Creating Conversations on the Death Penalty in India

Starting off from a one-time research project, the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University, Delhi now aims to use their information to generate dialogue, in addition to representing death row prisoners.

Representational image. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Representational image. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Looking for data on the death penalty in India will leave you with very few answers. Look for opinions on it, on the other hand, and you’ll find one at every doorstep.

That’s what inspired a group based out of the National Law University, Delhi (NLUD) to take on a detailed research project on the death penalty in India in May 2013. They hoped to build a sound data set on the death penalty in the country – statistics on the number of cases, looking into the background of those on death row, their experience in the criminal justice system, the impact on their mental health and what their family’s go through. “We started thinking about the project in 2013, and the idea was to have some sort of empirical work on the death penalty,” Anup Surendranath, director of the project and now the Centre on the Death Penalty told The Wire.

Starting a research project in collaboration with the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), the group, with numerous student volunteers, went on to interview 373 of India’s 385 death row prisoners, having been denied access to 12. They also spoke to the families, building comprehensive quantitative as well as qualitative data on the issue.

Also read: Listening to the unheard: The experience of interviewing death row prisoners

Three years on, what started as a one-time research project has grown into the full-fledged Centre on the Death Penalty. Still based out of NLUD, the centre has three focus areas: litigation for death row prisoners, research on the death penalty in India and public affairs, or trying to create a public conversation around the issues their research has raised.

“When we started out, we thought the whole thing would be done in four months, and the enormity of the task of interviewing each and every death row prisoner dawned on us slowly,” Surendranath said. “While 385 may not seem like such a big number, just understanding that there were 385, where they were, what were the processes involved in getting access to them and negotiating with all the state governments, took a really long time. In that sense NALSA was very helpful. I guess the most difficult part of it then was to find the families, spending weeks at a time going out to remote locations, not knowing what to expect. If you ask me now there are things we would have done differently, but again there was nobody to tell us how to go about it because nothing of this sort had previously been attempted, this sort of access hadn’t been given before. I guess a lot of that worked out because this is a university.”

In addition to the core group, including Surendranath and others, the project saw 90 student researcher working with it at different points of time.

“I guess when it started off, I personally didn’t envisage it as anything more than a one-off,” Surendranath added. “But the more we saw, the more we thought it was necessary to carry on into something more substantial and concrete. Especially when we went to meet prisoners or their families, and had to explain what it was that we were doing, what it was all for. Or when they talked to us about the kind of legal assistance they got, how they felt they weren’t being heard. That’s how the centre started, in August 2014.”


Of the centre’s three focus areas, litigation was the one that started them off. As of now, the centre represents about 40 death row prisoners.

“There are two kinds of cases that we have at the moment,” said Shreya Rastogi, a litigator with the centre who was also involved with the research project. “One is where we had already interviewed the prisoner and his or her family [for the project], so then they themselves or their family members got in touch with us. That’s how we started out. But then after that, prisoners we had spoken to would tell others about us, who would then either write to us or ask their families to get in touch with us. In addition, even if we don’t have any contact with the prisoner, the lawyer may get in touch with us and ask us for assistance.”


The research wing of the project, though still very new, has conceptualised three projects so far. Two of them are direct outcomes of the death penalty project.

The first of the three is a project on the mental health of death row prisoners. The centre is collaborating with two psychiatrists from NIMHANS, Banglaore, for this project, and plans to interview current death row prisoners as well as their families. “In brief, the project is about the impact of the death sentence on prisoners’ mental health. So basically we want to see whether the death sentence has a mental health effect, and point towards why mental health evaluations are necessary from the trial court sentence to the Supreme Court – not just post mercy, which is currently being done. It’s important to keep checking, given what they’re facing,” Maitreyi Misra, head of the centre’s research wing, told The Wire.

Another project the centre’s research team is in the process of conceptualising is a study of sentencing at the trial court level. “What we realised from the data [collected during the death penalty research project] was that there’s a major variation between the number of convictions that happens at trial courts and the number of convictions that ultimately happen in the Supreme Court. Only 4.9% of cases have the same outcome. So what we realised was that trial court is a very important court to understand how the sessions judges interpret the ‘rarest of rare’ doctrine – because that’s what the law says, you will give someone the death penalty only if it falls in the category of rare cases. We want to see whether this doctrine is inconsistently applied,” said Neetika Vishwanath, a member of the centre’s research team.

The third project, though still very much at it’s opening stages, will attempt to garner public opinion on the death penalty. It will start off with interviewing former Supreme Court judges. “We want to get their in-depth opinions on not only the death penalty but the criminal justice system as a whole, what they see as the pressure points in system, how much our understanding of those pressure points should contribute to the discussion on the death penalty,” Surendranath said. “The logical progression of that project would be to do a nuanced public opinion study in the future, where the idea is not just to see whether the general population supports the death penalty or not, for which I assume a large majority will say yes. The idea is to see whether they have the requisite information to actually support the death penalty, and also perhaps to demonstrate that the strength of support for the death penalty is often exaggerated. Research on this kind of question has been very basic in this country.”

Public affairs

The centre also has a public affairs team, with the mandate to take the conversation on the death penalty outside of only courts and the legal realm. “We’re going to try and start engaging with MPs, MLAs and bureaucrats at different levels. This is something that is completely new to us and outside of our comfort zone, but we want to take all of this information and research that we’re generating to a level where more people can engage with it,” Surendranath said.

The Centre on the Death Penalty currently consists of 16 people, including administrative staff. Their aim is to build resources that can help engage the public in an informed discussion on the death penalty, and what it means in real terms for prisoners, their families and society as a whole.

The Death Penalty India report releases on May 6. More information on the centre and its work can be found here.