Page last updated at 04:00 GMT, Thursday, 3 June 2010 05:00 UK

A country in search of a hangman

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Calcutta

Mahadeb Mallick with his father Nata Mullick's photograph in the background
Mahadeb Mullick says he is "trained" to execute

Ask Mahadeb Mullick, a squat, forty-something man whether he is ready to execute Mohammed Ajmal Amir Qasab, the Mumbai (Bombay) attacker on death row, and he winces.

"I know the job," he says. "But I have my demands."

Qasab, a 22-year-old Pakistani citizen, was given the death sentence recently, and the media is abuzz with reports that the government is struggling to locate a hangman.

Hangmen have become scarce in India as the need for them dwindles - there have been only two hangings in the last 15 years; and the majority of the more than 300 convicts on death row can expect their sentences to be commuted to life.

Reports suggest that there are only one or two hangmen available in India - and Mahadeb Mullick could be one of the more qualified. The reason: he belongs to the country's first family of executioners.

I am sitting in a single-storey concrete shack that is the Mullick home on a sliver of a road in a crammed neighbourhood in Calcutta. The place is teeming with noisy children and busy, brisk women going about their chores.

In the midst of this domestic chaos, Mahadeb Mullick is mulling over my question: to hang or not to hang Qasab if there is a request from the authorities.

His credentials for this grisly job are impeccable.

Family 'tradition'

Nata Mullick, his father, died last year after a long "career" during which he executed 25 people.

His grandfather, Shib Lal Mullick, the family says, carried out some 600 hangings, mostly in British-ruled India. There is no way to verify this claim.

A framed picture on the wall of the stout and neat looking man, who lived between 1889 and 1971, describes him as "India's only hangman [who] lives on the edge". It is a curious eulogy for a long dead man.

His great-grandfather, according to letters available with a family, was also a hangman.

Mahadeb Mullick says "hanging is in the family's blood" and he is ready to carry out his first execution.

Nata Mullick
Nata Mullick carried out 25 hangings

But Mr Mullick, who holds a day job as a municipal worker, is carrying a grouse against the authorities for treating his father unfairly.

Nata Mullick became a star after he carried out India's last hanging in 2004 - a security guard who had murdered and raped a school girl. The government paid him 10,000 rupees ($213) for the job.

News networks lapped up the story with unconcealed glee. Reporters descended on the Mullick home, many carrying ropes and towels, asking him to demonstrate his job for the cameras.

As Mr Mullick demonstrated how to tie a "good noose" around a neck for the cameras, half a dozen children around Bengal imitated his moves and accidentally strangled friends and relatives.

An undeterred Mr Mullick blamed it on the media, while simultaneously revelling in his new found celebrity. He inaugurated blood donation camps, functions and even acted in a few jatras, or rural theatre, which are immensely popular entertainment in Bengal's villages.

But he was also castigated by a senior ruling Communist leader for being feted. The powerful leader was quoted in the local press exhorting people to stop lionising the hangman.

Mahadeb Mallick has not forgotten the slight.

"Hangmen are used and discarded. They are stigmatised. Authorities will have to apologise for the things they said against my father," he says.

"After my father carried out his last hanging, none of the authorities came to our house to find out how we were living. Nobody cares."

Authorities say this is not entirely true - they say that they gave a 10,000 rupees-a-month job to Nata Mullick's nephew Prabhat Mullick as a "sweeper-cum-hangman."

'Trained to hang'

When I meet Prabhat, he tells me that he cannot carry out an execution because he was never "trained to hang".

Mahadeb Mullick says oil and soap is use to make the noose slippery

"I went along with my uncle [Nata Mullick] when he carried out his last hanging. I could not keep my eyes open when the moment arrived," he says.

With an unwilling and "untrained" executioner in the family the onus has now fallen of Mahadeb Mullick to carry out executions.

At least, Mahadeb says, he is trained.

How does a hangman get trained? I ask him.

"Oh, you just accompany a hangman and watch a few executions, steel yourself, and carry out a few mock hangings," he says.

So when Nata Mullick hanged the security guard in 2004, he had a retinue of seven assistants, including Mahadeb, with him.

Mahadeb says he carried out half a dozen "dummy hangings" with a 75kg sandbag figure.

He says he also learnt to make the specially made rope slippery using soap, oil and mashed bananas, how to tie the noose properly, how to put the mask on the convict properly and the right time to open the gallows trapdoor.

He also accompanied Nata Mullick during the hanging of two men in 1991.

"It is not an easy job, hanging people. You need a lot of courage. You kill with a plan, with a clear head and no tension. And you cannot afford to fail," Mahadeb Mullick says.

To top it, the hangman has sometimes to face the ire of the convict at the gallows.

"One of the men we hung in 1991 abused us before we tied the noose around his neck. He said he would haunt us and destroy my family," Mahadeb Mallick says.

"But we have to keep our cool and beg forgiveness. We have to tell them, 'Please forgive us. I am doing this on the government's orders'."

So if the authorities call on him to carry out Qasab's execution, Mahadeb says he will "possibly do it" after some negotiations over pay and a regular allowance.

"But if you ask me, I think Qasab should be taken to a zoo and fed to the lions and tigers in front of the TV cameras. Hanging him is too little a punishment."

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