Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration

In the Supreme Court of India. 
Decided on 20th December, 1979.
Equivalent citations
1980 AIR 1579, 1980 SCR (2) 557.
Writ Petition No
1009 of 1979.
Hon’ble Justice V.R Krishna Iyer.
Hon’ble Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy.
Hon’ble Justice R.S Pathak.
Sunil Batra
Delhi Administration. 
Counsel for the Petitioner
Dr. Y. S. Chitale and Mukul Mudgal.
Counsel for the Respondent
Soli Sorabjee and R. N. Sachthey.
Amicus Curiae
Dr. Y. S. Chitale and Shri Mukul Mudgal.


The Prison Act of 1894: This act was an attempt made by the British Government prior to the Independence to make certain rules and regulations for an efficient system of running the prison institute which contains thousands of criminals. This act recognized the need to make provisions regarding prison, prisoners, the prison staff, superintendent, medical officer, etc. to ensure the fair and just treatment to the prisoners. This act envisages various rights to the prisoners including the right to proper medical facilities, the right to meet legal advisors, etc. This Act consists of XII chapters.


This case serves as a pivotal judicial precedent as the Supreme court through its judgment ensured that the fundamental rights of prisoners are not to be violated. It also laid down certain rules that are to be followed by prison officers to ensure that under the veil of authority the prisoners are not abused sexually, mentally, or physically. It also highlighted the inhumane horrors inflicted on prisoners and the urgent need for prison reforms.

Constitution and statutory provisions discussed: The Prison Act of 1894. Article 14, 15, 19, 21, 32, and 226 of the Constitution of India, 1949 and Punjab Prison Manual.


The petitioner Batra, a convict serving a death sentence in the Tihar Central jail, through a letter, informed the court about an incident of torture which was inflicted upon another prisoner namely, Prem Chand, allegedly by a jail warden Maggar Singh. The writ petition of Habeas Corpus under Article 32 thus originated due to this complaint. The court-appointed amicus curiae Dr. Y. S. Chitale and Shri Mukul Mudgal to visit the prisoner in prison and conduct a necessary investigation by viewing relevant documents and interviewing witnesses pertaining to the incident to find out the necessary details and the surrounding circumstances it. The amicus curiae after their investigation reported that on 26th August 1979, the prisoner Prem Chand had sustained serious anal injury due to a rod being driven into his anus. As the bleeding was incessant, the prisoner had to be moved to Irwin Hospital immediately. According to the prisoner, the explanation for the anal rupture was an unfulfilled demand for money by the warden. The departmental officers, on the other hand, stated that the rupture of the anus was a result of a fall or self-infliction or piles and tried to hush up the actual events of the incident. Understanding the severity of the incident, the writ petition was allowed.


  1. Does the court have jurisdiction to consider grievances from prisoners who complain of ill-treatment by the authorities?
  2. What are the fundamental rights available to a prisoner and how Articles 14, 19 and 21 are applied to it?
  3. Which are the judicial remedies that can be granted to ensure the rights of the prisoners are not violated and can which can bring prison justice?
  4. What amendments and changes can be made in prison reform in the long run, in order to align it with human rights?


The court in its judgment talked about the perverseness of Tihar jail and of their inmates and observed that most of the prisoners therein are habitual offenders and professional criminals. It surmised that Tihar prison is an arena of tension, trauma, tantrums, and crimes of violence, vulgarity, and corruption. The court stated that prisoners sent to Tihar Jail are by contamination, made criminals which is a custodial perversity and hence violates the test of reasonableness in Art. 19 and of fairness in Art. 21. It stated that neglecting prison reform may lead to drastic court action.

The court, in this case, recognized the importance of writs of habeas corpus and its use by prisoners in detention. It stated that the dynamics of the writ of habeas corpus have helped in the judicial process and that Article 21 has played a major part in giving human rights jurisprudence in India a constitutional status.

The judgment of Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice Chinnappa Reddy was given by Justice Krishna Iyer.

It was held that the power of the court under Article 32 was wide and the court is empowered to issue flexible directives and affirmative action molded to grant relief within its ambit. It was held that the court has power under Articles 32 and 226 to give relief to sentences in prison settings. The court relied on the case-law of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, where the court rejected the ‘hands-off’ doctrine and held that fundamental rights do not flee the person when they enter prison although they might suffer shrinkage while incarcerated. Our Constitutional culture has thus, solidified in favor of prison justice and judicial jurisdiction.

The court thus affirmed that it can exercise the power of writ when the rights of the prisoner are violated either under the Constitution or any other law. It was held that ‘The court has a continuing responsibility to ensure that the constitutional purpose of the deprivation is not defeated by the prison administration. The court referred to the case-law of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India where it was observed that no person shall be deprived of their guaranteed freedom be it inside or outside the prison and the case-law of Hoskot v. Maharashtra, was referred where it was held that ‘one component of the fair procedure is natural justice’. 

Thus, the court based on the above judicial precedent held that a prisoner would wear the armor of basic freedom even behind bars and on any breach of these rights the law will respond to the distress signals through the aid of writs and it is the duty of the court to ensure that no more and no less than which is warranted by the sentence happens. It was held that if a prisoner breaks down because of any form of torture which is beyond the limits of lawful imprisonment, the Prison Administration would be made liable. Similarly, if an influential convict is able to buy advantages to mitigate his sentence, the Prison Establishment will be called to order for such adulteration or dilution of Court sentences if found to be unwarranted by law.

