Saturday, April 11, 2009



Curt commands rang out –“attention”, “order arms”, “present arms” British musketry drill cautions, still in vogue in India and Pakistan, then a brief and shrill bugle blast from the prison tower shattered predawn dark stillness for a minute, then muffled roar of a few cars departing woke up a few of us. Our ward was close to sixteen feet high main wall. We could see the armed sentry standing at the tower situated over the prison office. Every two hours the guard was changed. This guard had to ring the round brass bell hanging there every hourly.

These noises were something new and while turning in early dawn slumber some of us remembered and sat up erect with a shiver. The condemned man had surely been hanged. For about nearly a week words were doing the round that the condemned prisoner’s mercy petition had been rejected and on arrival of exact order of execution he would be hanged. In spite of all slovenliness and anomalies in prison administration these things are treated with reverential awe. Whole process starts with absolute secrecy and silence, just twenty four hours earlier the condemned man is clearly and quietly informed by the highest jail authority about the exact date and time of his hanging. He is also asked about his last wishes. An effort surely is made to fulfill all reasonable wishes. From the day before a squad of select warders are placed around his cell. All these are done in complete secrecy. Most inmates in the prison remain ignorant of the developments. We too had no idea. This condemned prisoner was twice brought to our ward under guard to discuss drafting of his mercy petition with a few lawyers we had among us. It was quite a large ward which sometimes could accommodate nearly seventy political detenues.We had observed this condemned man‘s coming and going. He was a pleasant looking big man; quite tall for an average Bengali. In an ugly dispute over some land he brought out his gun and shot dead a couple of people of opposite party. We were not aware that his execution was imminent.

Next day afternoon a senior warder was on duty in our ward. He was extremely distracted with red eyes from lack of sleep. We were otherwise on friendly terms with this man. From him we got the whole story of execution as this warder was in the special guard. He had been a witness to quite a few hangings. It was always shocking to him. Some walk to the gallows as if in a trance. Some are in terrible panic at the last few moments. They cry out, weep loudly, and empty their bowels and bladder. They have to be literally dragged to the hanging platform. Chief district judge, the district police chief, top jail officials and the special guard of warders constitute the official side. Of course, a medical team headed by the district civil surgeon should be present to ensure that the condemned man is brought alive over to the execution platform and after the hanging is over the dead body is formally examined and certified as dead. After everything is over a special gang of hardened convicts is brought in to clean the body and to cover it with a shroud. And the executioner or the jallad in prison lingo, who pulls the lever to separate the boards under the feet of the condemned man for a free fall and tightening of the noose on his neck, remains the only active man throughout.

These elaborate details have been discussed variously in different accounts. I was watching the warder .As if witnessing the horrible ritual of killing a man is like being affected by the contagion of spiritual and physical disintegration of a fellow human. After I recovered reasonably from the serious musket shot injury suffered during Rajshahi Central Jail firing I was released from the jail hospital and put in the cell no 14 of a cluster of fourteen cells. I stayed there for a couple of weeks and then removed to cell no. 9. The bizarre joke on me was this cell 14 was exclusively meant for condemned prisoners. As there was pressure on the administration about accommodation for a few days I was put in the cell no. 14. This cell was in no way different from other cells of the cluster. Only it was highly segregated and a few steps away from the execution platform. A small wooden door led to the site of hanging from the cell.

Cell no. 14 usually remained empty. Other thirteen cells were occupied by us, the political prisoners detained without trial, -- mostly communists and other left wing elements. After initial few months of near solitary confinement we were allowed to go out of cell enclosure for a walk and exercise at the large space beside the sixteen feet main wall. It lasted from four to six PM. At one end was the large concrete bound well over which gallows were erected when occasion arose. At other end was the corner of the main wall. We used to sprint or walk over this space till lock up time. On other occasions we used to sit over the broad rim of the death pit and gossip. Certainly the sight of this well and the proximity of the condemned prisoner’s cell used to arouse varieties of emotions in our minds. It was here had been executed Peer of Pagaro, a rebel who fought the British bravely and, also Yusuf Beg, the Pathan convict who killed the English superintendent of the jails with a jagged piece of glass. Above all, it is never possible to shake off the gloomy feeling and shame at man’s invention of such an elaborate ritual of killing a fellow human.

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