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Gallows economics

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:51 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The most commonsensical answer is usually the right one. Why, for instance, is my head throbbing like the Temple of Doom? It could be the sudden change in temperature over the last few days. It could be that I’ve been overworked (although not underpaid). But the most likely cause for my headache is also the correct one: the aftermath of a night of excessive consumption of alcohol and the resultant phenomenon known as the ‘hangover’.

So while many nose-diggers may see ‘minority appeasement’ as the reason why Afzal Guru, mastermind of the December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament, has not yet been ‘hung by the neck until dead’, the obvious reason for the delay is now out: India has a terrible shortage of hangmen. Forget devious votebank politics or any embarrassing attack of humanism. The fact that Afzal Guru — along with some 345 others currently on death row — is still here is because of a supply-demand crunch. Being a hangman in India isn’t much of a job option. The work is not full-time and the pay sucks. So like the member of the

Irish national cricket team, a professional hangman here is really an amateur called into duty, serving a national cause and then going back to his day job. So Pawan Kumar, son, grandson and great-grandson of hangmen — who had applied for the job of hanging child-killer Mahendra Nath Das in Orissa, but was pipped at the post by Lucknow resident Babu Ahmad with two previous hangings on his resume — won’t be giving up his day job as a hawker even if he enters ‘national service’. In any case, the death penalty is given out for the ‘rarest of rare cases’ and then too, cases remain pending for decades. The last State-sanctioned execution in the country took place in 2004 in West Bengal.

Hanging is a ritualised skill that needs to be done well. It’s not the work for a lynch mob where you string up a guy from the nearest lamp post or tree — like the nasty work done by 11 policemen in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh on June 10 when they allegedly raped and hanged a 14-year-old girl. (The 11 men have been missing since.)

The ‘long drop’ method employed by bona fide hangmen requires a firm grasp of the distance-weight ratio: the distance required for the body of a specific weight to travel downwards (usually 5 to 9 feet) with its specific length of rope so that the subject’s neck is instantly and cleanly broken. Asphyxiating a person would be awful PR for the death sentence. And supporters of capital punishment are humans too. They want clean things like justice and vengeance, not messy thrashings-about on a rope.

So how does one solve this essentially labour problem?

China, our role model in so many things these days, switched from its traditional format of shooting the prisoner to administering him the lethal injection in 1997. Unlike a hangman, the person injecting the lethal cocktail — first, a barbiturate to knock the subject out; then a paralytic to paralyse his muscles, respiratory muscles included; and finally, potassium chloride to stop the heart — is a medical lab scientist, medical practitioner or paramedic. With their secure day jobs and their ‘call to duty’ work profile being essentially the same (the expert administration of intravenous injections), there’s no fear of a demand-supply gap.

In 2009, responding to a petition by a human rights activist, the Supreme Court had questioned the notion that the lethal injection is a more humane procedure than hanging. But it’s as clear to me as the guilt of anyone sentenced to death that the matter shouldn’t be decided by whether hanging is a less ‘civilised’ form of killing a bad guy than injecting him dead. It’s about changing the ‘technology’ to suit our purpose. Unless, of course, we’re having second thoughts about the death sentence itself.