The court has the responsibility and power to issue writs of habeas corpus to enforce in-prison humanism and to prohibit harsher restraints and severities than the original sentence. It also emphasized the need to have a Prisoner’s Handbook in the regional language which is available for the prisoners to understand what the law is, in simple language. No prisoner should be subjected to deprivations not necessitated by the fact of incarceration and the sentence of the court. Putting a prisoner in a solitary cell, denying them basic amenities, transferring them to a distant prison where the visits to family and friends can be curtailed constitutes an abridgment to rights guaranteed under Article 21. It was held that ‘Such infraction will be arbitrary under Article 14 if it is dependent on unguided discretion, unreasonable under Art. 19 if it is irremediable and unappealable and unfair under Art. 21 if it violates natural justice.’ When such segregation is requested by the prisoner for their own safety a written consent form and reporting to a higher authority is mandatory.

It was held that visits to prisoners by family and friends are considered as a relief to a person in detention and denying this right violates Article 21. Further, it was held that offenses alleged to have taken place within the prison should not hint towards departmental collusion or an alliance between the police and prison staff.

Thus, the court in the present case held: (mandatory part of the judgment which is to be complied by the State)

  1. The prisoner, Prem Chand was tortured illegally and the Superintendent cannot absolve his guilt in the case. The State shall take action against the investigative police for the apparent collusion to hush up the facts of the case.
  2. The Super-intendent was directed to ensure that no further corporal punishment should be inflicted on Prem Chand.
  3. Lawyers nominated by the District Magistrate, Sessions Judge, High Court and the Supreme Court will be given all facilities for interviews, visits and confidential communication with prisoners subject to discipline and security considerations. The designated lawyers are bound to make periodical visits and record and report to the concerned court the results which have relevance to legal grievances.
  4. Grievances Deposit boxes shall be maintained within the next three months under the orders of the District Magistrate and the Sessions Judge. Such boxes shall be opened frequently and suitable action would be taken on the complaints made therein.
  5. District Magistrates and Sessions Judges shall, personally or through surrogates, visit prisons in their jurisdiction and afford effective opportunities for ventilating legal grievances. It shall make speedy inquiries and take suitable remedial action. Case reports shall be made to the High Court for it to initiate habeas action if found necessary.
  6. Without the Judicial appraisal of the Sessions Judge no solitary or punitive cell, hard labour, dietary change as painful additive, punishment or denial of privileges and amenities, transfer to other prisons with penal consequences shall be imposed and where such intimation, on account of emergency, is difficult, such information shall be given within two days of the action.

Justice R.S Pathak concurred with the view of the fellow judges and pressed on the urgent need for prison reform and the need for adequate provisions to enable the prisoners to be aware of their legal rights and to record their complaints and grievances effectively. It was held that the prisoners should be enabled to have confidential interviews periodically with lawyers nominated duly by the District Magistrate. It is imperative that District Magistrate and Sessions Judges visit the prisons in their jurisdiction and afford the effective opportunity to the prisoners for ventilating their grievances and, where the matter lies within their powers, to make a speedy inquiry and take suitable remedial action therein. Sessions Judge should be informed by the jail authorities of any punitive action taken against a prisoner within two days of such action. Further, the visits of the sessions court in this regard shall be submitted periodically to the High Court to acquaint it with the conditions prevailing in the prisons within the jurisdiction of the High Court.

Quasi-mandates issued by the court without any specific time limit except to indicate the urgency of their implementation: 

  1. The State shall take adequate measures to prepare a Prisoner’s Handbook and circulate copies of it to spread legal awareness among prisoners. There shall be Periodical jail bulletins which state the kinds of improvements that can be brought to ease tensions and create sociability. A prisoner’s wallpaper which freely ventilates grievances, reduces stress and can be implemented under Section 61 of the Prisoners Act.
  2. The State shall take the necessary steps to comply with the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners recommended by the United Nations especially those relating to work and wages, community contact, treatment with dignity and correctional strategies.
  3. The Prison’s Act needs to evolve and the prison manual requires a total over-haul. An orientation course is necessary for the prison staff to imbibe them with constitutional values, tension-free management and therapeutic approaches.
  4. The rights of the prisoners shall be protected by the writ jurisdiction and the contempt power of the court. In order to make it viable, free legal services to prison programmes shall be promoted by professional organizations recognized by the court.


The court through this judgment has highlighted the need for drastic prison reform to ensure the rights of the prisoners are protected. This case further explained the power of Articles 32 and 226 of the courts to issue writs to protect fundamental rights under Part III of our Constitution. It helped define the rights of prisoners and urged rehabilitation in the Prison Act of 1984. It also laid down regulations to be followed including lawyers being appointed to interview the prisoners to ensure the better treatment of prisoners. This case helped in shedding light on the plight of prisoners who are subjected to inhumane torture and held that such ill-treatment is against law.

Edited by: Purnima Ojha


Rutvi Soni
My name is Rutvi Soni. I am a second-year law student at Rizvi Law College, Mumbai. I am an avid reader and researching on various legal topics and learning from it has always interested me. I love participating in academic competitions and moots. I'm always open to opportunities which can enhance my legal knowledge.