The Story of Shabnam, the First Woman Set to be Hanged in India in 70 Years

“The stage is set for her hanging,” said the executioner tasked with the job.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
February 23, 2021, 9:24am
woman prisoner death row second appeal shabnam
Photo for representational purpose. Photo: Getty Images

Thirteen years ago, a woman named Shabnam from the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) killed seven of her family members—including her 10-month-old nephew, whom she strangled.

Now she could be the first woman in post-colonial India to be executed by hanging.

India still uses capital punishment, and there are over 400 people on death row, as of Dec. 31, 2020. The most recent execution took place last year, where four men convicted of gang-raping and murdering a woman in New Delhi, were hanged. Since 1947, when India became independent, it has executed over 700 men, but no women. Reports state that there are 12 women inmates on death row across India. 

On Feb. 18, Shabnam’s 12-year-old son, Mohammed Taj, appealed to Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to forgive his mother. “I love my mother,” Taj told news agency ANI. “It is up to the President to forgive her. But I have faith.” Taj was born in prison and briefly lived with Shabnam there until he was sent to foster care. 

shabnam death row

File photo of Shabnam. Photo via Twitter

There is no clarity on the date and time of the hanging of Shabnam. Prison officials told The Print that they are yet to get a date from court, while her lawyer said the sentence was not final because of various legal options still available.

Akhilesh Kumar, a deputy inspector general of prisons in UP’s Agra city, told the Hindustan Times that maintenance work is ongoing at the only Indian jail that has an execution area for women convicts.

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Shabnam’s designated hangman, Pawan Kumar, visited the facility last year and said that the “stage is set” for the execution, according to The Print.

Prisoners Are Going Viral on TikTok

“The rope has been ordered from [the eastern Indian city of ] Buxar, and I am just waiting for the date,” he added. He told The Hindustan Times that he also pointed out several needed repairs at the gallows to prison authorities. 

But in a statement shared with VICE World News, Shabnam’s lawyer Shreya Rastogi said that the current claims of preparations for the execution are not accurate. “The news reports do not present the correct factual and legal position regarding the remaining remedies available to Shabnam,” said the statement. “A death warrant cannot be issued because Shabnam has not exhausted all judicial and administrative remedies available to her.”

Shabnam’s story continues to be told and retold in India. Those who know Shabnam recall her as the most educated in her family, with masters degrees in English and geography. Usman Saifi, a journalist who is now taking care of Shabnam’s son, Taj, told the media that Shabnam used to be in his class at college and once paid his tuition fee when he couldn’t. “She helped me throughout,” he told The Indian Express. “Just like an elder sister would.” He said he adopted Taj because of her generosity. 

Trouble started when she started seeing Saleem, who was a school dropout and worked at a wood sawing shop. They were both Muslims but from different castes—many Indian families prefer intra-caste marriages. They were both in their 20s. Her family did not approve of their relationship. 

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On the nights of April 14 and 15 in 2008, Shabnam sedated six of her family members. Her boyfriend lopped off their heads with an axe. The victims included her parents and two siblings, a sister-in-law and a cousin. She then strangled her baby nephew. 

To avoid suspicions, Shabnam raised alarm about the murders and claimed unknown assailants did the deed. Police arrested the couple five days after the murders. What gave them away—apart from the recovery of tranquillizing drugs, blood-stained clothes and the axe—were dozens of calls exchanged right before the killings.

Shabnam was seven weeks pregnant at the time and delivered the baby in December 2008. Over the years, Shabnam and Saleem also turned against each other and shifted blame for the murders. 

In 2010, a trial court sentenced them to death. In 2015, the Supreme Court stayed the death sentence. Rastogi said the “landmark decision” led the court to lay down rules on death warrants, specifying that sufficient notice is given to the convict so that they can consult their advocate to figure out “reasonable” opportunities and time to challenge the death warrant. 

Since then, the UP Governor, Supreme Court and the President's office have rejected their pleas for mercy. “The devilry was with the desire to see that no legal heir except Shabnam remains alive. They wanted to grab the property of Shabnam’s parents who were against their marriage,” observed the Supreme Court. 

One of the prison officials told The Print that Shabnam is “normal and quiet”.

“But like all death row convicts, Shabnam too thinks that somehow her sentence will be commuted,” he said. 

On Feb. 18, Rastogi sent another mercy petition prepared by her client, to the UP governor and the President. “It is currently pending,” said Rastogi. 

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