Case Analysis: Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)

By | October 18, 2019
Bachan singh v state of punjab

In the landmark case of Bachan Singh v. the State of Punjab,[2] the court observed that death sentence may be awarded in the “rarest of rare cases in which the alternative sentence of life is unquestionably foreclosed.”

INTRODUCTION

Pronouncing a judgment awarding capital punishment has always been a pressing issue for debates. After the making of the Constitution of India, capital punishment has been discussed in elaborate both judicially and legislatively with regards to its advisability, feasibility, viability and validity.

After the 35th Law Commission report was published in the year 1967, the Criminal Procedure Code was amended directing the courts to furnish special reasons while pronouncing capital punishment. Further, the 35th Law Commission report said,

“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 abolition of capital punishment.”[1]

In the landmark case of Bachan Singh v. the State of Punjab,[2] the court observed that death sentence may be awarded in the “rarest of rare cases in which the alternative sentence of life is unquestionably foreclosed.”

The decision was given by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court. The accused, Bachan Singh was found guilty and was awarded death sentence under Section 302, Indian Penal Code which provides for capital punishment or life imprisonment for an offence of committing murder.

BACKGROUND

The accused Bachan Singh was found guilty by the Session court, Ferozepur, for murdering three persons Desa Singh, Veeran Bai and Durga Bai, and for grievously inflicting injuries on Vidya Bai, at 12 in the midnight between July 4 and 5, 1977. Thereby the appellant was charged under Section 302 and Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code for murder and grievous hurt. He was awarded death sentence by the session court after the trial.

Subsequently, Bachan Singh appealed in the High Court, against the decision of the session court by virtue of criminal appeal 234 of 1978. The High court upheld the decision of the session court to award death sentence consequent to which Bachan Singh by a special leave petition under Article 136 of the Indian Constitution made an appeal before the Apex court.

The major question put up in the appeal to be considered by the Hon’ble Supreme court was whether sufficient “special reasons” existed for capital punishment.

Issues Raised

  1. Whether the death penalty provided for the offence of murder in Section 302, Indian Penal Code is unconstitutional?
  2. Whether the sentencing procedure issued by Section 354(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (Act 2 of 1974) is unconstitutional on the ground that it entitles the Court with unfettered discretion?

PRINCIPLES LAID DOWN

  1. Capital punishment is a form of extreme retribution and therefore must be awarded only in cases of gravest of offences.
  2. Awarding imprisonment for life is the rule and death penalty is an exception. When such a situation arises that life imprisonment will not be sufficient to deliver justice after taking into consideration all the relevant circumstances of the crime and the nature of crime, it is only then that death penalty may be awarded.
  3. All the aggravating and mitigating factors must be taken into account and endeavour must be made to strike a proper balance between both. Priority must be given to the mitigating factors conscientiously before the discretion to award the death sentence can be exercised. The court must apply its judicial mind with respect to the criminal and the crime regardless of nature and gravity under consideration. Therefore, adjudication must ensure that its prime concern is fairness and rigour and not emotions or sentiments.

ANALYSIS

First Issue

The opposition to a death sentence is premised on the facts that this extreme form of punishment is irreversible, cruel, degrading and inhuman. Further, the contentions made in the appeal were that the purpose behind awarding punishments for an offence is not retribution but rehabilitation and reformation. However, these contentions were rejected by four of the judges who overruled the decision in the case of Rajendra Prasad v. State of U.P[3] and confirmed the judgement rendered in the Jagmohan case[4].

The aforementioned case laid down the rule that a death sentence cannot be limited to cases where there is a threat to the security of the state and society, public order and interest of the general public.

The Constitution-makers were fully cognisant of the need of death sentence for grave offences like murder and this becomes lucid from certain indications in the constitution. For example- Article 134 provides for the power of the president or governor to commute, remit or suspend death penalty and right of appeal to the Apex court, espousing the fact that capital punishments are not cruel, unreasonable or unusual.

Further, it cannot be said that such punishments cause defilement of the “dignity of the individual” within the ambit of the Preamble to the constitution. Even Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that:

“In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court.”

Therefore, the penal laws of India are in accordance with international commitment.

Moving forward, a challenge to the death penalty based on the reasons that it violates the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) to 19(1) (g) of the Constitution. Unlike Article 21 which deals with the right to life and personal liberty, Article 19 protects rights regarding freedom of speech, etc, this is not relevant to judge the constitutional validity of provisions laid down by Section 302, IPC.

Article 19 can only be attracted when any activity which is prohibited or penalized by the impugned law is within the ambit of protection of Article 19(1). Hence applying this reasoning to Sections 299, 300, 302, IPC, it cannot be said that activities stated in these provisions can find protection by Article 19(1) because it does not confer the freedom to commit murder.

