Bachan Singh Vs State Of Punjab – Case Analysis

Introduction

The death penalty has been utilized as a kind of punishment since time immemorial for the abolition of offenders and as a punishment for horrific crimes. Indian criminal jurisprudence is founded on a mix of deterrent and reformative punishment principles. Although the penalties are to be administered with the intention to deter offenders it is also believed that the opportunity for reformation must also be given to criminals.

The death penalty/capital punishment is one of the most controversial issues in criminal law. In India, there has been a wide range of opinions on the death penalty, with some advocating for its continued use as well as others advocating for its abolition. The death sentence is still in effect in India, despite the fact that it has been abolished in the majority of countries throughout the world. For certain particular circumstances, such as murder, rape, terrorism, offenses under defence legislation, and so on, the Indian legislature and judiciary still believe capital penalty is justified.

After considering various arguments for and against capital punishment, the Law Commission of India concluded that India is a diverse country in regards to its population and very vast in area, in addition to it the social upbringing of each inhabitant, as well as the level of their educational and moral values, varies from one another. At such a place it is very difficult to maintain law and order, which is the very need of the hour. Because of this, at this crucial time, India cannot take the risk to do the experiment of abolishing Capital Punishment.[1] Also, on the basis of the recommendation of the Law Commission, the Criminal procedure Code was amended, in which providing “special reason” was made a necessity before awarding death sentence.

Background of Bachan Singh Vs State of Punjab Case

In the case of Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab[2], the 5 judge bench of Supreme Court, including Justices YV Chandrachud, A. Gupta, N. Untwalia, PN Bhagwati, R Sarkaria gave the landmark judgement and made this case a turning point in the history of the Death penalty in India. By establishing the “rarest of the rare” doctrine, the Supreme Court put major limits on the death penalty in this case. The Supreme Court noted that a genuine and enduring concern for the dignity of human life necessitates resistance to the taking of a life by the use of the legal system and that this should only be done in the rarest of circumstances where the other viewpoint is absolutely foreclosed.

Facts of Bachan Singh Vs State of Punjab Case

In the present case, the appellant Bachan Singh had earlier been convicted of his wife’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. He was released after serving his sentence and spent around six months with his cousin Hukam Singh and his family. The appellant’s living at Hukam Singh’s apartment was questioned by Hukam Singh’s family members, including his wife and son.

After dinner on the night of the crime, i.e., July 4, 1977, the family went to bed. The sleeping arrangement was such that in which Hukam Singh’s three daughters, Durga Bai, Veeran Bai, and Vidya Bai, went to sleep in the inner courtyard, while the appellant along with Hukam Singh, and Desa Singh went to sleep in the outer courtyard. At around midnight, Vidya Bai saw that the appellant was inflicting axe blows on the face of her sister, Veeran Bai when she was awakened by the alarm. When she tried to stop him, the appellant attacked her with the axe on the face and ear, making her unconscious. Later, after hearing the shriek, Diwan Singh awoke from his slumber and saw the appellant strike Desa Singh with the axe. In order to arouse Gulab Singh, who was sleeping at a short distance from there, he raised an alarm. When both of them saw the appellant with an axe in Desa Singh’s face, they both rushed to stop him. When the witnesses raised an alarm and the appellant noticed them approaching him, he dropped the axe and fled. Diwan Singh and Gulab Singh pursued him but were unsuccessful in apprehending him.

The appellant was later tried and found guilty by the Sessions Court of murdering three people, including Desa Singh (Hukam Singh’s son), Durga Bai and Veeran Bai (Hukam Singh’s daughters), and injuring Vidya Bai (Hukam Singh’s another daughter) in the courtyard of Hukam Singh’s house at about midnight, and was sentenced to death. The Death sentence imposed by the Trial Court was upheld by the High Court on appeal. Also, the injuries on Vidya Bai’s body were deemed inhumane by both the Trial Court and the High Court. Bachan Singh then filed the special leave to appeal in the Supreme Court, in which the question was raised regarding the presence of “special reasons” in the facts of the case, which are necessary for awarding the death sentence according to Section 354(3) of Code of Criminal Procedure

Issues Involved In This Case

The main issues in the case were as follows:

  1. Whether or not the death punishment provided in Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for the crime of murder was unconstitutional?
  2. Is Article 19 applicable in determining the constitutionality of the contested provision in Section 302 of the IPC?
  3. Whether the disputed limb of Section 302 of the IPC in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution?
  4. If the answer to the preceding question is in negative, is Section 354(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which provides for the procedure of sentencing, unconstitutional on the grounds that it vests the Court with unguided and unrestricted discretion and allows the death penalty to be imposed arbitrarily on a person found guilty of murder or any other capital offense punishable under the Indian Penal Code?

Judgment of Bachan Singh Vs State of Punjab Case

The constitutional challenges to Sections 302 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 354(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code were dismissed by the Supreme Court with a majority decision of 4:1. According to this court, the six essential rights provided by Article 19(1) are not absolute rights and are subject to the reasonable restrictions which can be imposed by the state and the inherent restraint. This restraint arises from the reciprocal obligations of the members of civil society according to which one member of the society is obligated to use his rights in such a way as not to infringe or harm similar rights of another member of society. The court held that Section 302 neither violates Article 19 nor Article 21 of the Constitution.

It was also determined that Section 354 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Code was not unconstitutional and that the term “special reason” in the section refers to “exceptional reasons” arising from the extraordinarily serious circumstances of a particular case involving both the crime and the criminal. In awarding the death penalty, the Supreme Court established the principle of “rarest of the rare cases.” It was reaffirmed that life imprisonment is the rule for individuals convicted of murder, but the death penalty is an exception.

