(An edited version of this piece was first published on Firstpost.)
“Leg was chopped off 23cm below the knee. Both the bones of the leg exposed being cut from the front showing beveling… Both eye lids with face charred, eye balls destroyed, ears, nose and lips also charred… Extensive charring of a female dead body beyond identification… super iliac spine, underlying thigh bone cut from the back showing beveling from above… Scalp tissue almost burnt except over a very insignificant (2.5 x 0.8cm) area… Distal phalanges in the hand missing (chopped off). Upper limb was chopped off just below the elbow…”
These lines, quoting the post-mortem of Naina Sahni’s remains, are from the Supreme Court’s recent judgment in the case of Sushil Sharma versus the state of NCT of Delhi. When the post-mortem was conducted back in 1995, it described the state of Sahni’s corpse. Today, these clinical and gruesome details are not about an individual who had once been alive. They are among the key elements of a judgment that has commuted a death sentence into life imprisonment. Naina Sahni’s chopped up and charred remains are now part of a legal precedent that will contribute to defining what constitutes a “rarest of rare” case.
Popularly known as “the tandoor murder”, Sahni’s remains one of the most sensational cases of violent crime in India. In 1995, Sharma, a Delhi Youth Congress worker, shot his wife and General Secretary of the Delhi Youth Congress Girls’ Wing, Naina Sahni. The post-mortem says Sahni probably slipped into coma because of her bullet wounds before actually dying. Sharma packed her body carefully in polythene, put it in the boot of his car, drove to a restaurant he owned. He shut it down summarily, before closing time. Once the customers had left, Sharma and the restaurant manager Keshav Kumar chopped Sahni’s corpse into pieces and threw them in the retaurant’s tandoor in order to destroy the evidence of Sahni’s murder.
In 2003, Sharma was sentenced to death by the district court at which his case first appeared. He filed an appeal against the lower court’s judgment at the Delhi High Court, but found little sympathy. In its judgment upholding the death sentence, the Delhi High Court said,
People like the appellant who are power drunk and have no value for human life are definitely a menace for the society at large and deserve no mercy. … The act of the appellant is so abhorrent and dastardly that in case death penalty is not awarded to him it would be a mockery of justice and conscience of the society at large would be shocked. This is surely a case which falls within the category of ‘rarest of rare cases’ in which no other punishment except the death penalty would be justified.
Five years later, the Supreme Court disagreed:
Undoubtedly the offence is brutal but the brutality alone would not justify the death sentence in this case.
There are those who would argue that there is no justification for a death sentence, regardless of the crime, but that debate is a different matter. The fact is, the provision for a death sentence exists in our legal system. There are certain criteria laid down by Supreme Court Caselaw that a crime and its perpetrator must fulfill in order to be awarded that extreme sentence. Among them are these two:
When the murder is committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly manner so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of the community.
When the murder is committed for a motive which evinces total depravity and meanness… .
The Supreme Court’s decision to commute Sharma’s death sentence to life imprisonment tells us that killing someone and disposing of their corpse in a methodical and calculated manner isn’t brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly enough to arouse our indignation. Not only did Sharma kill Sahni, but faced with his dying wife, he coolly planned how he’d get rid of her corpse. He didn’t dump her body in a garbage heap or in the Yamuna. He wrapped it up in polythene and burnt it. Had it not been for an alert policeman and home guard, Sahni’s murder could easily have slipped under the radar. But, as per the Supreme Court judgment, this isn’t total depravity or meanness. Which begs the terrible question of just how inhuman and gory a crime will have to be in the future to qualify as “rarest of rare”.
Yesterday’s judgment lists a number of “mitigating” circumstances that inclined the bench towards commuting the death sentence. While agreeing upon Sharma’s guilt as far as the murder is concerned, the ruling expresses doubts over whether he actually chopped up the body. “The second post-mortem report states that no opinion could be given as to whether the dead body was cut as dislocation could be due to the burning of the dead body,” says the judgment, thereby suggesting that the undisputed facts that she was shot and her dead body was burnt in a tandoor aren’t evidence enough of Sharma’s depravity. It seems it’s the chopping up of the corpse that really brings it home, particularly when the murder is “the outcome of strained personal relationship.”
