J-34 Quality Cotton

The making of the hangman’s noose at Buxar Central Jail in Bihar
Long Rope
EXPERT WITNESS  A supervisor inspects the weave of a rope in the making at Buxar Central Jail (Photos: RAVI SAHANI)
THE WAY THEY DO IT Prisoners at work at the weaving workshop
Iron forging workshop at Buxar Central Jail

BUXAR ~ Shashikant Kumar has spent years in Buxar Central Jail as a spinner jobber, an archaic sort of title that he is sure nobody would want after he retires in a couple of years. This is not just another jail. This is where the hangman’s noose is made for hangings across India. It is made with the help of two grim-looking machines in a long corridor on the side closest to the Ganga. The river keeps the air humid and heavy, ideal for the ‘perfect rope’.

Four inmates here are on death row. Their appeals are in the courts. They know this is where the noose is made. They are not among the prisoners who made that rope in 2006, the one that was never used—or so thought. Media reports suggest that the rope used for Ajmal Kasab’s 21 November hanging in Pune’s Yerwada Jail was the one that was collected from Buxar by an officer from Delhi’s Tihar Jail for Afzal Guru.

Was it the same rope? The authorities say they do not know. Kunwar did not mumble prayers for the ‘to be departed’ as he knotted the rope. He just tried not to think too much. It was seven years ago that he sat in that long corridor with specially requisitioned spools of Manila thread all around him. Other types of rope are made here too, usually with coarse threads, but the hangman’s noose is fine J-34 quality cotton. It almost feels like silk, says BCP Singh, Bihar’s deputy inspector general of police, prisons. “It is 320 torque,” he adds. “We don’t tell [workers] what is being made. The prisoner gets his wages of Rs 121 per day. There are 18 men in the weaving unit. You see, the prison [hosts] an old established industry. Why we make this rope in this prison, we can’t tell. I doubt if anyone knows.”

They weave their ropes in a secluded space, secured by an iron door and behind high walls, with guards on watch. For seven years, Kunwar made all kinds of ropes—for tents and things. He bends, holding a hand to an ear to indicate he is hard of hearing. This is when I ask if he ever made a hangman’s noose.

 “Yes, I did. But at the time, I didn’t know that. But I was intrigued by this thread, the way it had this sheen,” he says. “You see, there was a lot of media attention. This was in 2006. They asked if I had made a noose for Afzal Guru. I came to ask my superintendent, and he said it was indeed a hangman’s noose. No, I didn’t feel anything. Even if I did, I tried to ignore it. It was an order. But I did feel fear. A little bit.”

Kunwar has been working at Buxar Central Jail since 1989. “I was at this mill where they make cloth used for burials,” he goes on. “Now, it is a job. If they didn’t find a hangman, one of the inmates had to do it. There’s a way of looking at it. You see it as what you have to do, not as if you should do this. Things then become simpler. Or go to a gun factory. They make guns used for killings. Do they feel regret, remorse, fear, pain?”

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Founded in 1856, Buxar Central Jail is one of the oldest prisons in India. Categorised as a ‘B class’ jail, it was meant for habitual offenders, mostly those convicted in murder cases. “B class means it is like what they used to call Kalapani in the old days,” Singh says, “They have hardcore criminals here. Most of them have committed murder.”

The rope factory was set up in 1880, around the time that large-scale cotton spinning was new to the country. It was the days of the Raj.

In 1931, the British administration announced that Bhagat Singh, Sukhdeo, and Rajguru would be hanged on 24 March that year. Inmates here refused to make the nooses for their hanging. Their conscience would not let them. In any case, the jail was full of freedom fighters who had challenged the might of the State as part of a ‘Jail Bharo Aandolan’. This was recounted to Singh back in 1986, when he joined the police as a young officer. An old man had come to pay his respects. He called himself Bhagat Singh and said he was a carpenter in the jail in those years of the freedom struggle. “One Mr Robinson was the jail superintendent and he ordered the inmates who refused to make nooses be tortured. But the convicts didn’t buckle under pressure,” says Singh. “Who knows with what ropes they were hanged, but the old man told me many stories and this was one of them. An eyewitness account. Buxar jail supplied no rope, Bhagat Singh told me.” The prisoners remained restive all through that period. In a 1942 revolt, he says, the jail’s deputy superintendent was thrown into a boiler.

The jail’s dusty record books have other information. There are receipts of some nooses, and a few entries that catch your eye—like the visit of an official from Tihar Jail in November 2006 with a request for a noose. It was to hang Afzal Guru, as many inferred, a hanging that never took place. What is known is that the jail sold the official a 40-45 ft rope for Rs 700, handed over the next day, waxed and smoothened.

