Forces For Good: Anup Surendranath

Anup Surendranath began to look deeper into the death penalty in India after the execution of Afzal Guru.

Somak Ghoshal Updated: Feb 15, 2023 14:51:52 IST
Forces For Good: Anup Surendranath Photo Courtesy: Anup Surendranath

In Defence of the Condemned

Anup Surendranath, Lawyer, 40

None of us is born evil,” says Delhi-based lawyer Anup Surendranath. “Who we become is a product of our upbringing and the circumstances in which we live.”

It’s certainly a sobering sentiment to live by, but hard to inculcate when faced with perpetrators of heinous crimes. Think of the six men involved in the brutal rape and death of‘Nirbhaya’ in 2012. Or the many others like them, before and since, who have ruined lives and families. Even self-avowed liberals and social-justice warriors struggle to uphold the right to life enshrined in the Constitution, while reckoning with a certain class of criminals. Much less, the enraged citizens who take to the streets demanding death for these offenders.Public outrage and indignation at such crimes makes it that much harder for people like Surendranath to fight for unpopular reforms.

In 2012, Surendranath had just returned to India, armed with a doctorate from Oxford University, to teach at the National Law University in Delhi.But his career took a turn the year after, as India executed Afzal Guru who had been convicted of involvement in the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament by Kashmiri separatist gunmen.Within hours of then President Pranab Mukherjee rejecting an appeal for pardon, Guru was hanged. Struck by the swiftness of the move, Surendranath resolved to look deeper into the death penalty in India. Along with a group of lawyers, he launched Project 39A, which published the path-breaking India Death Penalty Report in 2016.

“We knew so little about [death-row prisoners]—and still continue to [do so],” Surendranath says. Project 39A interviewed a cross-section of the 500-odd prisoners on death row since2004, as well as members of their families, to understand the crimes,criminals and the biases that may have crept into the investigation and trial procedures.

Unsurprisingly, most of these prisoners are from marginalized or underprivileged communities, unable to afford the best lawyers, and always in mortal dread of the police. Many of them were the principal bread-earners in their families who are left destitute and ostracized by their communities. The court proceedings,often conducted in a language and jargon beyond their comprehension,leaves them helpless and resigned to their fates.

By documenting the stories of these ‘cold-blooded criminals’, reviled as ‘monsters’ by society, Project 39A undertook judicial activism beyond debating the fine print of the law. Their recent Deathworthy report, for instance, in association with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, takes a mental health perspective on the death penalty. Over 60 per cent of the death-row prisoners interviewed for the report were found to be suffering from mental illness, while 11 per cent had intellectual disabilities.

Surendranath believes that India will find its path to joining the league of 140 countries that have abolished the death penalty runs via persistent and unrelenting judicial and social activism.

In a recent case, for instance, lawyers from Project 39A successfully got a 52-year man from Bulandshahr—who was on death row for eight years,accused of murdering several members of his family—released from prison. While hearing the case, the Supreme Court upbraided the lower courts for sentencing him on the basis of shoddy evidence—resulting in nearly a decade of prison time, and almost the end of his life.

It’s never too late to undo a wrong—or to save a life.

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