Over the last 28 years, India has seen six different Prime Ministers, the wave of internet and wireless communication and several amendments to existing laws. But for Narayan Chetanram Chaudhary alias Niranaram, this entire period was spent as a death row prisoner.
The Supreme Court only recently declared him a juvenile at the time of committing the crime he was jailed for - a murder - and ordered his freedom.
Chaudhary hails from a village in the district of Bikaner, Rajasthan. He was arrested for a murder in Pune, Maharashtra almost three decades ago.
What followed was a long struggle to prove his innocence, and more importantly, his juvenility. The top court eventually declared that he was 12 years and 6 months of age at the time of the crime.
A walk to remember
Dressed in a pair of stone-washed jeans, a grey long-sleeved shirt and pair of sneakers of the same colour, Chaudhary enters the room in the office of Project39A, a death penalty collective that had been legally assisting him for the past nine years.
Chaudhary is of a lean frame and has a wrinkled face with deep set eyes. Perhaps it is the lack of sleep that has given a darker shade to the area around his eyes.
But that doesn’t matter anymore. He can get as much sleep as he wishes to, now that he is a free man.
On the day he learnt of his freedom, Chaudhary wanted to celebrate, but in moderation. He says after years of struggle and despair, a day of triumph was enough to get the heart pounding in excitement. But self-control was more important from a health perspective.
“I didn’t want anything to happen to me as it had been so long since I had heard something good, and that too the news of my release.”
Although he is unable to exactly describe the moment his freedom came calling, Chaudhary remembers certain events.
Like when the superintendent of the jail told Chaudhary that he had been released.
“Even he was a little emotional about it,” he recalls.
It was at around 7 PM when Chaudhary walked out and into the guards' room within the jail premises.
He describes the feeling of walking out of his cell akin to what an animal would perhaps feel upon being released from a cage.
Bewildered by the moment’s reality, he started in all directions.
“I finally walked out at around 8 pm. I was confused, not knowing how to walk on the road. Being a prisoner for so long meant learning to walk in public. I wanted to be careful not to dash into anyone on the street.”
In the 28 years Chaudhary spent in jail, he only left the prison for a week to attend his father’s last rites. But nothing could be compared to the final walk to freedom. On being asked what he did first on his release, he said,
“The first things I wanted to do was to meet my family and my lawyers who had struggled with me and I wanted to thank them.”
The case and error that put him on death row
Chaudhary and two other men were charged for killing seven persons, including women and children, in Pune on August 26, 1994. He was arrested from his village in Rajasthan on September 5, 1994.
On February 23, 1998, a sessions court in Pune awarded him the death penalty. The death sentence was confirmed by the High Court on July 22, 1999. The Supreme Court dismissed his appeal against the punishment on September 5, 2000.
In his review petition before the Supreme Court, Chaudhary maintained that his actual name was “Niranaram,” and that he was 12-and-a-half-years old when the crime occurred. His lawyers relied on his school records to back his claim.
The Supreme Court had appointed a judge to inquire into his claims and furnish a report. The report sustained Chaudhary’s juvenility claim.
Finding no flaws in the inquiry judge’s procedures, the top court agreed with the finding that his actual name was Niranaram and that he had been tried and convicted as Narayan. The Court also agreed with the juvenility claim, and ordered his release from prison after almost 29 years.
Dead man walking
On the day of the pronouncement of the death penalty, Chaudhary recalled his mind being blank.
He wondered if he would survive through all those years in prison.
“And when that happens, all worldliness disappears. An image of the noose keeps appearing before you, and you dread that any moment could be your last."
He felt like a “dead man walking,” who doesn’t feel anything. Someone whose purpose was not to live, but to just remain alive.
Jail time was the beginning of a life of despair and solitude; one where he had no choice but to obey the orders of the jail authorities. He says,
“If they say sit, you sit. If they say stand, you stand. When I went into the prison, the first thing they did was a haircut. An ugly one. It is a way of asserting authority and control. That’s the first step. I was roughed up too."
At Pune’s Yerawada jail, two or three convicts were allowed to walk with handcuffs for ten or fifteen minutes outside their cell as part of the daily routine.
Chaudhary recalls being imprisoned in Yerwada's infamous egg-shaped 'Anda Cell,' where prisoners are enveloped in darkness.
“I was in the Anda Cell after the death sentence was given. For years, I didn’t see proper sunlight. Of the 28 years, I remained in Anda Cell for almost 20 years. So that period was without any proper natural light,” he recalls.
The morning wake up call in the prison began with the guards checking on inmates. Chaudhary says their job was rather to check if someone was dead or alive.
“Generally people greet each other in the morning saying ‘good morning’ but in the prison, you are asked whether you are alive or dead. I was so fed up with this daily morbid routine that I felt like banging my head on the wall.”
Post 2007, Chaudhary started seeing some changes in the prison functioning, may be due to a few judgments on prison reforms that came to be passed.
One day at a time
In 2002, Chaudhary could no longer confront his thoughts. It was a time when the Bombay High Court had confirmed his death sentence and the Supreme Court had rejected his special leave petition. He saw a noose every time he shut his eyes, so he remained awake. On some nights, he cried.
