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Since time immemorial, the death penalty has been used as a form of punishment for both the abolition of offenders and the punishment for heinous crimes. Indian criminal law is based on a combination of deterrent and reformative punishment principles. Although the penalties are intended to deter offenders, it is also believed that criminals should be given the opportunity for reformation.

One of the most contentious issues in criminal law is the death penalty/capital punishment. There has been a broad spectrum of views on the death penalty in India, with some arguing for its continued use and others arguing for its abolition. Despite the fact that the death penalty has been abolished in the majority of nations worldwide, it remains in force in India. The Indian legislature and judiciary continue to believe that the death penalty is justified in certain circumstances, such as murder, rape, terrorism, offences under defence legislation, and so on.

After analyzing multiple arguments in favor of and against corporal punishment, the Law Commission of India concluded that India is a diverse nation with regard to population and area, and that each inhabitant’s social upbringing, as well as the level of their educational and values and morals, varies from one another. It is extremely difficult to maintain law and order in such a place, which is desperately needed. As a result, at this critical juncture, India cannot risk the experiment of abolishing capital punishment.[1] In addition, based on the Law Commission’s recommendation, the Criminal Procedure Code was amended, making providing “special reason” a requirement before awarding punishment.

In the case of Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab[2], a five-judge Supreme Court bench comprised of Justices YV Chandrachud, A. Gupta, N. Untwalia, PN Bhagwati, and R Sarkaria issued a landmark decision that marked a watershed moment in the history of the death penalty in India. In this case, the Supreme Court significantly limited the death penalty by establishing the “rarest of the rare” doctrine. The Supreme Court stated that a sincere and lasting concern for the dignity of human life necessarily requires opposition to the taking of a life through the legal system, and that this should be done only in the most extreme of circumstances where the opposing viewpoint is completely excluded.

Facts of the case:

  • In the current case, the appellant Bachan Singh was previously convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.
  • After serving his sentence, he was released and spent six months with his cousin Hukam Singh and his family. Hukam Singh’s family members, including his wife and son, questioned the appellant’s presence at Hukam Singh’s apartment.
  • The family went to bed after dinner on the night of the crime, July 4, 1977. The sleeping arrangement was such that Hukam Singh’s three daughters, Durga Bai, Veeran Bai, and Vidya Bai, slept in the inner courtyard, while the appellant, Hukam Singh, and Desa Singh slept in the outer courtyard.
  • When she was awakened by the alarm at around midnight, Vidya Bai saw the appellant inflicting axe blows on the face of her sister, Veeran Bai. When she tried to stop him, the appellant struck her in the face and ear with the axe, knocking her out. Diwan Singh awoke from his rest after hearing the shriek and witnessed the appellant attack Desa Singh with the axe.
  • He alarmed Gulab Singh, who was sleeping nearby. They both ran to stop the appellant when they spotted him with an axe in Desa Singh’s face. When the witnesses raised their voices in panic and the appellant saw them approaching, he dropped the axe and ran. Diwan Singh and Gulab Singh chased him but failed to apprehend him.
  • The dead bodies of Durga bai , Vidya Bai, and Veeran Bai were taken to the hospital and an FIR was recorded.

Procedural history of the case:

  • Because of the severity of Vidya Bai’s injuries, the trial and appellate courts classified this as a cruel conduct.
  • Because it being a moonlit night and therefore feasible to distinguish the accused’s face, both the trial court and the high court accepted the testimony of Gulab Singh and Diwan Singh.
  • The Sessions judge later tried, convicted, and sentenced Bachan Singh to death under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code[3] for the murders of Desa Singh, Durga Bai, and Veeran Bai.
  • The High Court upheld the sessions judge’s death sentence and denied his appeal. Bachan Singh then filed an appeal with the Supreme Court on Special Leave, questioning whether the facts of his case were “special reasons” for imposing the death penalty, as required by section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973[4].

Issues involved:

  1. Whether or not the death punishment provided in Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for the crime of murder was unconstitutional?
  2. If the answer to the preceding question is no, whether the sentencing procedure provided in Section 354(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (Act 2 of 1974) is unconstitutional on the grounds that it vests the court with unguided and unfettered discretion and allows a death sentence to be arbitrarily or freakishly imposed on a person found guilty of murder or any other capital offence punishable with death under the Penal Code, 1860, or, in the alternative, whether
  3. Is Article 19 applicable in determining the constitutionality of the contested provision in Section 302 of the IPC?
  4. Whether the disputed limb of Section 302 of the IPC in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution of India[5]?

Statutes involved:

  • Section 302 of Indian Penal Code
  • Section 354(3) of Criminal Procedure Code
  • Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India

Contentions of the petitioners

The petitioner contended that the death penalty imposed for the murder offence specified in Section 302 of the IPC violates Article 19 of the Indian Constitution[6]. The death sentence nullifies all of the liberties provided by Article 19(a) (g). The death sentence serves no social purpose and does not fall within the category of unreasonable limitation.