Ratio Decidendi

It was determined that the granting of the death sentence as an alternative punishment for murder under Section 302 is not irrational or contrary to the public interest. It does not contravene either the letter or the spirit of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. It satisfies the requirements of the Constitution. Furthermore, Article 21 and other provisions of the constitution clearly imply that the founding fathers recognized the state’s right to deprive a person of life or personal liberty in line with fair, just, and reasonable procedures established by legitimate legislation.

The constitutionality of Section 354(3) of CrPC was questioned on the grounds that “a sentence of death is the most severe penalty of law, and it is only reasonable that when a Court grants it in a case where a life sentence is also available, it should present exceptional reasons in support of the sentence.”As a result, Section 354(3) of the current Code states: When a conviction is for an offense punishable by death or, in the alternative, by life imprisonment or a term of years in prison, the judgment shall state the reasons for the sentence awarded, and, the special reasons for such sentence if it is a case of a death sentence.

The judges of Supreme Court also relied on the judgments of Jagmohan Singh vs. The State of Uttar Pradesh[3], in which the question of the constitutionality of the death penalty was addressed by the Supreme Court for the first time, and Rajendra Prasad vs. State of Uttar Pradesh[4]. In the case of Jagmohan, it was decided that the death penalty does not abridge all of the freedoms protected by Article 19(1), and that it does not violate Article 14 of the Constitution because judges have unrestricted and uncontrolled authority to impose either capital punishment or life imprisonment. As a result, the death penalty became more of an exception than a rule. In case of Rajendra Prasad, it was determined that when a person is sentenced to death, he loses his right to life, thereby infringing on his fundamental right.

Dissenting Opinion

In dissenting from the majority opinion, Bhagwati, J. stated that the imposition of the death sentence as an alternative to life imprisonment in Section 302 of the IPC is ultra vires and unlawful since it violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. He held this stance because he believes the contested provision lacks any legislative guidance as to when an accused’s life can be taken by the imposition of a death sentence.

Guidelines Provided

  1. Except in the gravest cases of extreme culpability, there is no need to opt for the sentence of death penalty.
  2. Before providing the sentence of death penalty, the judge should consider the circumstances of the crime along with the circumstances of the offender.
  3. It was stated by the bench that “life imprisonment is the rule, whereas death sentence is the exception.” Therefore, we can say that, after looking at the circumstances of the case, the death penalty should be given only in those cases, where even the penalty of life imprisonment seems inadequate
  4. Before the option can be exercised, a balance sheet containing aggravating and mitigating conditions must be created, with the mitigating circumstances given full weightage and a just balance struck between the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

Overview of Bachan Singh Vs State of Punjab Case

The decision given by the Supreme Court in this case is welcomed as one of the landmark judgements on the issue of death penalty. Whenever a death sentence is imposed on someone, that sentence grabs the attention of the whole nation. In this case also, the whole nation was eagerly waiting for the judgement of the Supreme Court, when the court in its majority decision observed that Section 302 of Indian Penal Code and Section 354(3) of Criminal Procedure code are valid on the touchstone of constitutionality.

In this case, the Indian judiciary has made it clear what they think about the death sentence, stating that it should only be used in “rarest of rare” circumstances. This Supreme Court viewpoint was strongly in favour of minimizing the use of capital punishment to punish criminals. In essence, the death sentence is an exception to the rule of life imprisonment.

The interpretation of the last half of the dictum – ‘that ought not to be done except in the rarest of rare instances when the alternative option is absolutely foreclosed’ is one aspect of the doctrine of “Rarest of Rare” that requires considerable examination. In this case it was suggested that the death punishment should be awarded only when the judges feel that it is the last resort, as the alternative punishment is not sufficient enough.

The doctrine of “rarest of rare case” for awarding death penalty has its great relevance and is followed even today. The judgement in this case, however, did not go into detail on the criteria for defining “rarest of rare” cases. It also doesn’t say what constitutes a “rarest of rare case.”

Conclusion

Capital Punishment or Death Penalty is such a punishment which once given, it becomes irrevocable. This type of punishment is declared illegal in most of the countries but in India, we still have it. The controversy regarding the Capital Punishment, its relevance and constitutionalism has been going for years and has been considered in various judgements. But in the case of Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab [5], the Supreme Court of India gave a watershed judgement in which it upholds the constitutionalism of death penalty by the majority of 4:1, while Justice PN Bhagwati gave his dissenting view. It was also opined that Capital Punishment should be awarded in the “rarest of rare cases”. Also, the judge or the bench of judges should take into consideration various factors like the circumstances in which crime was committed and if there is any alternative punishment sufficient and so on.

The “Rarest of Rare” doctrine was proposed by the judges because at first glance, the death penalty appears to have a greater deterrent effect on ordinary people than any other form of punishment. Furthermore, once a death penalty is imposed, it is irreversible, even if new evidence is discovered that has the potential to change the decision. Furthermore, this doctrine is provided to reduce the number of cases in which the death penalty can be awarded. As a result, in this case, the death penalty is viewed as an exception rather than the rule.

[1] 35th Report of law Commission of India

[2] AIR 1980 SC 898

[3] 1973 SCR (2) 541

[4] (1979) 3 SCR 646

[5] Supra Note 2

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Radhika Maheshwari

I am Radhika Maheshwari, BALLB student (4th year) in Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. I am born and brought up in Aligarh and completed my High School education from Radiant Stars English School with 10 CGPA and my +2 education from Girls School, AMU and scored 82%. I am also a "C" certificate holder in NCC and is currently working with an NGO "Zomato Feeding India, Aligarh". My hobbies include singing, dancing, reading novels, etc. In my college life, I have done a few internships, online courses and took part in some competitions. My strength is in my nature- I like to take up challenges and accept both success and failure in a balanced way, loves to do team work and am always eager to learn something new. Right now, my goal is to build my career in judiciary.