This article has been written by Oishika Banerji of Amity Law School, Kolkata. This article outlines the story surrounding the first Indian woman to get the death penalty.
This article has been published by Rachit Garg.
The number of individuals executed in India since 1947 is a point of contention. Official government data state that only 57 people have been executed since 1947. However, information from other sources suggests that the official government estimates are inaccurate and that the true number of executions in India could be in the thousands. Rattan Bai Jain was the first woman in independent India to have swung from the end of the hangman’s rope on 3 January 1955, owing to the murder of 3 girls. Followed by her there were women who have been subjects of the death penalty but have not faced it. This article discovers three such instances and the story of convicted females in detail.
Turning the pages of history : first women to get death penalty in India
Rattan Bai Jain, the first woman executed in independent India, was hanged on 3 January 1955 at Tihar Jail. Rattan Bai Jain was hanged in 1955 for poisoning three girls and killing them. She worked as the manager of a sterility clinic and had murdered the girls who were employees at her clinic over suspicion that they were having affairs with her husband. Not much information is available about her.
Story of Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit
Lack of media coverage and authentic electronic sources have been successful in throwing dust in the eyes of common people when it comes to knowing about Seema Gavit and Renuka Shinde, women who were awarded the death penalty by Kolapur Sessions Court and later by the Bombay High Court. In the chain of crimes perpetrated by these appellants, they were found guilty of kidnapping thirteen children and killing nine of them under Section 302 read with Section 120 B of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Former President Pranab Mukherjee had also turned down their mercy appeal back in 2014.
A brief story surrounding the horrific incidents
The two appellants, their mother Anjanabai, approver Kiran Shinde, and Renuka Shinde’s son Aashish, were tenants in a house in Pune’s Gonthalinagar neighbourhood. The appellants and their mother were convicted of committing theft in the past. For this, they would travel to festivals and grab gold chains whenever they had the chance, earning a living off the proceeds of their crimes. The Sessions Judge meticulously considered the evidence of the prosecution and by a detailed judgment, found these appellants guilty of majority of crimes charged against them. The High Court confirmed the finding taking into account the majority of the offences committed by the two accused.
The Bombay High Court while hearing the case of Renuka Shinde & Anr. vs State of Maharashtra & Ors (2006), had made the following observations:
- Except for the fact that they are both women, the Court found no mitigating factors in favour of the appellant. Furthermore, the nature of the offence and the methodical manner in which each child was taken and slain adequately establishes the appellants’ depravity of mind. These appellants were involved in criminal activity for a long time and maintained doing so until they were apprehended by the police.
- The Court observed that these appellants were a threat to society, and the residents in the area were terrified and were unable to take their children to school. The appellants were not under any duress when they committed these crimes, yet they did so carelessly, killing all of these children with little regard for their lives or the anguish of their parents.
- The stay of execution of the capital sentence imposed on these appellants was ordered to be lifted, and the authorities were ordered to take whatever additional procedures required to carry out the capital punishment imposed on them.
On 23rd December, 2021, the Bombay High Court reserved its verdict in the review mercy petition filed by half-sisters Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit who were convicted and sentenced to death for abducting and murdering children between 1990 to 1996. Further, the Bombay High Court on 18th January 2022 commuted the death sentence of the half sisters to life imprisonment.
Shabnam Ali : a common name in the subject matter of the death penalty
Shabnam Ali, a death row inmate in Uttar Pradesh, is on her way to becoming the first woman to be executed in independent India. Shabnam is set to be hanged in the Mathura jail in Uttar Pradesh, which is the country’s only prison with a special execution room for women offenders. The Amroha Sessions Court is yet to issue the death warrant, which will be inclusive of the day and hour of the hanging. Uttar Pradesh’s senior jail authorities have said that they have already reminded the Court on at least two occasions concerning the present matter. In January 2019, the Supreme Court of India had affirmed Shabnam’s death sentence.
The facts of the case
On April 14, 2008, Shabnam and Salim were convicted guilty of murdering the former’s parents, two brothers, and their spouses, and her 10-month-old nephew in Bawankhedi village, Amroha district, because her family was against her relationship with Salim. Shabnam, a double MA (in English and Geography) who taught at the rural elementary school, pretended before her family that their home had been attacked by unknown intruders at first while confronting the crime before the police authorities. Shabnam eventually admitted that she had helped Salim murder by forcing her family members to drink sedative-laced milk, thereafter, throttling her nephew to death. Outside Shabnam’s residence, Salim, a class VI dropout, worked at a wood sawing unit. For more than two years, the case was tried at Amroha Court. They were both sentenced to death by the Amroha District Court. The prisoners initially challenged their sentences to the Allahabad High Court, then to the Supreme Court, but neither of the courts agreed to decrease their sentences. It was also contended that Shabnam was carrying a child in her womb during detention, which she had given birth to in prison and would be orphaned if the appellants were hanged. They subsequently also addressed a mercy petition to the President, which was also denied.
