'God Could Not Be So Angry': Chotkau & Nandlal Talk About Life on Death Row

Are Indian courts capable of giving the death penalty? Here's what two former death row prisoners had to say.

7 min read
Hindi Female

This is the last of a three-part series on death penalty in India. Click here to read the previous stories.

Despite the Supreme Court’s “rarest of rare” doctrine, hundreds of prisoners end up spending years of their lives on death row. Even more shocking, just a tiny 4.9 percent of these death sentences are upheld by appellate courts. The rest, after years of trauma, are either acquitted or their sentence is commuted.

The apex court acquitted two death row prisoners in September 2022. The Quint spoke to them. 

Nandlal Bharti, who spent 12 years in jail (six of them on death row), says, “When I was sentenced to death, I used to think of Babasaheb Dr BR Ambedkar. He fought for this nation. So, in jail, I read his books and learnt that despite obstacles in his life, he fought for what is right.”

Are Indian courts capable of giving the death penalty? Here's what two former death row prisoners had to say.

Nandlal Bharti holding Gail Omvedt's book on Dr BR Ambedkar, that he used to read in jail.

(Photo: Ribhu Chaterjee)

Bharti was convicted for allegedly killing his wife and their four children. The prosecution had claimed that he did this due to his affair with another married woman. The trial court awarded him the death sentence, which was later confirmed by the Allahabad High Court.

12 years later, the Supreme Court acquitted Bharti and said this about the investigation:

“Without any hesitation and with disappointment, we state that the case on hand is one of most perfunctory investigation.” 

While acquitting Bharti, the apex court also noted:

"Realities or truth apart, the fundamental and basic presumption in the administration of criminal law and justice delivery system is the innocence of the alleged accused until the charges are proved beyond reasonable doubt...The question of indicting or punishing an accused does not arise, merely by being carried away by the heinous nature of the crime."

"This Court has held time and again that between "may be true" and "must be true" there is a long distance to travel which must be covered by clear, cogent and unimpeachable evidence presented by the prosecution before an accused is condemned a convict," the top court added.

Are Indian courts capable of giving the death penalty? Here's what two former death row prisoners had to say.

Nandlal Bharti.

(Photo: Ribhu Chaterjee)

'My Son is My Future': A Tangle of Sadness & Hope

On being asked about the psychological impact on Bharti, he said, “I was not disturbed mentally. Instead, I used to feel pain. What crime did I commit that my family was killed? I was in pain that my family was taken away from me, not as much that I was put in jail." 

With hopes for his future tied to his son, Bharti said, “I have one young son, who was brought up by a friend because I was in jail. His whole future is gone. Today he works as a labourer to earn for his studies and to buy me these clothes. My (son) Gaurav is my future. I will work as a labourer so that he can complete his studies and move forward in life.”

Are Indian courts capable of giving the death penalty? Here's what two former death row prisoners had to say.

Bharti speaking to his son Gaurav Kumar.

(Photo: Ribhu Chaterjee)

Speaking to The Quint on how and why he was arrested, Bharti said, “Kuch rajneet se jude log hain, koi humara sune hi nahi (There were some influential people involved, so I was not heard). Keval humko hi plan karke doshi banaya gaya (A plan was made to trap me). Jhoote gavahi, jhoote saboot mere khilaaf tayar kiye gaye (False witnesses and evidence were created to put the blame on me)."

He added, "One witness was from 35 km away, another was from 14 km away. But it was all false. I kept thinking I will get justice somehow.”

Sharing how he spent those years in jail, Bharti said, “A PCO is run in the jail. I used to speak to my son, so that was a big relief for me. I am poor, so who should I fight with? There is no one for the poor except God.”

Immense Tragedies & Lingering Trauma

Speaking about Bharti to The Quint, Maitreyi Misra, head of death penalty mitigation in Project 39A’s team (a criminal justice research centre and a part of the National Law University Delhi), said, “Bharti has a certain perception of his life, a certain way to communicate about his life that is quite distinct from reality. There have been immense tragedies in his life. His father died when he was very young. After a certain point of time, his brother died, then his mother.”

She added, “We suspect there is trauma that he has not been able to process. He was very attached to his elder brother. When we asked him about his demise, all he could say was that it has happened, so now what can be done.”


'God Must Not Be That Angry'

"Ye lagta tha ki jab maine kuch kiya nahi hai, toh kuch kharaab nahi hoga humare saath. Upar waala itna naraaz nahi hai (I used to believe that since I have not committed the crime, something bad won’t happen. God must not be that angry with me," said Chotkau, after spending over 10 years in jail, eight of them on death row.