According to the majority ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. The Court rejected the appeal to the legality of Section 302 of the IPC insofar as it mandates the death penalty, as well as the challenge to the constitutionality of Section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973.

Analysis of the judgment:

  • The Court observed that in order to test the constitutionality of the impugned provision concerning the death penalty in Section 302, India Penal Code on the basis of reasonableness in light of Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution, it was not necessary to express any categorical opinion, one way or the other, as to which of these two antithetical views, held by the Abolitionists and Retentionists, is correct.
  • It is sufficient to say that the fact that people of reason, learning, and light are rationally and deeply divided on this issue is a reason, among others, to reject the petitioners’ argument that the retention of the death penalty in the contested provision is completely devoid of reason and purpose.
  • It was also observed whether the framers of the Indian Constitution were fully aware of the existence of the death penalty as a punishment for murder under the Indian Penal Code, and whether the 35th Report and subsequent reports of the Law Commission recommending the retention of the death penalty, as well as revision of the Criminal Procedure Code and the insertion of new Sections 235(2) and 354(3) in that Code providing for pre-sentence hearing and sentencing procedure on conviction.
  • It is not possible to hold that the provision of the death penalty as an alternative punishment for murder in Section 302, Indian Penal Code is unreasonable and not in the public interest, as it was presumably considered by Parliament when it took up revision of the Code of 1898 and replaced it by the CrPC, 1973, in 1972-1973.
  • As a result, the Court determined that the challenged provision in Section 302 contradicts neither the letter nor the spirit of Articles 19 and 21.
  • Section 354(3) directs the Court not to impose a punishment on a person convicted of an offence punishable by death or, in the alternative, imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a length of years.
  • Unless there are “special reasons” to be recorded-for such a sentence-on that person. In the context of this provision, the term “special reasons” evidently refers to “exceptional reasons” based on the extraordinarily serious circumstances of the specific case relating to the crime as well as the criminal. Consequently, the legislative policy is obvious on the face of Section 354(3), which states that on conviction for murder and other serious offences punishable by death under the Criminal Code, the extreme penalty should be inflicted only in exceptional circumstances. It is neither necessary nor possible to compile a list of the specific factors that may justify the imposition of the death penalty in a given case. It was further recognised that the current legislative policy, as discernable from Sections 235(2) and 354(3), is that in determining the degree of
  • While imposing punishment or deciding on a sentence for numerous offences, including one under Section 302, Criminal Code, the Court shall not limit its consideration to the circumstances associated with the specific crime, but should also take into account the criminal’s circumstances.
  • In this case, the court established the “rarest of rare cases” doctrine.
  • The standard punishment is life imprisonment, although in extreme circumstances, the death penalty may be imposed. Murder is a horrible crime that affects not only the victim but also the people in society; if the case involves horrifying conditions, the death sentence is applied; this is the rarest of the rare situation and demonstrates the application of the ‘rarest of rare’ Doctrine.
  • The notion of ‘Rarest of Rare’ takes into account several aspects described in the Mens Rea, and for a convict to be sentenced to death, the following requirements must be met:
  • Intention: The offender’s intention is vital in determining the crime; if the convict had a clear intention to commit the crime, he also knew the consequences. In such an instance, the convict’s purpose is critical.
  • Brutality: While brutality is one of the reasons used to define a crime under criminal law, it is not always used to justify the death penalty. Hence, brutality is one of the grounds for death penalty, but it is not always considered.
  • Sentimental shock: If the facts of the case must produce sentimental shock to the victim and society, the prisoner is liable for the death penalty.
  • Quantity of harm inflicted: The amount of hurt given to a person (whether in the form of bodily injury, mental injury, emotional injury, property damage, or reputational damage) influences the enhancement of punishment.
  • The Doctrine given in the case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab has stated that the death punishment is to be given only in the rare movement depending on the case. But the as moving forward the death punishment have increase in Indian judiciary, cases like Rajendra Prasad v. State of Uttar Pradesh[7], Mukesh v. State (NCT of Delhi)[8] this are the cases were the death penalty was given, day by day due to the increase in the crime rate and facts of the case have forced the Court to award the death penalty.
  • Thus, though the punishment is life imprisonment but awarding death penalty to the accuse can be given under special circumstances as in the case Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab.

