Court: The Supreme Court of India
Full Case Name: Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab
Date Decided: 16 August 1982
Citation: AIR 1980 SC 898, 1980
Judges: Justice Y.C. Chandrachud; Justice A. Gupta; Justice N. Untwalia; Justice P.N Bhagwati and Justice R. Sarkaria.
Appellant: Bachan Singh
Respondent: State of Punjab
This Case is a landmark judgment given by 5 judges Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court. In this case Supreme Court announced important limitations on the death penalty by setting the “rarest of the rare” doctrine. The Supreme Court said,” A real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life postulates resistance to taking a life through law’s instrumentality. That ought not to be done except in rarest or the rare cases where the alternative opinion is unquestionably foreclosed”.
The Appellant Bachan Singh was convicted for his wife’s murder and was sentenced for life imprisonment. After undergoing the term of imprisonment ( i.e after his release) he was living with his cousin Hukam Singh and his family by this hukam singh’s wife and his son objected the appellant’s living in their house. A few days prior to this occurrence in the midnight Vidya Bai was awakened by alarm and saw the appellant inflicting axe blow on her sister’s ( Beeran Bai) face. On the attempt to stop the appellant Vidya Bai got blown on her face and ear with axe leading injuries her face and ear making her unconscious. Diwan singh who was sleeping at a distance woke up by the shriek and raised an alarm to wake Gulab singh sleeping at a distance from there. On seeing an appellant with axe on Desa bai’s face they both hurried to stop him. Noticing them moving towards him the appellant left the axe and ran away. Diwan Singh and Gulab Singh gave a chase to him but couldn’t apprehend him. Later Bachan Singh was tried and convicted and sentenced to death under Section 302, Indian Penal Code for the murders of Desa Singh, Durga Bai and Veeran Bai by the sessions judge. The High Court confirmed his death sentence given by the sessions judge and dismissed his appeal. Bachan Singh then appealed to the Supreme Court by Special Leave, the Question raised in the appeal was, whether the facts of his case were “special reasons” for awarding him the death sentence as required in section 354(3) of CrPC, 1973.
- Whether death penalty provided for the offence of murder in Section 302, Indian Penal Code, 1860 is unconstitutional?
- Whether the Facts found by the lower Courts would be considered “special reason” for awarding the death penalty as is required under Section 354(3) CRPC?
The Supreme Court lucidly dismissed the challenges pertaining to the constitutionality of Sec 302 of IPC and 354(3) of CRPC. Court further said that the six fundamental rights guaranteed Under 19(1) are not absolute rights. These rights are subjected to inherent restrained stemming from the reciprocal obligation of one member of a civil society to so use his rights as not to infringe or injure similar rights of another( sic uteri tuo ut alienum non laedas). Also it was made very clear by the court that article 19 clause (2) to (6) has expressly made subject to the power of the state to impose reasonable restriction on the exercise of rights of citizen. There are several other indications, also, in the constitution which show that the constitution make fully cognizant of the existence of death penalty for murder and certain other offences in the IPC 1860.
The expression “Special reason” in section 354(3) of CRPC means exceptional reasons “ founded n the exceptionally grave circumstances the death penalty or an alternative imprisonment for life is awarded. The apex court laid down the principle of “rarest of the rare cases” in awarding the death penalty. Those convicted for murder, life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception.
The Supreme Court by a majority of 4:1 reaffirmed its earlier decision and held that the provision of death penalty as an alternative punishment for murder under section 302 insofar it is neither unreasonable nor it is against the public interest. It violates neither the letter nor the ethos of Article 19 of the constitution of India. It is constitutionally valid. Exercise of discretion under sec 354(3) of CRPC, 1973 should be exceptional and grave circumstances and imposition of death sentence should only be in rarest of rare cases.
National discussion about the death penalty has resurfaced from time to time. The Supreme Court addressed the question of constitutionality of the death penalty for the first time in Jagmohan Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh “The death sentenced does not extinguish all the freedoms guaranteed under Article 19(1) and it was also held that it was not violative of Art 14 of the constitutional on the ground that
unguarded and uncontrolled discretion is given to judges to impose either capital punishment or imprisonment for life. Thus the death penalty became the exception rather than the rule” However, the Bachan Singh’s case decision did not elaborate the criteria for identifying “rarest of rare” cases. The Bachan singh case also does not explain as to what falls under the purview of “rarest of rare case”.
 (AIR 1973 SC 947)