Resident of a village near Uttar Pradesh's Bahraich, Chotkau was convicted in 2012 for the rape and murder of his six-year-old niece.

The Supreme Court acquitted him in September this year.

While acquitting Chotkau, who was 20 years old when imprisoned, the apex court criticised the prosecution for "not conducting the investigation properly" and also said that injustice had been done to the family of the victim.

The court added: "By fixing culpability upon the appellant without any shred of evidence which will stand the scrutiny, the prosecution has done injustice to the appellant. Court cannot make someone, a victim of injustice, to compensate for the injustice to the victim of a crime."

During the years in jail, even more so after being sentenced to death, we asked Chotkau whether he often felt fear. Chotkau told The Quint:

"If I have done something wrong, then yes, I would fear death. But I used to believe that since I have not committed the crime, something bad won’t happen. God must not be that angry with me."
Are Indian courts capable of giving the death penalty? Here's what two former death row prisoners had to say.

Chotkau meets his mother after being acquitted by the Supreme Court.

(Photo: Akhil Vasudevan, Project 39A, National Law University Delhi.)

About Chotkau, the top court had also noted:

"In fact this is a case where the appellant is so poor that he could not even afford to engage a lawyer in the Sessions Court. After his repeated requests to the Court of District and Sessions Judge, the service of an advocate was provided as amicus. In cases of such nature, the responsibility of the Court becomes more onerous."

He was sentenced to death in March 2014, which was confirmed by the Allahabad High Court in April 2016.

Chotkau’s case, however, came to the notice of retired high court judge S Nagamuthu who argued for him in the Supreme Court and exposed the contradictions in the prosecution case.

'Our Troubles Don't End'

But simply being allowed to leave jail does not mean that Chotkau's troubles are over.

"I used to feel angry at myself. I used to ask God why did he give such a punishment at this age. I have been troubled a lot. Even after I came out, we faced trouble. Our village was flooded and the walls of our house came down. I don’t have a single paisa to rebuild the house. We have moved out and are staying under a sheet."

Chotkau told us that he has to borrow money from a friend even to buy medicines:

"I could have earned some money during these last 10-11 years. My mother could only meet me once every 3-4 years, because she had to collect nearly Rs 3,000 before traveling over 550 kms for the mulaqat. Our situation is terrible right now."
Are Indian courts capable of giving the death penalty? Here's what two former death row prisoners had to say.

Chotkau, after walking out from Central Jail in Varanasi, UP.

(Photo: Akhil Vasudevan, Project 39A, National Law University Delhi.)


Cardiac Arrest in Prison

He was still in his 20s in 2018, when Chotkau had a heart attack in prison, after which he underwent an angioplasty. He has directions from the doctor to not exert himself, but Chotkau knows he will have to find work to make a living.

Speaking about his state of mind in prison, Chotkau said, "When you are convicted unjustly, then you can neither sleep, nor eat. I got sick as well. I am young but still I needed heart surgery. If something pre-occupies the mind like this, a person will get sick."

Nuriya Ansari, the mitigation investigator from Project 39A's team, had interviewed Chotkau's family in August 2022 to prepare a report on his mitigating circumstances.

She told The Quint, "Chotkau’s father passed away when he was nearly 10-12 years old. They were four siblings, so their mother had to raise them single-handedly. She had to borrow clothes and food items from other villagers. She worked on farms in exchange for grains and clothes, which she would give to her children. All her children couldn’t study much either. They had to drop out to help her out."

Speaking about Chotkau, she said,

"He is very humble, soft-spoken and grateful. When we met the jailer, they said good things about him and said he was very obedient. Though he has suffered a lot, he is now trying his to come out of the 10 years he has lost in this case."

That Nandlal and Chotkau were judged guilty by High Courts, and yet acquitted by the Supreme Court, raises critical questions about our judicial process. What explains such a huge divergence of view between the High Court and Supreme Court?

The further question is, what could possibly compensate for the years of trauma a death row prisoner undergoes, knowing full well that death awaits just around the corner?

Those arguing for the abolition of the death penalty, point to cases like Nandlal's and Chotkau's to argue that India’s criminal justice system often fails to get it right. Maitreyi Misra of Project 39A reiterates, “A system of law cannot be inflicting pain or suffering. Nor can it lead to a situation where people who are subject to that system of law are losing their sense of self.”

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Topics:  India   Capital Punishment    Supreme Court 

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