New Delhi: For any death row convict, the scope of judicial remedy usually fades away with a review, curative or a mercy petition. But the four convicts of the 16 December 2012 gang-rape and murder — Mukesh Singh (32), Pawan Gupta (25), Vinay Sharma (26) and Akshay Kumar Singh (31) — have fought a sustained legal battle to escape the gallows, all thanks to their lawyer, advocate A.P. Singh.
While the battle has fizzled out, with the four having been hung at 5.30 am Friday, the Delhi-based lawyer had vehemently defended them through various stages of the legal process.
He had filed multiple applications in various courts and even involved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), all on the grounds that the death penalty isn’t an acceptable form of punishment.
Even late Thursday evening, Singh had filed a challenge against Pawan Gupta’s mercy petition in the Supreme Court and a challenge in the Delhi High Court for Akshay Kumar Singh.
But Singh is a curious contradiction — a mix of somewhat progressive views and regressive ones.
He had once said that if his daughter had “moved around with her boyfriend at night” and had “premarital sex” he would have doused her in petrol and burnt her. It was a reference to the circumstances leading up to the 16 December gang-rape.
It earned him much flak in 2013 but years later, Singh is defiant, and stands by it.
“We are Rajputs and for us honour is everything,” Singh tells ThePrint. “If your wealth is gone, nothing is gone; if your health is gone, nothing is gone but if your character is gone then everything is gone.”
Singh, who was brought to the legal field by the controversial ‘godman’ Chandraswami, also played a key role in the bail granted to Swami Chinmayanand, the former BJP leader accused of sexual harassment.
Singh says he had argued before the Allahabad HC that “both the girl and Swamiji had used each other and there was no coercion”. The high court later quoted this while granting bail to the former BJP leader.
The advocate also harbours a goal to help start a movement that could lead to the establishment of a commission or a Ministry of Men. “Approximately 50 to 175 men commit suicide daily in India,” he says. “Most of them are tired of the women in their lives.”
The lawyer for the death row convicts
For all his gender views, Singh had fought a prolonged battle for the 16 December gang-rape accused. He had attempted novel ways to ensure they escape the death penalty.
Apart from the routine curative, review and mercy pleas, Singh is believed to be behind the petition that Vinay Sharma filed seeking better treatment for mental illness, schizophrenia and head, and arm injuries, the plea that Mukesh’s mother filed in the NHRC demanding an inquiry into Ram Singh’s suicide in Tihar jail and the divorce petition that Akshay’s wife filed in a local court in Bihar’s Aurangabad.
It has earned him criticism for delaying the process and trying to “take advantage of the 14-day window” but an unfazed Singh believes that this case has been one of ahimsa.
“The accused do not deserve the death penalty,” Singh tells ThePrint. “I read Mahatma Gandhi and it is clearly stated that the death penalty is a form of violence. There must be a chance of reformation for them. If Phoolan Devi, or other dreaded criminals can be reformed, then why not these children?”
But if Singh had had his way, he would never have been here. He says his initiation to the case only came about because of the perseverance of Punita Devi, wife of accused Akshay. According to Singh, a few days after the gang-rape of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student, Devi visited him at his old office in Deepali, Pitampura.
He says that he refused the case citing media pressure and the very public nature of the trial. According to Singh, the next day she visited a plush farmhouse at GT Karnal Road where Singh’s mother, Vimla Singh, lives.
It was Tihar Jail officials, according to one of Singh’s juniors, who had informed Akshay’s wife that Singh was very close to his mother and there was no way he would deny her requests.
Devi not only managed to persuade Vimla Singh, then 63, but also got her to hand over her son’s vakalatnama to show that Singh would indeed be their lawyer.
But even then, Singh says, it took some persuasion from his mother for him to agree to the case. Some of the members close to Akshay’s family maintain that once Singh began arguing in court, “Vinay too asked his parents to consider Singh” as the legal counsel.
Before long he was the lawyer for all four convicts.
The Chandraswami protege
Born in Delhi in 1972, Singh has been practicing for the last 23 years after having enrolled at the Bar in Lucknow in 1998. He graduated in law from Lucknow University and later went on to do a doctorate in criminology from the University of California.
Singh’s initiation into the field of law was through the hands of controversial Indian tantrik and former ‘godman’ Chandraswami.
After Singh graduated and joined as a trainee lawyer in 1997, it was the cases of Chandraswami that Singh attended in courts. The ‘godman’ was not without his share of controversies — he reportedly advised the Sultan of Brunei, actress Elizabeth Taylor, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and gangster Dawood Ibrahim.
In its report, the Jain Commission dedicated a volume to Chandraswami’s alleged involvement in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Seventeen years after the assassination, the Enforcement Directorate was still investigating his alleged role as financier of the killing until he passed away in 2017.
But Singh shared a special bond with the ‘godman’. According to Singh, after he joined the courts, his first two sets of robes, coat and pants used for arguments were gifted by Chandraswami. Soon, Singh also began visiting foreign countries with the ‘godman’.
Singh has also been in other high-profile cases. In the 2014 Barwala Kand case, in which the ashram of Jagatguru Tadavdarshi Rampal Ji Maharaj was burnt and six of his disciples killed, Singh had fought the case for the ashram. He also defended the accused in the Yogender murder case of UP’s Shahjahanapur.
But it is his role in the 16 December case that has really put him in the spotlight.
Known as the legal brain behind all the petitions being filed in several district courts, high court and the Supreme Court, criminal lawyers believed he made a mockery of the system.
“Two mercy petitions, two curative petitions? Who advises a divorce petition in a local court on the eve of hanging? This is a dangerous precedent for days to come especially for death sentences,” said a senior criminal lawyer practising in SC.
His juniors, however, are appreciative. “Whenever he walks in the courtroom, all eyes are on him. They want to mock him for defending the accused but they too deserve a lawyer, don’t they?” asks one of his associates.
As for Singh, he remains unperturbed. “Kuchh toh log kahenge, logo ka kaam hai kehena,” he says.