Before the Supreme Court of India
AIR 1980 SC 898, 1980
State of Punjab
Date of Judgement
16 Aug. 1982
Justice Y. V. Chandrachud; Justice A. Gupta; Justice N. Untwalia; Justice P. N. Bhagwati; Justice R Sarkaria and Justice A.C. Gupta
The present case came out to be a burning issue with regard to the death penalty. Post Constitution many legislative efforts were made dealing with the feasibility and validity of capital punishment. The Criminal Procedure Code was amended on the recommendation of the 35th Law Commission Report in the year 1973 in which the “special reasons” were required for awarding death sentence. The Law Commission of India in its 35th report stated that “Having regard, however, to the conditions in India, to the variety of the social upbringing of its inhabitants, to the disparity in the level of morality and education in the country, to the vastness of its area, to the diversity of its population, and to the paramount need for maintaining law and order in the country at the present juncture, India cannot risk the experiment of the abolition of capital punishment[i].”
The present case is a landmark case determining the constitutional validity of the death penalty for murder provided in Section 302 of IPC and the procedure embodied in Section 354, Sub-section (3) of CrPC, 1973. In the present case, the Supreme Court of India laid down the ‘rarest of the rare doctrine’ by imposing the limitations on the death penalty. This case is a landmark judgment given by a five-judge bench of the Hon’ble SC.
The Appellant in a Criminal Appeal was convicted for the murders Desa Singh, Durga Bai, and Veeran Bai and sentenced to death under Section 302, Indian Penal Code by the Sessions Judge. The High Court confirmed his death sentence given by the sessions judge and dismissed his appeal. Bachan Singh, the appellant by Special Leave to Appeal came up for hearing before the Supreme Court to raise the consideration before the court that whether the facts of his case were “special reasons” for awarding him the death sentence as required in Section 354(3) of CrPC, 1973.
Statutes and Provisions Discussed:
- Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860
- Section 354 (3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973
- Articles 19, 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950
- 35th Law Commission Report.
- Whether the death penalty provided for murder in Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code is unconstitutional?
- If the answer to the above question is negative, whether the sentencing procedure mentioned in Section, 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973 is unconstitutional on the ground that it gives unfettered power to Courts, allowing death sentence to be capriciously imposed on a person found guilty of murder punishable under IPC with death or with imprisonment for life?
Arguments on behalf of the Petitioner:
The very first contention raised on behalf of the petitioner was, that the death penalty for murder mentioned in Section 302 of IPC abridges Article 19 of the Constitution. It was humbly submitted by the counsel that the right to live in the basic enjoyment guaranteed to a citizen mentioned in clauses (a) to (e) and (g) and the death penalty puts an end to all these freedoms. As the death penalty serves no social purpose, the imposition of the same must be regarded as an “unreasonable restriction”. As the dignity of an individual is sombrely vouchsafed by the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, the imposition of the death penalty is a total prohibition of six Fundamental Rights guaranteed in 19(1).
Arguments on behalf of the Respondent:
The counsels on behalf of the respondents contended the principle of sic uteri tou ut alienum non laedas which means that a person may use the property in such a way that it does not injure someone else’s rights. They presented before the Court that the six rights guaranteed under Article 19(1) are not absolute rights, they are subjected to inherent restraints, putting obligations on the member of civil society to use his/her rights in such a manner that it does not infringe or injure similar rights of others.
In the present case, the Supreme Court lucidly dismissed the challenges pertaining to the constitutionality of Section 302 of IPC and 354(3) of CrPC. It was made very clear by the court that Article 19 clauses (2) to (6) have been expressly made subject to the power of the State to impose reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the rights of citizens. For the people convicted for the offense of murder, life imprisonment was made a rule and death sentence an exception. With the majority of 4:1, the Court struck down Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code as unconstitutional and void.
The bench while giving the decision said that “Judges are never bloodthirsty”. While giving the judgment the judges relied on the judgments of Jagmohan Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh,[ii] and Rajendra Prasad v State of Uttar Pradesh,[iii] there was a plurality observed in the case of Rajendra Prasad and was further observed that a person loses his right to life when he is given a death sentence, abridging his fundamental right. In Jagmohan’s case, it was observed that the judges of the nation are vested with discretion in the matter of fixing the degree of the penalty or punishment. The discretion of the judges on the principle of a well-recognized judgment of law ultimately safeguards the accused. For testing the constitutionality of the impugned provision Articles 19 and 21 were taken into consideration. It was not possible for them to hold that the provision of death penalty was an alternative punishment for murder in Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, is unreasonable and against the public policy and interests of the individuals and was held that the provision mentioned in 302 of IPC is neither unconstitutional nor void.
Regarding the second issue, Section 354(3) directs the courts punishing a person for the offenSe of death or imprisonment for life only when they have “special reasons” for the same. In exceptionally grave circumstances the death penalty or an alternative imprisonment for life is awarded. Sufficient weightage was given to aggravating and mitigating factors while giving the judgment.
Bhagwati, J., while dissenting the opinion of the majority said that imposition of the death penalty as an alternative to life mentioned in Section 302 of IPC is ultra vires and void as it violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. He was of this opinion because he felt that the impugned provision does not provide any legislative guidelines as to when the life of an accused can be taken by the imposition of the death sentence.
- The death penalty is to be given the gravest cases of extreme culpability.
- Consideration of the circumstances in which the crime was committed should also be given while giving the death penalty to the accused.
- The punishment now given is of life imprisonment and exception is death penalty unlike earlier. The death penalty is given only when life imprisonment seems to be the inadequate punishment for the crime committed.
- Mitigating factors should be given more weightage than aggravating factors and a full balance sheet should also be drawn for the same.
The present case lay down specifically that the death penalty must be restricted to and given in “rarest of the rare cases”. Essentially the death penalty became an exception rather than a rule. It may be said that the case gave the landmark judgment that the death penalty must be considered an exception and life imprisonment a rule but failed to elaborate the criteria for the “rarest of the rare cases”. The bench gave two views in the case, the majority view is given by Justice Sarkaria, Chandrachud, Gupta; Untwalia validated the section 302 of IPC and 354(3) of CrPC on the touchstone of constitutionality. Nation’s attention has always been grabbed by the imposition of a death sentence.
Edited by Parul Soni
Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje
[i] 35th report of Law Commission of India.
[ii] Jagmohan Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh, 1973 SCR (2) 541.
[iii] Rajendra Prasad v State of Uttar Pradesh, (1979) 3 SCR 646.