Early the next morning when the jail authorities began the practice runs for the hanging, they experienced a major problem. As part of the prison manual’s instructions, you have to practise on sandbags. As I said before, you prepare sandbags according to the prisoner’s weight and do a check using these. They had conducted this test at 2 am, as a part of the all-night vigil before a hanging.

During this test, the rope broke. These ropes, called “Manila Ropes”, are especially brought from Buxar Jail, Bihar. The rope had been procured in 2005 when Afzal was sentenced to death. The many years since had eaten away and weakened the rope. At that time, the deputy superintendent of Jail number 3 took the details of Afzal’s height and weight from our records (which are constantly updated) and got another rope made in two days and at a cost of Rs 860 from Bihar.

If you ask the rope makers they will tell you how the Ganga flowing nearby gives the right kind of humidity that such a special purpose rope needs. But there had been so many legal interventions and years of delay in Afzal’s case that this well treated-custom-made rope had malfunctioned. They were in a state of panic. What if they could not produce the right rope just a few hours before the hanging? If the wrong kind of rope caused an accident like a decapitation, it would be a terrible scandal.

So, with a prayer on their lips, they tried again. They slowly lifted the sack, tied it to the noose and then pulled the lever a second time. But it broke again. All this while Afzal was sleeping peacefully. of course, he must have had some indication as the night before the hanging he was moved from his isolated ward to one with some inmates so that the phansi kothi could be prepared. Perhaps, in his heart, he knew that his time was coming to an end.

Unlike all other inmates who went through the ritual of getting their last wish and meal, Afzal was still unaware. Meanwhile, the sandbag exercise was successful in the third attempt.

At 6 am, it was time to tell Afzal of his imminent death. We had seen each other around, and knew of the other, but there had been no conversation between us – until now. I would see him walking with other inmates and reading books of different faiths – Gita, Quran and the Vedas. When he wasn’t reading, he was usually doing his prayers – unfailingly five times a day.

“With regret, I have to tell you that today is your hanging,” the superintendent informed him.

“I know, I figured.”

We sat down with him and asked if he wanted tea. As we sipped it slowly, Afzal spoke calmly about his case. He told us he was not a terrorist, and that he was not even a wanted person. All he wanted, he said, was to fight against corruption but “who listens in India?’

‘This was never my fight. I never wanted or even intended to be a Kashmiri separatist. All that I did was to fight against corrupt politicians.’

And then he started singing a song from the 1960s movie Badal, “Apney liye jiye toh kya jiye, tu ji ae dil zamane ke liye.” (What’s the point of a life lived for ourselves, my heart lives for others).

It is a lovely song picturised on the actor Sanjeev Kumar singing in prison. Like the character in the film, Afzal was telling us that everything he did was for a larger cause. There was no fear in his voice. There was just something about the way Afzal sang it, that I could not help myself. I sang along with him until he stopped and asked for some more tea. unfortunately, the man who serves tea in prison had already left so this wish of his remained unfulfilled.

The superintendent asked him if he wanted to give a message to those he was leaving behind as we feared there may be riots and acts of violence after his hanging and asked him if he would want to give a message to urge everyone to remain peaceful.

“I see compassion in your eyes. Will you be there at the time of hanging?” he asked.

“Don’t worry.”

“Make sure I am not in pain,” he said to the superintendent.
As the prison authorities led him into the phansi kothi, my colleagues who had been practising all night were ready to carry out the act. When Afzal was ready, the staff member who pulled the lever looked towards the superintendent and he nodded as per rules contained in the jail manual.

Two hours later, after doctors certified his time of death, Afzal was buried according to Muslim rites right next to where Maqbool Butt had been buried 30 years ago. Afzal’s hand scribbled note written moments before his hanging reached his family in just 26 hours. This time around, the authorities posted the note on Monday, 11 February and it reached the very next day, despite the fact that there was curfew in the Valley, to deal with any kind of backlash.

Black Warrant

Excerpted with permission from Black Warrant: Confessions of a Tihar Jailer, Sunil Gupta and Sunetra Choudhury, Roli Books.