A tribal is sentenced to death for the murder of his five daughters. Does he deserve to be hanged?

The tribal Barela hamlet stood far outside the main village; just a few mud huts with thatch roofs scattered among teak trees. We drove to village Kanoria in Sehore district in Madhya Pradesh and walked through the woods to reach the small settlement.

One of the tribal residents of this hamlet, Maganlal, is sentenced to death for murdering his five young daughters in June 2010. The District Court sentenced him in eight months. It took another seven months for the High Court to confirm the sentence. The Supreme Court, four months later, rejected his special leave petition. After the President declined the mercy petition to commute his death penalty to life imprisonment, he was scheduled to hang in Jabalpur Central Jail on August 8, 2013.

But his execution was averted barely hours before schedule by a stay obtained by human rights lawyers who petitioned the Chief Justice of India at his residence the evening before. Given that I oppose capital punishment in principle, a visit to Maganlal’s village was necessary to evaluate for myself if his case fitted into what the courts designate ‘the rarest of the rare’ cases, meriting the highest punishment in India’s statutes.

We spotted some children playing outside a hut. They pointed to Maganlal’s two wives in the distance, cutting grass for their cattle, and called out to his brothers Jagan and Agan. They all gathered and we sat together in the shade of a tree. They spoke of their hard struggle for survival and to feed their children. They cultivated a small tract of forest land that they had cleared. A good monsoon meant assured food for a few months. In the remaining months, they depended on occasional wage employment from the Forest Department, or even rarer employment under the MGNREGA. Often, their survival depended on the firewood they gathered in the forests, which they carried on their head to the village market seven kilometres away. A bundle sold for Rs.40, and with this they bought flour for the evening roti for their children.

All insisted that none of them was there on the afternoon of the murder. The wives said they were in the forest gathering firewood and one brother rushed back only when he saw Maganlal hanging from a tree. He cut the rope just in time to save his brother and found the five murdered children in the hut. He tied his brother to a tree-trunk and raised an alarm.

The wives and brothers affirmed that Maganlal was even-tempered, drank no more than other tribal people, and had no previous history of violence and crime, a version confirmed by other villagers. They also said he loved his children dearly, both his girls and boys. They could see no reason why he would kill his children.

The police chargesheet alleged mounting family debt, and a dispute Maganlal had with his wives and brothers because they opposed his plan to sell their small acre of land to settle this debt. The version accepted by the trial court was that Maganlal killed his daughters in rage against his wives and brothers but the evidence they relied on was circumstantial because there was no eyewitness testimony.

People in the village spoke of sudden changes in his behaviour a few months before the crime. He became very withdrawn, stopped greeting people, and wandered in the forests much of the day. The villagers felt that he may have been a victim of black magic. I believe that he was probably affected by a temporary phase of mental illness.

In the trial court, Maganlal’s brothers engaged a lawyer for Rs.5000, but once the case shifted to the higher courts, they knew nothing of its journey. They could not afford to even meet him in Jabalpur before he was to hang. Maganlal’s fate was tied effectively to legal aid lawyers who never contacted or met them and who, from the court’s record, do not seem to have pursued many strands of evidence and arguments that could have possibly saved Maganlal from the gallows.

In similar cases, courts have held that if the murderer has no previous history of crime, and was propelled by poverty, want and psychological stress, these are mitigating conditions sufficient not to deem him innocent but to release him from the rarest punishment of death. These arguments apply entirely to Maganlal, but could not be made only because his family was too poor to hire an influential lawyer.

Is this reason enough to hang him? Is poverty the real crime for which we are willing to hang Maganlal?

I am grateful to Gitanjali Prasad for research assistance on the issue of death penalty.