Free At Last: The Story Of A Child Who Spent 25 Years On Death Row & Emerged A Free Man

17 Apr 2023 11 min read  Share

On 27 March 2023, 28 years after Niranaram Chetanram Chaudhary alias Narayan was incarcerated for the murder of seven people, the Supreme Court declared that he was a child of 12 at the time of the crime, which meant the maximum sentence he should have received under Indian law when convicted in February 1998 was three years. Narayan spent 25 of his incarceration on death row before release.

After 28 years, Narayan stands in front of the house he left 30 years ago in Jalabsar, Rajasthan/ NARAYAN CHETANRAM CHAUDHARY

New Delhi: Dressed in an orange polo t-shirt and jeans, Narayan, as he was known to in legal proceedings and to everyone who knew him, stepped out of the Nagpur Central Jail on 28 March 2023 a free man.

His freedom came after numerous failed appeals in local courts and two rounds of reviews before the Supreme Court, 28 years after he was first imprisoned as a child on charges of murder, and spent a quarter century on death row. 

In the months before his release, the Supreme Court, which finally ordered his release, also confirmed his age at the time of arrest—12 years and six months—and his real name: Niranaram Chetanram Chaudhary

As life carried on outside the walls of the prison over the nearly three decades of his incarceration, Narayan’s life remained stagnant, with little to no hope of a future. It is now celebrated as a story of triumph, but Narayan’s story is one of profound loss. 

In a country now engaged in discourse on more humane modes of execution (here and here), cases such as Narayan’s make clear the widespread infirmities that require to be addressed in India’s judicial system.

At the age of eight, a few months after he completed his third year of primary education, Narayan decided to leave his house in Jalabsar village, 100 km east of Bikaner, Rajasthan with his cousins in search of a job. 

Their two-year-long nomadic pursuit saw them move from Rajasthan to Punjab, Punjab to Delhi, Delhi to Mumbai and Mumbai to Pune, where they finally decided to settle down. His cousins and he were employed in a small sweet shop off Laxmi Road and were given a room by the shop’s owner. 

A few months later, Narayan’s father, Chetanram, tracked his son down to Pune and tried to convince him to return to Jalabsar, but without successl. Narayan was determined to remain in Pune and live out his new-found freedom with his cousins. 

He was soon introduced to Raju by a carpenter who frequented his sweet shop. It is this acquaintance that set in motion a series of events that lead to Narayan’s eventual arrest and his ill-fated encounter with India’s criminal justice system.   

On 5 September 1994, six months after his twelfth birthday, Narayan found himself accused of killing seven persons, along with co-accused Raju and Jitu, with the intention of robbing jewellery, cash and other valuables. 

Gross oversight on the part of law enforcement officials and a magistrate led to his imprisonment at the age of 12. The officials failed to notice that he was a child and treated him as a 20 year old man instead. He was coerced into signing papers, admitting to a crime that he may not have committed. 

Narayan was then sent to a high-security ward at Pune’s Yerwada central jail, which was meant for death-row prisoners.

The prosecution's case rested on the witness statement of Raju, who later turned approver. 


A Child Of 12 Loses His Childhood

Narayan’s trial went on for four years. A child of 12, treated as an adult in the eyes of the criminal justice system, Narayan was left to grapple with the harsh realities of life in prison himself. 

His parents, who were back in Rajasthan, could not afford to visit him for family mulakats (visitations) due to their economic condition. Deprived of a secure and stable environment to grow amidst children of his own age, he socialised with strangers and fellow prisoners who were far older than him— under constant surveillance and prison conditions—making his life lonely and monotonous, with no hope of change.

Narayan had no access to the fundamental factors in a child’s development. In contrast, he was exposed to severe trauma with his cell being placed right next to the gallows—he listened to the sounds of execution rehearsals that were carried out by the prison officials regularly, and was left to fend for himself at court during multiple visits without proper legal guidance and support. 

Unable to understand the court proceedings and the charges levied against him in a language that was unfamiliar only added to his sense of alienation within the system. Narayan only spoke Hindi and court proceedings were in English.

Before Narayan could fully comprehend what was happening in his life, let alone adjust to it, the Pune Sessions court, in February 1998, convicted and sentenced him to death. 

In July 1999, the Bombay High Court upheld his conviction and death sentence, citing his age as between 20 to 22 years. No plea for juvenility was brought forth at this stage as well—a legal oversight that cost Narayan 28 years of his life. 

In the hope for justice, Narayan appealed in the Supreme Court in September 2000. Finding “no merit” in the appeal, the Court dismissed his petition yet again—his juvenility was neither raised nor considered by the highest court of law in the country. 

A month later, Narayan turned to his remaining constitutional remedies and filed in the Supreme Court a review petition, which, too, was dismissed. With six years having gone by since his arrest, and with little to no hope in sight, Narayan decided to persevere. 


Watching Time Pass By 

Living with the death sentence caused both physiological and psychological stress for this child. 

After having his petitions dismissed by every court he approached, Narayan was forced to come to terms with the harsh reality that as a death row prisoner he could receive a date for his execution at any moment—that the rehearsals he heard being carried out right outside his cell could just be on him. 

When the whole system was against him and he had no hope, he turned to his fellow inmates for solidarity. Faced with the same fate as Narayan, they encouraged him to find ways to escape reality and suggested that he take up reading and pursue an educational degree. 

At first, he was unsure of how a class-three student could pursue higher education. However, with constant support from his fellow prisoners and a lot of patience and practice, Narayan learnt to read and write English and Marathi. 

