It was on 24 April 1996 when the crowd at the busy Fancy Bazar in Guwahati was shocked when a man beheaded a local trader Harakanta Das and went straight to the local police station with the victim’s head. The killer was Mahendra Nath Das, who was out on bail in a case of murder of Rajen Das, secretary of Assam Motor Workers Union on 24 December 1990.
The Kamrup district and sessions court sentenced him to death in connection to the murder of Harakanta Das on 18 August 1997. Since then, Mahendra has been on a death sentence. Mahendra’s family contested the judgment in Gauhati High Court in 1998 and the HC upheld the lower court’s judgment. Later, an appeal was made in Supreme Court in 1999, and the apex court had then upheld the judgment of the HC. An appeal to Governor of Assam for mercy was turned down in 2000.
In late 2000, Mahendra’s family sent the mercy petition to the President through the Assam government. Assam government took up the matter with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Former President APJ Abdul Kalam had accepted the mercy plea in 2005 and this became a turning point in his case. The Supreme Court on 1 May commuted his death sentence to a life term hearing a Special Leave Petition (SLP) filed against the rejection of the Mercy petition by Kalam’s successor Pratibha Patil in 2011.
While commuting Mahendra’s punishment, the apex court in its judgment felt that since the MHA had withheld from former President Pratibha Patil the fact that her predecessor APJ Abdul Kalam had accepted Mahendra’s mercy plea in 2005, and there has been a delay of 12 years before President Patil disposed off the petition, turning down Mahendra’s plea, it serves as a good ground for commuting the death sentence.
It was after President Patil rejected his mercy request that he was shifted to Jorhat Jail from Guwahati Central Jail for his execution. Mahendra has transformed into a disciplined convict, turned vegetarian, and devotes most of his time reading Bhagwad Gita, say sources in the prison. Mahendra also held hunger strikes several times in jail in support of his mercy plea.
The last 16 years have also been an ordeal for both Mahendra’s and Harakanta’s families. Mahendra’s mother Kusumbala Das is bed ridden in his native village Bohori in Barpeta district of lower Assam. The family has lost all its assets fighting for Mahendra; his younger sisters are yet to get married. Harakanta’s son Amal Das, also a trader in Machkhowa, lost his younger brother in 2007 and his mother in 2008.