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Shivji Singh’s face twitches. He is not sure how old he is. It is all the same to him, day in and day out. Get up, eat, make ropes, and then walk in line to be locked up for the night. He has been here since 2005, after he killed his uncle in a fit of rage in 2000. He has many more years before a review committee decides if he can be released. But he was the one who operated the Osaka-made rope-making machine even as two other inmates held the J-34 cotton thread at the other end. They did not talk. They worked in complete silence, weaving the strands together.

“Was that the rope that was meant for hanging someone?” he suddenly asks.

“Yes,” Kunwar says.

“We don’t tell the convicts who make the ropes that there is a noose that has been requisitioned. It can be depressing. Think about it. An inmate making the tool of another’s death. But with the media broadcasting everything live, we can’t really hide it any longer,” says Jail Superintendent SK Ambastha. “There’s a letter that comes when a rope for a noose is required. I don’t think even the name of the convict is mentioned, but his specifics like height and weight are written there. Of course, we read the news and come to know. I have been here a couple of years, and in my time, no such request has been made.”

Recent news reports have claimed that Buxar’s convicts couldn’t wait to make a noose for Kasab. Shivji, however, says he would not have made a rope if he had known it was going to be used to hang someone. “It makes me cringe in fear,” he says, “Fear or guilt, I can’t tell which. But had I known, I would have refused. I have suffered enough. I don’t want to carry the curse of making a noose.” He has not had lunch. He disappears inside the prison complex. Later that afternoon, he is at the rope-making wheel again.

Typically, says Ambastha, “The convict knows he is to be hanged. He signs what is called a ‘black warrant’. His height and weight are taken, noted, and sent to us for the rope. There’s the dock, and there’s a 25-feet long path underground which is what the doctor and other staff use to drag the body out and make sure the convict is dead. But before each hanging, the rope is tested. A sack weighing more than one-and-a-half times the weight of the convict is tied to the rope, and the pulley operated…You know, I can’t bear to witness the slaying of a chicken or goat, so I avoid going to the butcher. I have a weak heart, but if they order me to witness a hanging, I would have to do it because it is part of my duty. Not that we rejoice in pain. We are human too.”

Ambastha was told about the rope unit when he was transferred to the Buxar facility, and he looked up the records. In Bihar, only ten hangings had taken place in the decades after 1940. No capital punishment had been carried out in the state since 1995, when Suresh Chandra Bahri was hanged. Before that, Paramhans Yadav, convicted of killing Gopalganj’s then District Magistrate MPN Sharma, was sent to the gallows in 1988. Bhola Sah was executed the same year. Earlier still, Mahavir Mahato and Parshuram Dhanuk had been hanged in 1983, the year that the Supreme Court, in response to a question raised over this method of execution, had stated that it was neither ‘barbaric’ nor ‘torturous’.

Hangings in India have been getting increasingly infrequent. Kunwar does not know the statistics, but can tell you that since 1998, after the weaver Satyadev Jha retired, he has had to work with Manila thread spools only once.

Kunwar never asked how many Jha helped weave in his time. But he knows on more than occasion, Jha would have stood at the wheel, supervising the making of a noose. It had been Jha’s job for 35 years, he says. “I always thought about the ropes they made here for hangings. I could never tell. We make so many kinds of rope here. Even the thought, when I was much younger, sent shivers through me. It was ‘Yamdoot’s weapon’ and my heart would beat faster and faster.”

Kunwar’s wife Premlata Devi has not come to terms with the idea of a noose being crafted by her husband. She tells him to stop doing it—because it will make him a murderer. He tells her there is something called a necessary evil. She is scared. What if the man hanging by his neck was innocent, or wanted to stay alive, or had repented? “It is my duty,” is the only reply he has for her.

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A bearded man slides his hand on a rope being made. “I am here on murder charges,” he says.

Ajay Paswan is 38, and is among the few inmates who work in the rope making unit, one of the 23 odd factories inside the Buxar facility that houses around 640 prisoners in all (of whom around 240 are convicts).

“I would like to make that rope,” says Paswan, “The one used for hanging.” Having been here for four years, he considers himself a “disciplined” inmate. He works for the State. If the State decides to put an end to someone’s life, who is he to question it? “All killers must be punished,” he says.

“[If] you [have] killed, imagine the noose being made for your hanging.”

Paswan turns away. Shivji is still turning the wheel.