His drive for self betterment and to leave a lasting impression in society, had him reading books by various authors, including John Grisham, Durjoy Datta, David Baldacci and Sidney Sheldon. 

By this time, Narayan also picked up an interest in pursuing his studies and wrote multiple letters to the jail superintendent for authorisation, since death row prisoners are denied educational opportunities. 

He was eventually granted permission and did a bachelors in social sciences and a masters in sociology from Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), and even went on to complete three certificate courses in Gandhian Thoughts and Tourism Studies. 

By this time, Narayan was reading at least four regional newspapers and keeping himself informed about the world outside. 


A Legal Amendment Provides Hope

While reading a newspaper], Narayan read of a Supreme Court’s decision in Pratap Singh vs State of Jharkhand (2005) that changed the law under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act 2000, which allowed a claim of juvenility to be raised at any stage of the case. 

Reading this decision  led Narayan to the realisation that he still had a chance at freedom. In August 2005,  Narayan requested the inspector general (IG) of prisons, western division, Pune, for a medical examination to determine his age, something that had not been done until then. 

The IG sent a letter to the superintendent of the Yerwada central jail ordering a medical examination and an age certificate.  Narayan was taken to the Sassoon Hospital and B J Medical College for a medical examination in August 2005. 

The test concluded that he  was more than 22 years of age but less than 40 on the date of the examination, which placed him between the ages of 11 to 29 years on the date of the crime in August 1994. 

However, officials took no action based on the results of the test and disregarding the procedure of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 for the next four to five months. Faced with no follow-up action from officials, Narayan requested his brother Mukhram to collect his school records, which he knew were considered admissible documents under the law. 

He also received support from a group of human rights activists and Advocate Vijay Hiremath, who had written to the President of India requesting Narayan’s death sentence to be converted to life imprisonment, since he was a juvenile, based on his school records. 

It was not long after this that the ministry of home affairs, on 1 February 2006, wrote to the government of Maharashtra, seeking details of the case with comments on the letter by the human rights activists. Ten months passed and there was no response.   

In the meantime, the decision in Pratap Singh was incorporated into the Juvenile Justice Act through the introduction of section 7A in August 2006. Section 7A stated that when a claim of juvenility is raised before any court or a court is of the opinion that an accused person was a juvenile on the date of commission of the offence, it must order an inquiry and take relevant evidence on record to determine the age of such person. 

A claim of juvenility can be raised before any court and it can be recognised at any stage, even after the disposal of the case, even if the juvenile has ceased to be so on or before the commencement of the Juvenile Justice Act. 

On 18 December 2006, the superintendent of prisons ordered another age determination test at the Sassoon hospital, where Narayan was taken earlier. It is unclear whether this action by the superintendent was driven by the amendment to the JJ Act or the letter from the home ministry to the Maharashtra government. 

In any case, the medical superintendent of Sassoon hospital noted in his report that the age of the prisoner was already present in his school records, along with Narayan’s legal name “Niranaram”, the school he went to and the name of his village, observing that the school certificate could help Narayan’s juvenility case. 

Armed with the report, Narayan’s family filed a fresh writ petition with the assistance of Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate and founder of Human Rights Law Network in July 2013, on the grounds of juvenility at the time of the crime and placed on record new documents, including a family card and a school transfer certificate. 

In August 2013, the Supreme Court once again dismissed the petition, arguing it  was not raised under the appropriate provision of the amended JJ Act. 


Proof of Juvenility & Finding Allies 

It was in October 2014 that Project 39A took up Narayan’s case, at a time when the legal system witnessed a landmark change in the death penalty law after a judgement in Mohd. Arif vs The Registrar,  Supreme Court of India (2014)

Before the Mohd. Arif judgement, review petitions arising out of appeals affirming the death sentence were typically decided on the basis of written submissions and could be decided without an open court hearing. This meant that death-row prisoners were denied the chance to have their case re-examined. 

The judgement changed this practice by establishing the right to an oral hearing in review petitions. Project 39A filed a review reopening in Narayan’s case in October 2014 under Mohd. Arif

An application was filed seeking juvenility under section 9(2) of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 that allowed the claim of juvenility to be raised at any stage, before any court. In order to provide school documents for the court, a team from Project39A, traced Narayan’s school Rajkiya Secondary School in his village in Jalabsar, Rajasthan. 

The school had preserved its records which went on to become key pieces of evidence in both the Pune sessions court as well as the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then directed a sessions court in Pune to conduct an inquiry. 

A police officer from the Kothrud police station was deputed to ascertain the authenticity of the documents submitted by Narayan. On 12 March 2019, after a 5 year long inquiry into the matter, the Sessions Court concluded that Narayan was 12 years and 6 months old on the date of the crime and that his actual name was Niranaram Chetanram Chaudhary.  

It then took the Supreme Court nearly four years to declare Narayan’s juvenility and order his release. 

With this, Narayan was finally a free man and was ready to return home, nearly three decades after he left his village in the hope of a better life—a hope that still remains unfulfilled.   

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(Katherine Deborah Joy is  Associate (Mitigation) at Project 39A, National Law University Delhi. Project 39A provided pro bono legal representation to Narayan in Sessions Court, Pune and the Supreme Court since October 2014 . Project 39A briefed Advocate Harshad Nimbalkar in the age inquiry hearing in Sessions Court, Pune and Senior Advocate R. Basant in the review hearing in the Supreme Court)