Role of courts in determining capital punishment as a mode of deterrent
The Session Court in light of the facts of the murder case had sentenced Shabnam and her boyfriend, Salim to death. The Allahabad High Court while dealing with the present case, had observed that even if the mitigating circumstances are given the maximum weightage, they are of the considered opinion that the ‘special reasons’ required under Sections 354(3) and 235(2) of Cr.P.C exists for treating this case as one of the ‘rarest of rare’ cases where the normal sentence of imprisonment for life would prove grossly inadequate and that a sentence of life imprisonment is warranted. As a result, the Court affirmed the conviction and the trial court’s punishment.
Voice of the Supreme Court of India in this case
While upholding the decision of the Allahabad High Court in the case of Shabnam vs Union of India And Anr (2015) stating that the same was in consonance with Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court of India laid down a list of guidelines that needs to be abided by while executing the death penalty. These guidelines were inspired by the five steps laid down by the Allahabad High Court’s decision in the landmark case of Peoples’ Union Democratic Rights vs Union of India (2015) (PUDR case). The Apex Court in light of Shabnam’s case had directed the respondents to follow the procedure provided by the PUDR case which is presented hereunder:
- The principles of natural justice must be read into Sections 413 and 414 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and appropriate notice must be provided to the condemned before the Sessions Court issues a warrant of death, allowing the convict to consult their attorneys and be represented in the proceedings.
- The warrant must mention the specific day and hour of execution, rather than a range of dates that leaves the prisoner in the dark.
- A reasonable period must elapse between the date of the order on the execution warrant and the date fixed or appointed in the warrant for the execution so that the convict has a reasonable opportunity to seek legal redress and have a final meeting with their family before the date set for execution.
- The convict must be given a copy of the execution warrant right away.
- In circumstances when a criminal is unable to give legal help, legal assistance must be supplied.
Summarizing the guidelines provided above, the Apex Court viewed the following:
- The execution should be as swift and painless as possible, with nothing added to heighten the poignancy of the prisoner’s apprehension.
- The act of execution should result in instantaneous unconsciousness, followed by death.
- It must be acceptable.
- There should be no mutilation involved.
Reconsidering death penalty
A death sentence is inherently irreversible. When a death sentence is carried out, the convict’s life is taken away from him or her. If it is later discovered that such a sentence was not merited, it will be of little benefit because that person’s life cannot be restored. As a result, the Supreme Court in the discussed case believed that any method involving the fundamental Right to Life should be just, fair, and reasonable. Therefore, the Apex Court had concluded that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution requires a limited oral hearing at the review stage in all death penalty cases. As a result, the power to submit a review petition is a crucial privilege granted to those sentenced to death.
The anti-abolitionist and aberrant narratives overlook and ignore the reality that gender and criminality carry deep social links. It’s hard to tell the difference between the criminal and the crime, as well as the societal conditions that influence criminal purpose and execution. Rather than seeing crimes as “unique” actions, it is critical to acknowledge that they are woven into the fabric of society as a whole, with gender playing a key part. Given the inequitable gender relations that exist in the line of honour, reformative justice should be considered rather than retributive vengeance. If Shabnam can teach her fellow inmates to read and write tomorrow, and Salim can pass the time in jail by reading books, there’s reason to believe that the death sentence isn’t what they deserve. If we believe that the ultimate goal of punishment is reform and redemption, we must evaluate how this may be implemented in a methodical and well-thought-out manner as the death penalty denies criminals the opportunity to make atonement.
Analysis of the judiciary’s view in Shabnam Ali’s case
Punishing criminals is vital, but it must be done in conformity with natural justice’s basic principles. The Supreme Court’s statement that the death sentence should be decided by at least three judicially educated minds, demonstrates the severity that must be weighed while making such determinations. The Court’s decision to hold the review petition hearing in open court also assures that the death penalty proceedings are fair and transparent. On the other hand, instead of a theory of justice, the Session Court’s quick order to carry out the death penalty is an example of retaliatory philosophy. It not only disregards fairness but also suggests the court’s hazy hope that the offender would not seek the constitutional legal remedies available to her.
This case is significant as it demonstrated that equality still exists in Indian society. Regardless of who committed the crime, how they committed it, or why they did it, a person, irrespective of gender, must face the consequences of their actions. However, the Supreme Court’s approval of the death penalty of the accused without examining the accused’s review petitions goes against the country’s legal procedure. Even though the Supreme Court’s three-judge bench considered Shabnam and Saleem’s review petition, they did not change their minds and continued to sentence the two defendants to death.
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