Additionally, a judge must view the circumstances of the crime and the circumstances of a criminal from the same lens. For instance with respect to aggravating circumstances, a pre-planned, calculated and cold-blooded murder has no matter what been considered as an aggravated kind. To examine this Ediga Anamma test can be implemented which states: “The weapons used and the manner of their use, the horrendous features of the crime and hapless, helpless state of the victim may indicate the aggravating circumstance.”

Second Issue

In Rajendra Prasad, the opinion rendered by the majority of the judges has been provided hereunder:

“The only correct approach is to read into Section 302 and Section 354(3) CrPC, the human rights and humane trends in the Constitution. So examined, the right to life and to fundamental freedoms is deprived when he is hanged to death; his dignity is defiled when his neck is noosed and strangled.”

However, the above-mentioned judgment runs in disparity to the observation of the Apex court in the case of Jagmohan case:

“But some (murders) at least diabolical in conception and cruel in execution. In some others where the victim is a person of high standing in the country society is liable to be rocked to its very foundation. Such murders cannot be simply wished away by finding alibis in the social maladjustment of the murderer.

Prevalence of such crimes speaks, in the opinion of many, for the inevitability of the death penalty not only by way of deterrence but as a token of empathetic disproval by the society. The Law Commission has come to the above conclusion after considering all the relevant factors. On the conclusion thus offered to us, it will be difficult to hold capital punishment as unreasonable or not required in the public interest.”

The court in the case of Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab[5] had discussed the scope and implications of Section 354(3) of CrPC, after taking into account the legislative background. Untwalia, J. had said that “special reasons” are required to be recorded by the court for awarding death sentence which means the death penalty can be awarded only subject to these special facts and circumstances. This is done to establish that providing a punishment other than capital punishment is a general rule and the latter is an exception.

In the 48th report, the Law Commission stated about a shortcoming in the sentencing process. It was of the opinion that the court must take evidence related to the circumstances relevant to conclude an appropriate sentence such as a collection of information regarding the background and characteristics of the offender.

Thereafter, Section 235 (2) of CrPC was enacted in 1973 which gives an opportunity of a bifurcated trial, that is, a trial at the pre-conviction stage and another at the pre-sentence stage. Further Section 235 (2) lays down the provision for a separate trial especially meant for to give the accused a right of pre-sentence hearing, with a motive to avail him an opportunity to present material evidence which may not strictly relate to the particular crime, but, nonetheless, is consistent with the idea of Section 354(3), bearing a choice on the sentence.

The essential concept to comprehend here is that reading Section 235 (2) with Section 354 (3) directs the court to fix the degree of punishment or choose an appropriate sentence, by taking into account the circumstances of the criminal and not restrict its inquiry chiefly to the circumstances relevant with the particular crime.

Also, Section 354 (3) does not violate the fundamental rights enumerated in Article 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. Espousing this analysis is the judgment rendered in the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[6] which requires that every law pertaining to punitive detention for both substantive and procedural aspect must be reasonable.

CONCLUSION

The judgment rendered by the five-judge bench is sound is it is in accordance with the constitutional values and do not offend Articles 14 and 21. However, the judges are required to this unbridled discretion coupled with conscience and only after taking into consideration a comprehensive amount of information about the criminal. Merely relying upon the circumstances related to the crime before sentencing for the death penalty can render it inappropriate.

The underlying intent behind 354 (3) CrPC is to strike a balance between both the circumstances of the crime and circumstances of a criminal. One must inquire for “special reason” to rule out the general rule which is any sentence other than capital punishment. Further, Article 19 (1) does not stand violated by upholding the death penalty as it does not provide a safeguard for committing a crime, hence any punishment cannot be challenged on its premises.


[1] Law Commission, The Death Penalty, (Law Com No 35, 2015)

<http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/report262.pdf>

[2] [1980] 2 SCC 684

[3] [1979] 3 SCC 646

[4] Jagmohan Singh v. State of U.P [1973] SCR [2] 541

[5] [1976] 1 SCC 425

[6] 1195 [1] SCR 411


  1. Rendering Judgment and Post Conviction Orders under CrPC: Meaning and Procedure(Opens in a new browser tab)
  2. Inherent Powers of the High Court in Criminal Matters(Opens in a new browser tab)
Shreya Sahoo
Author: Shreya Sahoo

Shreya is a law student studying at the National Law University, Odisha. She is a good researcher and enjoys reading. She is interested in Intellectual Property Rights and International Law. Additionally, in her spare time, she also enjoys cubing.

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