about those living near the railway tracks would manifest itself in this form. Our stories parted ways for now, and I only hope that the next time our stories intersect, I will have the good fortune of telling the mother that her son’s sentence has been commuted.
Because the alternative is unthinkable.
Update: I wrote this in April from my hotel room in Bilaspur where I went to meet a lawyer who we approached to represent Param in this case. Since then, Param’s mercy petition was rejected by the President. In response to this and in the first legal intervention by the Death Penalty Research Project, a lawyer working with the project filed a Review Petition before the Supreme Court against the rejection of the mercy petition. On the basis of documents that we collected, the Court issued an interim stay order against the execution till the Review Petition is decided. While the Court is yet to give its final decision, the stay order has been a ray of hope against a bleak and terrifying prospect.