How the wait for an impending, precisely scheduled death, could prove to be more painful for a convict than death itself
“The hangman's noose is a curious thing,” says A.K. Khare, the Additional Inspector-General of Prisons in Madhya Pradesh. “Once the hanging is over, people come to the prison to collect bits of the hangman's rope. They consider it auspicious. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, everybody,” he says.
On August 9 this year, Mohammad Shafiq, after three unsuccessful attempts, finally succeeded in escaping the “auspicious” noose.
In the still dark hours of that Tuesday morning, Shafiq set himself on fire in his cell in the Indore jail. He succumbed to his burns a few days later.
A year and a half ago, Shafiq was sentenced to death by a Bhopal court for murder, as well as two one-year terms for attempted murder and attempted suicide. His appeal against the judgment was dismissed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court, which upheld the lower court's order but absolved him of the charge of attempted suicide.
In a strange way, Shafiq managed to defy the High Court's order on both counts. He chose not to be hanged — by committing suicide.
“The prison authorities told me he was constantly and progressively being consumed by his conscience and would tell other inmates that he would probably die of his guilt someday,” says Mohammad Rafiq, an Indore-based steel trader who collected Shafiq's body on behalf of his relatives in Bhopal.
On February 3, 2009, his wife and four daughters, tired and happy after attending a local wedding, fell asleep in their one-room accommodation near the Ahl-e-Hadis Masjid in the Kabadkhana area of Old Bhopal.
Later in the night, Shafiq took a hammer and brutally bashed his pregnant wife Sanjida, and his two daughters, Rubina and Amina. His other two daughters, Ayna and Arsi, were eyewitnesses.
Ayna, 11 at the time, in statements to the police as well as in court, said that when she tried to flee, her father beat her up too. So she, along with her four-year old sister Arsi, went back to sleep.
The next morning, the police found five persons lying injured in a pool of blood at the house, with Shafiq standing nearby with some injuries on his person. The injured were rushed to the hospital. Rubina and Amina were declared brought dead; Sanjida succumbed to her injuries the next day.
Shafiq, in his defence, told the police that someone had killed his wife and daughters and injured him. His two daughters testified against him before the police and the court.
“Who knows why he killed his wife and innocent daughters? He lived in abject poverty and was really worried about getting his elder daughters married. His wife was pregnant with another baby and he probably didn't know how to deal with it all,” says Aziz Bhai, a steel merchant from Bhopal and a distant relative of Shafiq's.
“In fact, the night he killed his family, they had all come back from a wedding, and the kids had really enjoyed themselves. Perhaps the wedding worked on his insecurity about getting his daughters married. But if you ask me, he deserved the punishment he got. Even if the courts would not have sentenced him to death, god certainly would have,” he says.
Apart from a hammer, a knife and blood-stained clothes, investigating officer Chandrashekhar Shrivastava recovered from the scene of the crime a suicide note written on the back of a wedding invitation, which indicated that Shafiq's crime was one induced by poverty. The courts refused to admit that as evidence as it could not be proved that the note was indeed written by Shafiq.
No expert assessment
From the trial court records it is clear that no effort was made to arrive at an expert assessment of Shafiq's psychiatric condition and motives — evidence that could, in many countries around the world, have led to a mitigation of his sentencing.
“I happened to supervise a hanging, the only one yet, in Jabalpur,” Mr. Khare recalls. “At 10 p.m. we informed the convict of the hanging scheduled for 4 a.m. in the morning. The entire night we kept a close eye on the convict's cell. After all, being aware of the precise hour and time of one's death is disturbing knowledge. But he was surprisingly quiet. Now that I think about it, he must have died several deaths in those six hours.”
Often, the wait for an impending, precisely scheduled death, is more painful for a convict than death itself.
Shafiq's act of self-immolation reflects that fact, as perhaps nothing else could.