‘Life gives everyone a second chance’: Clinging to hope, they count the hours

Ankita Dwivedi Johri, Santosh Singh
‘Life gives everyone a second chance’: Clinging to hope, they count the hours
‘Life gives everyone a second chance’: Clinging to hope, they count the hours

(From left to right) Vinay Sharma, Akshay Singh, Pawan Gupta, Mukesh Singh.

“‘Mujhe marna nahin hai, bas marna nahin hai (I don’t want to die. I just don’t want to die)’. That was all my son said in the half hour that I met him for yesterday (January 14). That’s his last wish,” says Hariram Sharma, father of Vinay Sharma, 26, speaking from behind a window grille above his two-room shanty’s iron door, refusing to come out. He disappears for a few minutes before emerging again at the grille, this time sticking out his hand to show a framed picture. It’s a family portrait — Hariram dapper in a suit and tie, his wife in a yellow sari and Vinay, the eldest of his four children, as a four-year-old, wearing a ‘baba suit’ and two tight pigtails. “He has not done it, just look at him,” says the 50-year-old, weeping uncontrollably.

At 6 am on February 1, Vinay, along with Mukesh Singh, 32, Akshay Singh, 31, and Pawan Gupta, 25, are slated to hang for the December 2012 Delhi gang rape. Ram Singh, Mukesh’s brother, who was also the main accused in the case, was found dead in his cell at Tihar Jail in March 2013, while another accused, a juvenile, was released after serving a three-year sentence.

Situated on the fringes of government colonies in South Delhi’s R K Puram area, Ravidas Camp is home to the families of three of the convicts — Vinay, Mukesh and Pawan. Much like the arc that the family of the victim followed, from a village in Uttar Pradesh to Delhi, most of the slum’s residents are migrants to the Capital from towns and villages in UP, Rajasthan and Bihar.

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“We came here in 1999 from Gorakhpur. He was born here. He spoke English, and was in his second year of BCom when he was arrested. I work as a contractor near the airport, making less than Rs 7,000 a month, but my son had managed to get a job offer from Subroto Park (a military base nearby),” says Hariram, after he finally agrees to open the door. He then retreats into his house, saying, “Wait, I will show you more.”

Outside Hariram’s house, his neighbour Seema is scrolling through her phone, and inquires curiously, “Isn’t Vinay dead? Hasn’t he committed suicide? At least that’s what’s on WhatsApp.” A 2016 report, of when Vinay had unsuccessfully attempted suicide by consuming painkillers, has resurfaced on social media platforms.

Since the incident, jail authorities have said that the 26-year-old has been battling depression, with a recent report also claiming that of the four convicts, he is the one with the “maximum number of punishments” for breaking rules in Tihar.

But Hariram will hear none of it as he returns with a trophy and some paintings. “He was a very good painter also. See this... He has not done it (the rape), the media has framed him. I don’t think he can be saved now... but my wife is trying,” he says. His wife, 45, has gone home to Gorakhpur to do a pooja for her son.

“The jail authorities don’t even let us take food for him... When I meet him, I don’t know what to say or do,” says the father.

On Saturday, The Indian Express reported that the four convicts had been asked to decide the last day of meeting their families before January 30. “So far, they haven’t told us the dates,” said a Tihar Jail source.

A few homes away, Pawan’s father Hiralal Gupta, a fruit-seller, is chopping cabbage for lunch. When asked about his son, he shouts, “He was not in the area that night, he had left in the afternoon. Kuchch nahin kiya usne, par aap ye toh nahin likhenge (He is innocent, but you won’t write that).”

Neighbours say that while Hiralal visits his son in jail regularly, he also pushes himself and his fruit cart to the market daily. “Paise kamana bhi toh zaroori hai (He needs to earn money too),” says a man in his 40s.

In one of the slum’s farthest corners, past dingy, wet lanes and decrepit shanties, stands Ram Singh and Mukesh’s locked home. While Ram Singh was the driver of the bus in which the girl was raped, Mukesh was its cleaner.

Says a neighbour who does not wish to be identified, “Rambai, their mother, has been living here alone since her husband’s death... She has another son who lives in Saket and visits her sometimes. The family had moved into this slum in 1991, and were among the oldest residents here.” The neighbour adds, “But what is the point of talking about it... Faansi toh hogi hee (They will be hanged for sure).”

Sitting in his courtyard in the winter sun, Bihari Lal, the Resident Welfare Association ‘pradhan’ of the slum, blames Hiralal and the others for bringing “disrepute” to the slum. “Since the incident, policemen and reporters have been crawling all over the place. The victim was our daughter too and the guilty must be hanged, but these families don’t want to believe their sons committed the crime. They only blame the press,” he says, adding, “Anyway, we don’t interact with them much.” More young men gather around Lal and complain about the “notoriety” the slum has gained since the incident.

Over a thousand kilometres away, in a Bihar village, stigma hangs as heavy in its open fields, narrow lanes, and exposed brick homes. Outside one such brick-and-tile structure at Karmalahang village in Aurangabad district, home to the family of Akshay Kumar Singh or Akshay Thakur, one of the convicts in the gang rape case, is his eldest brother Vinay Singh.

Dropping the axe with which he is cutting wood, Vinay rages, “Has the media ever told our story? Have you ever talked about how I was beaten up by police those three days (December 19-21, 2012)? In fact, we handed over Akshay to police on December 21. Has anyone written about that?” he says, as others try to pacify him.

On Vinay’s allegation of police torture, Aurangabad SP Deepak Barnwal says, “We simply cooperated with the Delhi Police that did a commendable job... It is not proper for me to react to what Akshay’s family says.”

In the small courtyard outside his house, Vinay, now calmer, says, “The media even reported that we have disowned Akshay. But we need him. His wife and son need him. Life gives everyone a second chance. Why was a juvenile spared when his crime was much graver? Can the government give us in writing that rape will stop after my brother and the others are hanged?”

Refusing to let The Sunday Express meet Akshay’s parents or his wife, Vinay says, “They don’t want to be written about as they die every day.” None from the family has gone to meet Akshay, the youngest of three brothers, he adds. “We have six bighas of land among us three. We could not even afford a lawyer. Whatever is being done is by the government lawyer. We get updates on Akshay through TV or newspapers.”

About the death sentence, Vinay says, “What can we say? But if Sonia Gandhi could forgive the killers of her husband, can’t Akshay’s hanging be stopped?”