Even sharing grief with other prisoners wouldn’t help, for each one's misery was greater than the other's
While reading a newspaper, he decided to educate himself.
“I thought death was anyway around the corner so I should make the most of the time I am left with. It was a break from the otherwise daily reminder that death was staring at me.”
But Chaudhary did not get admission initially. His application remained pending for two years before he was allowed to educate himself.
“I kept writing to the jail authorities, telling them I was dying bit by bit and education would be of help. Then came a jail superintendent who had a reformative outlook and said that I should be provided books. In 2001-02, I was allowed admission and I got my school leaving certificate.”
Chaudhary’s persistence got him a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, followed by a Master’s degree. He wrote exams on Gandhian thoughts and also did a certificate course in tourism.
He kept reading books besides his course texts. Among the many books he has read inside prison, John Grisham’s thriller novel The Confession remains his favourite.
Some other authors he read were Sidney Sheldon, Chetan Bhagat and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose iconic novel Crime and Punishment he had read twice.
Though things have improved in prisons in the recent past, he recollected a time when procuring a pen or a pencil in prison was a colossal task.
“The food has improved, canteen facility has improved. The jail staffers understand English. Earlier, the did not understand Supreme Court judgments. Batra’s judgments has very high quality English. I used Oxford, Lexicon dictionaries to understand the language,” he says.
Roles of the police and the media
Movies like Bachchan Pandey and Singham have glorified the police and put them on a pedestal, in stark contrast to the ground reality, Chaudhary feels.
He objects to the police covering the faces of accused persons, a practice prevalent in Maharashtra, he says.
In this context, he refers to his photos of the 90s to argue that the case’s fate would have been decided long ago if only someone had paid any heed.
“The accused are often produced with their heads and faces covered. What’s the need to cover? When accused are beaten up in custody, many a times the courts also don’t ask if they have been beaten up in custody. They should ask. After all they are there to ensure justice.”
The Rathi murders, as the case he was sentenced in was infamously called, had garnered a lot of media attention back then. Chaudhary said that the reporting of the case was unnecessarily “sensationalised”.
“A reporter told me even before I was sentenced that I had been awarded the death penalty,” he says.
He expresses dismay that in a newsroom setup with several editors, reporters and other seasoned hands who are capable of reporting accurately and ethically, facts are still reported falsely.
“Do they want anarchy? Have they seen the prisoner? Have they checked their background? They call all sorts of names. And the same prisoner if the High Court acquits, what would they do then?”
A taste of freedom
The journey from the hushed prison walls to the chaos outside it, and ultimately the safety of home, has been surreal for Chaudhary.
It will take some time for him to adjust to life at home. He is still accustomed to the lights remaining on in his cell at night. So much so that turning the lights off in his room at night discomforts him.
“Complete darkness was something I am not accustomed to, and I thought I would trip and fall. In the morning when no one came to check on me, I again felt strange,” says Chaudhary.
Soft, delectable home-made chapatis have since replaced the bitter memories of prison food - watery lentils which sometimes had bugs, served with boiled rice having tiny stone granules.
He had seen pizzas and burgers only in newspapers advertisements.
“I did not know how these tasted. I had no idea about the food outside of prison or what’s a good breakfast for that matter. We were usually served Kanda-Poha (fried onion-beaten rice) and Upma (porridge made of dry roasted semolina). But that wasn't tasty,” he says.
Chaudhary fails to recall how his life was like before he went to prison, where he spent his childhood and youth.
He speaks of the lost time, which perhaps in another life would have seen him spend his childhood in the company of friends, get employed and probably have a family.
All the degrees obtained in prison have no value in an extremely competitive world outside, he says. Although he holds the freedom dear.
“Freedom to me is what the most precious material to the world is,” he declares.
For now, it means learning to use a smartphone and going for long outdoor walks.
"There still a lot of time to get acclimatised to this life,” he says.
The price of mistaken identity
Advocate Shreya Rastogi was a part of the legal team that worked on Chaudhary’s case. The most challenging part of Narayan’s case, she recalled, was to establish his correct identity before the court.
“As recorded by the Supreme Court in its judgment, from the time of his arrest, his name was wrongly recorded as Narayan during the investigation and thereafter in trial, and this error was never corrected,” she says.
Before establishing his age at the time of offence, it was important for the team to establish Narayan’s true identity, as the main argument of the State was that Niranaram and Narayan were not the same person.
The case also holds significance for Rastogi and Project39A, being one of the first cases the collective got involved in.
“After our establishment as a criminal justice initiative at National Law University Delhi, this was one of the earliest cases that we took on in September 2014. Having worked on this case for the last nine years, the aspect that has struck me the most is how different stakeholders at every stage of our criminal justice process failed to perform their duty such that Narayan’s true age of 12 years and 6 months at the time of the incident went completely unnoticed for more than two decades,” says Rastogi.
“It is a deeply uncomfortable thought that in our system, such grave matters of life and personal liberty are surrendered entirely to one’s fate."