death penalty

How India hanged a poor watchman whose guilt was far from established

Timed to coincide with the law commission's public hearing on the death penalty on July 11, two scholars released an analysis highlighting several serious problems with the decade-old case.

Although bearing a Brahmin name, Dhananjay Chatterjee was far from being a member of the Kolkata bhadralok, or intellectual elite. He was an impoverished guard in a building where an 18-year-old named Hetal Parekh was found dead in March 1990. He was convicted of having raped and killed her and was hanged on his 39th birthday, August 14, 2004, protesting his innocence until the end.

His execution followed a shrill campaign waged by the wife of the then West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Chatterjee’s appeals were rejected by the then president APJ Abdul Kalam on the advice of arguably India’s worst home minister, Shivraj Patil, going by historian Ramachandra Guha’s estimation.

Recently, Abdul Kalam has been in the news saying he favours abolition of the death penalty. Had he applied his mind to the file put before him 11 years ago, it would have helped save the life of a man who was in all likelihood innocent.

In a similar situation, his predecessor in Rashtrapati Bhavan, KR Narayanan, had applied his mind wonderfully, as emerges from an anecdote narrated by his secretary, Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Delivering the People’s Union of Civil Liberties’ 35th JP Memorial Lecture in Bangalore on March 23 earlier this year, Gandhi described how he had received a call late at night from Chennai regarding the case of a man on death row in Tamil Nadu and how the president had unhesitatingly decided on commuting his sentence. Gandhi went on to speak of the independent and cerebral outlook that India’s sole Dalit president brought to his job.

For its part, India’s higher judiciary has not done enough to ensure that someone convicted of a capital crime receives a fair trial. An exception was in the case of a Dalit named Surinder Koli. He might have been executed by now in connection with the Nithari killings, which were serial murders in 2005 that took place just outside New Delhi, had the Allahabad High Court chief justice DY Chandrachud not entertained an appeal on a technicality, leading to commutation. The Supreme Court had thrown out Koli’s appeals, including the very last one, at which Ram Jethmalani appeared pro bono to argue that the convict had received a shoddy trial.

In the eyes of some, the current Supreme Court Chief Justice, HL Dattu, is what in American parlance would be called a “hanging judge”.

Chatterjee framed?

As for Dhananjay Chatterjee’s execution, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a four-decades-old New Delhi-based volunteer outfit, put out a statement earlier this month based on an analysis by two scholars from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, arguing that the guard was framed.

The analysis by Debashish Sengupta and Prabal Chaudhury, timed to coincide with the Law Commission’s Public Hearing on the death penalty in New Delhi on Saturday, July 11, described what they believe was a botched investigation. They also highlighted inconsistencies in the evidence and pointed to fictitious claims, all aimed, they say, to frame Chatterjee.

The two scholars noted that a police witness in court denied having seen Chatterjee at the victim’s flat. The police seizure list was signed by someone who supplied tea to the police and did not turn up in court. The antecedents of some items presented as incriminating evidence, such as a necklace and a watch, were never checked. The trial court failed to question why no murder weapon was recovered and why there was no blood on Chatterjee’s clothes even though there were 21 stab wounds on the victim’s body.

While the crime was said to have been committed in a short window between 5:20 pm and 5:50 pm, when Hetal Parekh’s mother was out of the flat, there was a three-hour delay before the police were called – ample time for tampering with the evidence. The Parekh family members’ statements were inconsistent, and the family soon wrapped up its thriving jewellery business and left Kolkata, raising the possibility of an honour killing, the scholars contend. A letter written by the victim’s father alleging that Chatterjee used to harass his daughter, which was used by the police to establish a motive, seems to have been written after the crime, the scholars say.

Guilt must be established

Criminal convictions and sentencing ought to follow only when guilt has been established “beyond reasonable doubt”. But Indian courts routinely convict and pass harsh sentences, including the death penalty, on poor defendants who are badly represented in court. Gaping holes and inconsistencies in evidence are ignored. At the appeals stage, new evidence is not entertained, leading to numerous innocent people languishing in jail, including on death row.

Chatterjee had spent 14 years in jail before he was hanged. He was thus punished twice for a crime he likely did not commit, going by the Kolkata scholars’ analysis, for the mere fault of being too poor to engage a competent lawyer.

While the Parekh family members were media-shy following the gruesome crime, the media never attempted to track them down to question them about their inconsistent statements even when Chatterjee was about to be hanged in 2004. It is not as if the Indian media lack the resources or the ingenuity to do so. Two months ago, after the death of Aruna Shanbaug, the nurse who was in a vegetative state for 42 years, journalists traced the man who was convicted of having sexually assaulted her in 1973 to a village in Uttar Pradesh.

Will the Indian media take steps at least now to re-examine the evidence in the Dhananjay Chatterjee case and demand that the judiciary reconsider its verdict? In Britain, the US and elsewhere, there have been numerous instances of cases being reopened long after – sometimes decades after – conviction and execution and of posthumous acquittals being pronounced. The Hetal Parekh case deserves such a démarche, in order to establish who was really guilty and if Chatterjee is found to have been innocent, an apology and compensation to his family.

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