No woman has been hanged in India by the justice system since 1955.
The case of Shabnam Ali, a 38-year old woman on death row in India, has ignited a debate on the efficacy of capital punishment and New Delhi’s practice of arbitarily marking prisoners for executions.
Shabnam, a resident of a village in Uttar Pradesh (UP) state, was convicted in the 2008 killing of seven members of her family including a 10-month old nephew.
The gruesome murders were premeditated and stem from a forbidden love affair. She wanted to marry a man named Saleem, a local carpenter, but her family was against it.
Saleem is a middle-school dropout whereas Shabnam, a school teacher, is a postgraduate with degrees in English and geography.
On the night of the murders, she served her family tea laced with diazepam sedative tablets. Later, Saleem hacked to death Shabnam’s father, mother, two brothers, a sister in law, and a cousin with an axe as they lay unconscious. The infant was suffocated. Saleem also faces the death penalty.
The case dragged on for years as Shabnam made multiple attempts seeking clemency. India’s supreme court upheld the death penalty twice - in 2015 and 2020 - and former President Pranab Mukherjee rejected her mercy plea in 2016.
She has now exhausted all avenues of appeal including a review petition, said Suhas Chakma, director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), a New Delhi-based NGO.
But Shabnam’s lawyer insists that she can’t be hanged since she still has a few legal remedies including her right to file a curative petition before the apex court.
If the execution goes ahead, she would be only the second woman to be hanged in India since 1955 when Rattan Bai Jain was executed for the murder of three girls.
Even though the death warrant, the final execution order, is yet to be issued, jail authorities at the Mathura prison, where Shabnam is being held, have started making arrangements to carry out the sentence, reports say.
Mathura is the only prison where women prisoners can be executed. Its rusty gallows, built 150 years ago, are being repaired because they haven’t been used since India’s independence in 1947 . Prison officials have even ordered ropes from elsewhere to be ready if the order comes.
Pawan Jallad, the fourth generation executioner whose great grandfather pulled the lever to hang Bhagat Singh, the famed freedom fighter, is also on the standby.
The Modi factor?
Shabnam is a Muslim. Her execution will come at a time when Indian Muslims are feeling increasingly alienated under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken multiple steps including an amendment to citizenship law that critics say specifically discriminates against Muslims.
More than 50 people were killed in early 2020 after communal riots broke out against the law which fast tracks the citizenship of non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring countries.
Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India, faced a complete internet blackout for months after the region’s nominal autonomy was withdrawn in 2019.
Human rights groups say authorities are targeting minorities and using terrorim charges to silence political opponents.
“The Indian government has reportedly submitted the most number of content takedown requests to social media platforms, and at least 50 people—mostly Muslims—were arrested for social media posts in just 2017 and 2018 alone,” according to the South Asia State of Minority Report.
India is also using the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to target Dalits, a caste of Hindus who face widespread discrimination under the country’s hierarchical caste system.
“Laws ostensibly meant for the protection of cows continue to provide institutional backing for similar campaigns against Muslims and Dalits,” the report said.
Changes in the Citizenship Act that target Muslim migrants and the brutal police reponse to subsequent protests — in which 22 people were shot dead in Utter Pradesh state in a single day — further illustrate the worsening status of minorities in India.
Besides Shabnam, other (Hindu) women are on death row including Seema Gavit and Renuke Shinde, half-sisters convicted of kidnapping and killing more than a dozen children.
A matter of choice
But RRAG’s Chakma said it would be wrong to consider religion as a factor in Shabnam’s case as it had nothing to do with politics.
“Certianly it will evoke some questions (about her being a Muslim). But I don't think religion is playing a big part here,” he said.
Instead, he said, the problem lies in the selective manner in which executions are carried out in India.
For instance, Balwant Singh, who was involved in the assasination of a provincial chief minister in 1995, has been on death row for years.
Singh never challenged the allegation against him and even refused to hire a lawyer, yet the Indian government has dragged its feet in carrying out the supreme court order to hang him, said Chakma.
“This (Modi) government has all along said that it will take a firm stand against terrorism. Now, if you want to send a message across that you are against terror then why not hang Singh?
Around 400 prisoners await execution in India where capital punishment remains popular among the masses who often prefer vigilante justice over lethargic legal proceedings, which can take years.
“If you ever carry out a referendum, 95 percent of the people will back the idea of capital punishment,” said Chakma.
But executions are still rare. Four men accused of raping a girl in New Delhi were hanged last year. Before that, the last death sentence was the 2015 execution of Yakub Memon, who was convicted of the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. Ajmal Kasab, one of the men involved in the 26/11 attacks, was hanged in 2012.
“Executions in India are rare - they happen every few years and whenever something like this comes up the media jumps on to the story,” said Chakma.