Case analysis of Bachan Singh v State of Punjab (1980)
Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) is a well-known landmark judgment credited for developing the jurisprudence pertaining to the death penalty. It examined whether the death penalty was in consonance with the provisions of the Indian Constitution.
The main issue that was addressed in this case was whether the procedure prescribed under Section 354(3) of Code of Criminal Procedure,1973 pertaining to sentencing the culprit is unconstitutional. The courts are vested with unguided discretion and it is completely up to them to ascertain whether the death penalty should be imposed or not. This case has been widely regarded as a landmark judgment given by a bench consisting of 5 judges and is known for establishing the “rarest of the rare” doctrine applicable while determining whether the death penalty is to be awarded to the accused.
Facts of the case
Bachan Singh was convicted for the offence of committing the murders of Desa Singh, Durga Bai, and Veeran Bai by the Sessions Court. He was given the death penalty under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. He appealed in the High Court, however, the Court dismissed his appeal and upheld the death sentence.
He then appealed to the Supreme Court and raised the question of whether the facts of the case would fall under the ambit of the ‘special reasons’ under Section 354(3) of CrPC, 1973.
Whether death penalty that has been provided as the punishment for the offence of murder under Section 302, Indian Penal Code, 1860, is unconstitutional?
Whether the sentencing procedure stipulated in Section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973 is unconstitutional insofar as it vests the courts with unguided and untrampled power, and allows the death sentence to be imposed arbitrarily on an individual found guilty of any offence punishable with death or life imprisonment?
The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal in accordance with the majority opinion. The Court dismissed the challenge to the constitutionality of Section 302 of the IPC in so far as it prescribes the death sentence, as well as, the constitutionality of Section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973 was rejected
In the landmark judgment of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978), the scope and the interrelationship between Articles 14, 19, and 21 were given a new dimension. It was held that every law of punitive detention must pass the test of all three articles, both in the procedural and the substantive angle.
In A.K. Gopalan v. The State of Madras (1950), all the six learned judges were of the opinion that if the accused was awarded punitive detention or imprisonment after being convicted of committing an offence under the Indian Penal Code, it would be beyond the scope of Article 19.
The Supreme Court dismissed the challenges regarding the constitutionality of Section 302 of IPC and 354(3) of CrPc. The Court further opined that the six fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 19(1) are not absolute in nature.
Firstly, they are subject to restrictions emanating from an obligation of an individual to not use their rights in a way that injures or infringes the rights of the other members of society. This is based on the maxim sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas, that is, an individual using their property in a manner that does not infringe the legal rights of another individual.
Secondly, under Clauses (2) to (6) of Article 19, these rights are expressly mentioned to be subject to the power of the state, which can impose certain reasonable restrictions. These restrictions could extend to prohibiting the exercise of these rights in special circumstances.
Another issue is whether the courts have untrampled power in imposing the death penalty, and the nature and extent of the special reasons. The expression ‘special reasons’ as stated in Section 354(3) of the CrPC means exceptional reasons owing to the grave nature of the crime. The Apex Court laid down the doctrine of ‘rarest of the rare cases’ in awarding the death penalty. Life imprisonment is the rule, and the death sentence is awarded as an exception for those convicted for murder. Exercise of discretion under Section 354(3) of CrPC, 1973 would be exceptional. The death penalty would be awarded only in crimes that shake the collective conscience of society. The imposition of the death sentence should only be in the rarest of rare cases.
The category of ‘rarest of the rare’ is always evolving. The Nirbhaya case violated collective conscience and clearly was under the scope of this doctrine. However, this doctrine is quite arbitrary, subjective, and discriminatory. It is quite difficult to draw a line of distinction between a rare and an ordinary murder, and subsequently the rarest case. The crime is mostly described as heinous, grotesque and so on but it does not lay a clear line of demarcation. It is ultimately up to the judges to award the death penalty as per their values, sensitivity, and special reasons regarding the gravity of the crime.