India has 1.2 billion people, among them bankers, gurus, rag pickers, billionaires, snake charmers, software engineers, lentil farmers, rickshaw drivers, Maoist rebels, Bollywood movie stars and Vedic scholars, to name a few. Humanity runneth over. Except in one profession: India is searching for a hangman.
Usually, India would not need one, given the rarity of executions. The last was in 2004. But in May, India's president unexpectedly rejected a last-chance mercy petition from a convicted murderer in the Himalayan state of Assam. Prison officials, compelled to act, issued a call for a hangman.
No one answered.
The nation's handful of known hangmen had either died, retired or disappeared. The situation was not too surprising, given the ambivalence within the Indian criminal justice system about executions. Capital punishment was codified during British rule, with hanging as the chosen method, but recent decades of litigating and legislating limited the actual practice to "the rarest of rare cases."
Today, even prison officials encourage death row inmates to draft appeals. "At times, we also help the person draft the petition," said K. V. Reddy, president of the All-India Prison Officers Association, who opposes capital punishment. "Normally, everybody sympathizes with a person who has spent a number of years in prison."
Yet a hangman was needed in Assam. Magazines and newspapers published stories that read like macabre help-wanted ads: Large nation searching for someone willing to slip the noose around the neck of a murderer.
In Assam, state prison officials reluctantly began a search. Assam's last execution was in 1990 and the memory still resonated with those who had participated in it. "I was very conflicted," said Banikanta Baruah, a retired jailer who supervised the execution. "On one hand, I needed to perform my duty as a jailer, yet on the other, I sympathized with the person being hanged."
Prison officials made calls to their peers in the states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. West Bengal was home to Nata Mullick, who had conducted the country's last hanging at the age of 87. But he died two years ago, so Assamese officials turned to Uttar Pradesh.
"They promised to send someone," said S. Thakuria, Assam's top prison official.
In Uttar Pradesh, the logical place to look was here in the city of Meerut, the home of a family known for executions. Kalu Kumar, himself the nephew of a hangman, had achieved national fame in 1989 by hanging one of the two assassins of Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister. He died several years ago but passed the trade to his son, Mammu Singh, who claimed to have performed 11 hangings.
Mr. Singh would have been eligible for the Assam job, but he died May 19. Officials called the state's only other hangman, in the city of Lucknow, but he had broken his arm and was not accepting work. It seemed the search had reached a dead end, at least figuratively. Then Mammu Singh's eldest son, Pawan Kumar, decided to enter the family business. Ten days after his father's death, Mr. Kumar applied for government certification as a hangman.
"I just want to continue the family legacy," Mr. Kumar said recently, inside the tiny room where he lives inside a low-income housing complex. "I'm the fourth generation. You don't see many volunteers coming forward. I'm serving my country."
The pay is not very good for hangmen, partly because of the paucity of hangings, but also because the job is considered contract work. Still, Mr. Kumar works as a hawker, selling clothes from the back of his bicycle, and he welcomed the possibility of a $75 monthly retainer for being a hangman.
The workload could increase in the future. India has put to death at least 50 convicts since becoming an independent nation in 1947. And the trends suggest that the number of people convicted on capital charges could rise. Nationally, India had 345 people on death row by the end of 2008, according to national crime statistics.
This year, besides the case in Assam, another inmate, Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, in Punjab, also could eventually face execution, though death penalty opponents are rallying to his cause. An Indian court has also condemned a man convicted in the 2009 terrorist attack in Mumbai to death, a sentence that has elicited lusty public support.
India hardly lacks violence or crimes of passion; local newspapers carry regular reports of grisly rapes and murders, including the so-called honor killings in which young couples have been killed for marrying outside their caste or in violation of other village customs. India's Supreme Court recently declared the perpetrators worthy of death sentences -- an edict since followed by a handful of death sentences from lower courts.
In Meerut, officials told Mr. Kumar, the aspiring hangman, that they would expedite his application, given the situation in Assam. However, India is known for its bureaucratic delays, and if the country lacks hangmen, it does not lack rules and protocols governing hanging. There are regulations over the length of the rope, the construction of the gallows and more.
As Mr. Kumar waited, the defense lawyer for the condemned man in Assam did not. Despite the failed presidential mercy petition, he filed an emergency motion with the courts. Because court cases have been known to linger without judgments for years, or even decades, Indian defense lawyers long ago introduced what might seem a novel argument: forcing someone accused or even convicted of a capital offense to wait for years before an execution amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
"You are keeping a man with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head," said Ram Jethlamani, one of the country's most prominent defense lawyers.
Indian courts have agreed, meaning the slow wheels of Indian justice sometimes work in favor of someone condemned. In the Assam case, the condemned man, Mahendra Nath Das, had been convicted in 1997, with the verdict upheld by the Supreme Court a year later. His lawyers made their first mercy petition in 1999, which remained pending during the tenure of three different Indian presidents before being rejected last month.
"The man was given capital punishment but not 14 years of imprisonment," argued his lawyer, Arup Chandra Borbora. "For the last 12 years, you are virtually killing him every day."
In the context of American jurisprudence, where defense lawyers do everything possible to delay the process, this might be considered a puzzling argument. But to the Indian judge considering the motion, it made sense. He has ordered lawyers to prepare arguments for June 17. It is unclear how long it will take to reach a resolution.
Mr. Kumar, meanwhile, has been invited for an interview with prison officials this month.
For now, India may not need a hangman after all.