Ratio decidendi of the Court

  • In A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras[9], all six learned Judges on the Bench agreed that punitive detention or imprisonment awarded as punishment after conviction for an offence under the Penal Code, 1860 falls outside the purview of Article 19, despite taking somewhat different approaches to the problem. Patanjali Sastri, J., further stated that lawful deprivation of personal liberty upon conviction and sentencing for a crime, or by a lawful order of preventative detention, is “not within the purview of Article 19 at all, but is dealt with by the next Articles 20 and 21.”
  • The court observed that criminal laws, that is, laws that define offences and impose punishment for their commission, are not subject to the application of Article 19. We cannot say that the object of penal laws is generally such that there is no violation of the rights conferred by Article 19(1) because, following this Court’s decision in the Bank Nationalisation case[10], the theory that the object and form of the State action alone determine the extent of protection that an individual may claim and that the effect of the State action on the fund.
  • In this case, the State has primarily discharged its burden by producing for the court’s consideration the 35th Report of the Law Commission, 1967, as well as the judgements of this Court in Jagmohan Singh[11] and several subsequent cases, in which it has been recognised that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. It is therefore up to the petitioners to demonstrate and establish that the death penalty for murder is so outdated, unusual, or disproportionate that it has no reasonable connection to the aim and intent of the legislation.
  • Finally, the court stated that Sections 354(3) and 235(2), as well as other related provisions of the Code of 1973, make it abundantly clear that when deciding on punishment or determining the existence or absence of “special reasons” in that context, the court must consider both the crime and the criminal. The proportionate weight to be assigned to aggravating and mitigating elements is determined by the facts and circumstances of the specific case. Most of the time, these two features are so linked that it is difficult to examine them separately. This is due to the fact that “style is the man.” In many situations, the exceptionally cruel or brutal manner in which the murder is committed is a demonstrated indicator of the perpetrator’s wicked character. As a result, considering the circumstances of the crime and the circumstances of the criminal in two separate watertight compartments is not desirable. Killing is, in some ways, terrible, and hence all murders are harsh. Nonetheless, the degree of responsibility in such abuse varies. And “special motives” can be reasonably stated to exist only when the culpability takes the proportion of extreme depravity.

Limitations of the judgments:

  • It is sometimes stated that the ambiguities in Bachan Singh’s case resulted in the absence of meaningful criterion for awarding the death punishment. A lot of reiterations of the case have emerged that contradict the original verdict.
  • The absence of normative clarity is the key argument against the framework presented in Bachan Singh’s case. It does not clarify the correlation between aggravating and mitigating elements effectively. A variety of circumstances and dimensions are evaluated, including the perpetrator’s age, mental health, and socioeconomic background. Judges have the discretion to fill this normative gap with their own considerations in the future when passing punishments.
  • Furthermore, the lack of a theoretical framework provided in Bachan Singh’s case has had a substantial impact on the procedural fairness of sentencing hearings.


In every criminal justice system, sentencing policy is extremely important, especially in situations involving the death sentence, because once the death penalty is imposed, it cannot be reversed. According to the study of the preceding examples, death sentencing has sadly become judge-centric rather than principled sentencing.

The end outcome is markedly skewed since the court’s sentencing process is inconsistent. Based on a comparable set of facts and circumstances, death sentences are issued in some cases but not in others. As a result, the overall broader picture becomes uneven and lopsided, presenting a bad depiction of the criminal justice system. The author believes that the Court should inflict punishment that is proportionate to the crime committed, so that the public’s hatred for the act is reflected in the sentencing. Together with the rights of the criminal, the rights of the victims should be prioritised while imposing the appropriate punishment. Incorrect sentencing undermines public trust, which can have disastrous consequences when people lose faith in the efficacy of the law. At the very least, the Court must ensure that punishment is consistent in cases with similar facts and circumstances. Judges’ personal biases should not be considered while passing

[1] 35th Report of Law Commission

[2] Bachan Singh v.State of Punjab (AIR 1980 SC 898)

[3] S. 302, The Indian Penal Code, 1960.

[4] S. 354(3), The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

[5] Art. 21, the Constitution Of India.

[6] Art. 19, the Constitution Of India

[7] Rajendra Prasad Etc. Etc vs State Of Uttar Pradesh, 1979 AIR 916, 1979 SCR (3) 78

[8] Mukesh & Anr vs State For Nct Of Delhi & Ors, 2017

[9] A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras [AIR 1950 SC 27: (1950) 1 SCR 88: 1950 SCJ 174]

[10] [Rustom Cavasjee Cooper v. Union of India, (1970) 3 SCR 530: (1970) 1 SCC 248]

[11] Jagmohan Singh vs. The State of Uttar Pradesh,(1973) 1 SCC 20: 1973 SCC (Cri) 169: (1973) 2 SCR 541

Written by: Tanaya Devadhe, II BALLB(Semester IV)ILS Law College, Pune

1 Comment

BACHAN SINGH V. STATE OF PUNJAB - Legal Vidhiya · July 13, 2023 at 6:29 am

[…] Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, 1982 AIR 1325, ‘Rarest of Rare’ cases Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab […]

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