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Justice Catches Up With a Hangman

India: Executioner is jailed over $65 loan but is eager to return to his job.


MEERUT, India — Ten times, Mammu Singh has tightened the noose around a condemned man's neck, pulled the trapdoor's iron lever and watched the prisoner drop, and this is the thanks he gets.

The hangman is now a prisoner of the same state that hired him to kill.

Constables arrested the executioner Sunday because he has made no payments on a $65 loan he took out from the government-owned Syndicate Bank in 1989.

Singh, who thinks that he is the last Indian willing and legally able to hang anyone, says he can't make good on his debt because the government has stiffed him for the last 15 months of his salary, a total of $391.30.

And since 1997, when he performed his last execution, Singh has had to forgo his bonus of $11 per hanging and the perk of a first-class train ticket for out-of-state calls.

India's justice system hasn't turned against the death penalty. The courts are just excruciatingly slow in hearing appeals. So the backlog grows on death row, and a destitute hangman is doing time in jail.

It's hardly surprising that the state has turned on its own executioner when "the death penalty is the state turning on its own people," said lawyer Nita Ram Krishna, a leading Indian opponent of capital punishment.

India's government insists that it doesn't keep count of executions, but a Law Ministry source said 55 people have been hanged since India won independence from Britain in 1947. An unknown number are waiting their turn in prisons across India.

The United States executed 85 people last year, a drop from 98 executions in 1999. That was the peak year for capital punishment since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

When Singh was called to the jailer's office to speak to a reporter this week, the 55-year-old executioner stood calmly with his hands folded, wearing owlish glasses and the same white cotton shirt, known as a kurta, that he puts on when going to the gallows. Singh said his heart is at peace not only with his jailing but with his profession.

"When god calls for death, only then does death come, whether by murder or any other method," he said through a translator.

Singh's salary, when it is paid, comes from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. But hangmen have been so hard to find in India for years now that he has done some of his best work on the road.

In fact, Singh claims to be India's last executioner because, he says, an old colleague in Lucknow, Mohammed Ahmed, won't tie another noose for fear that what goes around, comes around.

"He is afraid that somebody might murder him" in revenge, Singh said.

Singh is serving his two-week sentence behind the high walls of Meerut district jail, which British colonial rulers built in 1857, the same year Indian soldiers mutinied in a rebellion that made it a banner year for Queen Victoria's penal system.

After various additions over the years, the jail has an official capacity of 788 inmates, but its current population is about 2,000, authorities said.

Walking past the heavy steel bars last weekend was a homecoming of sorts for Singh. He saw his first hanging at the jail about 25 years ago, he said, when his father, Kallu, brought him to the scaffold to watch justice delivered to Data Ram. The prisoner murdered the brother of his son's wife, after the man caught Ram in bed with the victim's mother.

The gallows lesson Singh came to learn was one handed down from generation to generation, for the executioner was his father. The family had held the job since the time of Singh's great-grandfather. The lesson included the fine art of sizing up a condemned man's weight and height, and knowing how to slip a noose around the neck just right so that death would come with the least pain.

Any mistakes, like a slow death or a severed head, and the hangman must pay a fine, Singh said.

Over the years, he and his ancestors have dispatched many of India's most notorious killers. His most notable contribution was a rare double-hanging. He executed Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh, no relation, for their roles in the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

The last man Singh hanged was Kamta Prasad Tiwari, who went to the gallows May 27, 1997, for stabbing to death an 8-year-old girl and then raping her.

Each hanging follows a tried and true ritual that starts with filling a sackcloth dummy with mud to test the gallows. The rope is soaked in a clay pot filled with clarified butter to make it easier to slip over the condemned person's head.

At dawn, the prisoner is led to the scaffold with hands cuffed behind the back. Before tightening the noose, the hangman slips a black mask over the person's head. It comes just below the nose.

With both hands on an iron lever about 3 feet long, the hangman watches over his shoulder for the jail superintendent, who stands about 100 yards away, to drop a white handkerchief.

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