Case Analysis: Sunil Batra v Delhi Administration (1978)

By | June 14, 2021
Sunil Batra v Delhi Administration (1978)

Last Updated on by Admin LB


The case of Sunil Batra v Delhi Administration is one of the Landmark Judgement in relation to Prisoners’ rights in India. India has witnessed prisoner’s brutality during colonial times. But after Independence prisoners were given rights through Constitution and other legislation.

The Court in this case while upholding the rights of prisoners under different articles under Part III of the Constitution directed the State to make amendments in the Prisons Act and gave guidelines that need to be followed to maintain the human integrity and mental personality of prisoners.

Citation: AIR 1978 SC 1675[1]

Judges: Krishnaiyer V.R, Pathak R.S, O Chinnappa Reddy (J)


The facts of the case enumerate that the petitioner (Sunil Batra), a convict under a death sentence, through a letter to one of the Judges of the Court alleged that torture was practised upon another prisoner (Prem Chand) by a jail warder, to extract money from the victim through his visiting relations.

The letter was converted into a habeas corpus proceeding. The Court issued notice to the State and the concerned officials. It also appointed amicus curiae and authorised them to visit the prison, meet the prisoner, see relevant documents and interview necessary witnesses so as to enable them to inform themselves about the surrounding circumstances and the scenario of events.

The amicus curiae after visiting the jail and examining witnesses reported that the prisoner sustained a serious anal injury because a rod was driven into that aperture to inflict inhuman torture and that as the bleeding had not stopped, he was removed to the jail hospital and later to the Irvin Hospital.

It was also reported that the prisoner’s explanation for the anal rupture was an unfulfilled demand of the warder for money, and that attempts were made by the departmental officers to hush up the crime by overawing the prisoner and the jail doctor and offering a story that the injury was either due to a fall of self-infliction or due to piles.


  1. Whether court have jurisdiction to allow the petition of the convict?
  2. Whether Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution will be applicable to prisoners?
  3. If issue 3 is affirmative, whether Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution are violated in the current case?


Petitioners Arguments

  1. It was contended by petitioners that Article 14, 19 and Article 21 of the constitution is applicable to prisoners, and violation of the same leads to grave injustice to prisoners.
  2. It was contented by petitioners that they are not seeking for release of the convict from jail but did seek relief from inhuman and barbarous treatment inflicted upon him in jail.
  3. Section 56 of the Prison Act 1894 should be done away with (allows the use of any type of irons for fetters, this gives arbitrary power to jail authorities to discriminate against the prisoners) as it violates Article 14 of the Constitution.
  4. It was contended that Section 30(2)of the Prisons Act 1894 did not authorise the placing of a prisoner under death sentence in solitary confinement and that jail authorities did not have the ambit to claim this power on the basis of it enforcing Section 30(2).

Respondents Arguments

  1. It was contended by respondents that the interpretation of Article 21 of the Constitution shall be restrictive in the case of prisoners because absolute liberty may harm other prisoners or convict himself.
  2. It was contended by the respondent that direct reading of Section 46 of Prison Act 1894 empowers the superintendent to take action against the prisoners with punishments who are in violation of the Act.
  3. As the state authority is following the procedure established by law, therefore they cannot be made liable


Majority Judgement

The majority judgement was delivered by Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice Chinnappa Reddy.

  1. While allowing the habeas corpus petition under Article 32 the court held that in the era of human rights’ consciousness the habeas writ has functional plurality and the constitutional regard for human decency and dignity is tested by this capability.
  2. The court enumerated that, in the eye of the law, prisoners are persons, not animals. Prison houses are part of Indian earth and the Indian Constitution cannot be held at bay by jail officials when Part III is invoked by a convict. When a prisoner is traumatized, the Constitution suffers a shock.
  3. The Court rejected the ’hands-off’ doctrine and ruled that fundamental rights do not flee the person as he enters the prison although they may suffer shrinkage necessitated by incarceration. Our Constitutional culture has now crystallised in favour of prison justice and judicial jurisdiction.
  4. The court held that the Indian Constitution has no ‘due process of law’ as the VIII Amendment (of the American Constitution) but in the breach of law, after R.C Cooper[2] and Menaka Gandhi’s[3] case, the consequence is same as under ‘due process of law’ that is just and fair.
  5. It held that the practise of keeping under trials with convicts in jails offended the test of reasonableness in Article 19 and fairness under Article 21. The integrity of physical health and his mental health personality is an important right of a prisoner.
  6. The court issued directives to State to take early steps to prepare a Prisoner’s Handbook and circulate copies to bring legal awareness home to the inmates. The Prisons Act needs rehabilitation and the Prison Manual total over-haul.
  7. Section 56 of the Prison Act empowered the Superintendent to take necessary precautions by putting the prisoners in irons, but they were allowed to do that only when such orders were duly confirmed by the local government and they could not do this on their own discretion.

Concurring Judgement

The Concurring Judgement was given by Justice R.S Pathak

  1. The court that the need for prison reform and provision for adequate facilities to prisoners, to enable them not only to be acquainted with their legal riots but also to record their complaints and grievances and to have confidential interviews periodically with lawyers nominated for the purpose by the District Magistrate or the court having jurisdiction.
  2. Sessions Judge should be informed by the jail authorities of any punitive action taken against a prisoner within two days of such action.

The Court ordered Prem Chand release from solitary confinement because it does not follow the procedure established by law.


We may conclude that human dignity cannot be taken away irrespective of the person being inside the jail or outside the jail. This case also put an intense focus on the duties and responsibilities of jail superintendents.

It gave a wake-up call to the judiciary for a need of implementing the reforms which do justification with the fundamental rights of prisoners. In the case “Charles Sobraj v The Superintendent, Central Jail, Tihar, New Delhi”[4], the Honourable Supreme Court Justice “Krishna Iyer” held that imprisonment does not spell farewell to fundamental rights.

India is also a signatory to different Conventions which protect human from torture etc, such as ‘The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Torture and other cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’.

[1] Full Judgment

[2] AIR 1973 SC 106.

[3] [1979] 1 SCC 248.

[4] 1978 AIR 1514, 1979 SCR (1) 512

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