Three years ago, a team of researchers from the National Law University set out to learn everything about death row prisoners: who they were, where they have been imprisoned, which of them had been executed.
The first thing they found out: nobody knows. No single government agency is responsible for maintaining such records. Like the prisoners, the records are scattered across the country, locked up in filing cabinets, tucked away inside bulky registers, or destroyed.
“A poor person can go to the gallows early in the morning and disappear from the face of the Earth, and nobody would know,” said Colin Gonsalves, a prominent human rights lawyer. “That’s the reality of Indian prisons.”
By gathering records from prisons across the country, the National Law University (NLU) researchers were able to find the names of 755 prisoners executed since independence. But that number did not tally with the last official count. A 1967 report by the Law Commission of India counted at least 1,400 people executed in just ten years between 1954 and 1963.
The discrepancy underscores a grim reality: the names of many of the executed have simply been lost.
“They just don’t care,” said Anup Surendranath, the lead author of the NLU report, of the government recordkeeping. “They don’t really attach any significance. I think it’s callousness more than any malafide.”
When Surendranath’s team last year released its list of prisoners executed since 1947, they were forced to include a crucial caveat: “This list is not meant to be a reference for the total number of prisoners who have been executed in India since 1947,” the report states. “We have been unable to find an exhaustive list of prisoners executed in India.”
None of the government agencies who might be responsible for maintaining such a list — not the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), not the Bureau of Police Research and Development, not even the Ministry of Home Affairs itself — seem to have it.
The NCRB has counts of how many people were executed in each state and union territory going back as far 1995. But the NCRB’s records are incomplete and differ from other official estimates.
For example, the NCRB files say 13 prisoners were executed in 1995, including 11 in Uttar Pradesh, 1 in Assam, and 1 in Karnataka. Yet the prison departments of those states told the researchers that they hadn’t executed anyone in those years. Meanwhile, the government of Maharasthra told them that it had executed one Amritlal Someshwar Joshi in 1995, even though that execution was not accounted for in the NCRB records.
The NCRB also records 3 executions in Haryana in 1998, none of which find mention in official sources. Neither the NLU data nor a recent report by the Law Commission of India lists any executions from 1998 until 2004.
Unable to use NCRB data, the NLU researchers sought information from prisons across the country, only to find their recordkeeping was inconsistent. Prison officials in Bihar told them the state does not maintain records of executions, and officials in Tamil Nadu were either unwilling or unable to produce such records.
“Obviously, it is surprising that they don’t have the records,” said Neeraj Kumar, former director general of Delhi prisons, when told of the missing records. “That goes without saying.”
In Kerala, prison officials said termites had destroyed all records of executions performed in the state. Termites were to blame in Andhra Pradesh, too, though they had only consumed records of executions after 1968, the report said.
“These things are 40 years old. It is difficult to trace it out,” said B. Sunil Kumar, Inspector General of Prisons in Andhra Pradesh, when asked about the missing records. Kumar added that the last time the state executed a prisoner was in 1978, a claim that could not be verified. “It is because of my academic interest that I know,” he said.
Oddly, the NCRB records show one execution in Andhra Pradesh in 1997, even though no other official source mentions it. Because the NCRB records do not include the names of the executed, it is impossible to confirm whether the execution actually occurred.
Prison authorities from Kerala, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu could not be reached for comment.
“You know, their names are just lost,” said Shreya Rastogi, one of the NLU researchers. “The ignominy around this is just so depressing.”
“You'd intuitively think that with people who get the harshest punishment, there would be some sort of record of who they are and where they are lodged,” Rastogi said. “We literally had to send students to prisons to go and figure out how many prisoners were on death row.”
That’s how they realized that more than one hundred prisoners whose death sentences had been recorded at various High Courts could not be found on death row. These prisoners may have been acquitted, their sentences may have been commuted, or they may have died in prison. Whatever the case, they had vanished from the official record.
“There exists a theoretical possibility, given the state of record keeping, that the state has not accounted for someone as a death row prisoner,” Surendranath said. “Or that there are more prisoners than they say they are.”
The NLU researchers were not the first to attempt to find out who was on death row. Yug Chaudhry, a lawyer who has represented the appeals of several death row inmates, has been trying for a decade.
“You can’t get records anywhere,” Chaudhry said. “After national security, the jail is the most impenetrable institution in this country.”
The lack of transparency creates a situation in which death row prisoners are virtually cut off from the outside world, Chaudhry added. “From the perspective of an individual in prison, you are not able to get assistance, even though people may want to give assistance.”
In recent years, multiple prisoners have been saved from the gallows only after their lawyers learned from local media that their executions had been scheduled. In Afzal Guru’s case, no one — not even his family — knew of the execution until hours after he had been hanged. The letter from the government arrived two days later.
“Nobody knows when the prisoners are going to be executed, if they’ve gotten bail, if their execution has been stayed, or even if they’ve filed an appeal,” Gonsalves said. “They really are forsaken people.”