The Supreme Court ruling concludes that Sharma was motivated to commit murder because he loved Sahni. It also points out that when Sharma was shown Sahni’s remains, he wept, which could be read as remorse for his crime. (One could perhaps argue it was misery at realising there was no possibility of getting away with pleading innocence when faced with incontrovertible proof of having committed murder. It’s all a matter of interpretation.) The bench also observes in the judgment that Sharma has no “criminal antecedents” and consequently, there is a chance that he may be reformed and rehabilitated. There is no reference to whether being in jail for the past decade may have played a part in Sharma’s law-abiding behaviour. More unsettling is that Sharma’s history of inflicting domestic abuse upon Sahni doesn’t count as a criminal antecedent.
Sahni and Sharma’s was a turbulent, unhappy marriage. He was possessive, suspected Sahni of being unfaithful to him and was prone to violence. Their domestic help testified in court that Sharma would beat Sahni, sometimes with a stick, for “trivial” matters. The Supreme Court’s judgment also notes that Sharma had “restricted” Sahni’s movements because he was suspicious. Sharma’s behaviour fits the definitions of physical and emotional abuse as outlined in the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act.
The Supreme Court’s ruling’s dismissal of the domestic abuse that Sahni suffered is the other aspect of this case that is unsettling. It’s entirely unconvinced that Sahni was a victim in her marriage to Sharma, and says as much:
“She [Sahni] was an independent lady, who was capable of taking her own decisions. … She was not a poor, illiterate hapless woman. Considering the social status of the deceased, it would be difficult to come to the conclusion that the appellant [Sharma] was in a dominant position qua her.”
Social status doesn’t neutralise the skewed power dynamics between men and women, as is patently obvious from the numerous incidents of rape in which women are attacked by men from a lower social strata. As far as social convention and patriarchy are concerned, the most important advantage is masculinity and social status is no competition to that trump card.
Sahni had fought with her parents to marry Sharma, which meant she was isolated from her family. Given the censure usually levied upon women who choose to walk out of marriages, there would have been no reason for Sahni to believe her parents may be sympathetic to her predicament. Sharma refused to publicly acknowledge Sahni as his wife, which meant she couldn’t have spoken about her situation to friends or colleagues. She was being beaten at home and had seen her neighbours ignore her plight when Sharma physically abused her in their presence. The one person she confided in was her ex-boyfriend, Matloob Karim (they broke up because her being Hindu and him Muslim was too big an obstacle for their relationship. Both had since married other people). According to Karim, Sahni had been trying to leave Sharma and had gone so far as to consider emigrating to Australia.
But the ruling doesn’t take note of Sahni’s loneliness and desperation. It adheres to the stereotype that educated women from middle-class backgrounds don’t face problems like domestic abuse. Ignoring the data that has been gathered by agencies like the National Crime Records Bureau and the stigma as well as social conventions that keep women – particularly those from affluent backgrounds – from reporting domestic abuse, the ruling suggests only poor and illiterate women are oppressed.
The sad fact is sexual discrimination and the consequent unequal power dynamic between men and women is one of the defining features of Indian society. Just by virtue of their gender, a vast number of women become the weaker sex because social institutions like marriage and family don’t give them the status and respect that men enjoy just by virtue of being men. This inequality is the fundamental principle of patriarchy. That Sharma’s ‘love’ for Sahni – despite its problematic and illegal manifestations – can be upheld as a justification for his decision to commit murder while its effects upon her are ignored shows the gender bias that is at the heart of our society more plainly than any feminist lecture.
Admittedly this is now in the realm of hypothesis, but it seems like that leaving Sharma would have been difficult for Sahni. She didn’t have a family to which she could return. They worked in the same political party, which meant that leaving him could have had an impact upon her professional life too. In addition to this were the psychological effects of being abused. But the ruling doesn’t consider Sahni’s point of view. It only reduces her into a stereotype that shows how disconnected the ruling is from the reality of Indian society.
Or maybe the ruling is actually a reflection of how our attitudes have change and what we have become. It’s possible that the only way we can sleep in peace is by imagining issues like inequality and gender bias are a problem for those other people, the poor who are not like us the educated middle classes. Perhaps Sharma’s crime isn’t quite so horrifying when compared to the crimes against women and girls that are reported with chilling regularity. Perhaps we’ve become so used to violence, subtle and unmistakable, that violence like what Sahni suffered in life and death don’t really stand out anymore.