Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) – The “rarest of the rare” doctrine

Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab is a landmark case in India where the Supreme Court set the “rarest of the rare” doctrine, limiting the use of the death penalty.

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Background:

  • Bachan Singh, the appellant, was convicted for the murder of his wife and sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • After his release, he was living with a cousin’s family but was asked to leave.
  • He then killed three members of the cousin’s family with an axe and was convicted and sentenced to death under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.
  • The High Court confirmed his death sentence and the appeal was brought to the Supreme Court.
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Arguments:

  • The appellant questioned if the facts of his case met the “special reasons” criteria for awarding the death penalty as required in Section 354(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
  • He also argued that the death penalty provided for murder in the Indian Penal Code and the sentencing procedure in the Code of Criminal Procedure were unconstitutional.

Issues before the Court:

  • Is the death penalty provided for murder in the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional?
  • Is the sentencing procedure in the Code of Criminal Procedure unconstitutional for allowing arbitrary and unjust imposition of the death penalty?
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Judgement:

  • The court acknowledged that there is an increasing trend of violent crime in most countries, including India.
  • The court ruled that there is no legal right or fundamental freedom to commit murder or other violent crimes under Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution.
  • The court upheld the death penalty as constitutional but emphasized the need for strict guidelines and proper discretion in its imposition.
    • The court prescribed a framework for death penalty sentencing, to ensure that the imposition of death sentences did not become an arbitrary and subjective exercise in individual cases.
    • This framework includes weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances (popularly known as the “rarest of rare” case) and determining whether the option of life imprisonment is “unquestionably foreclosed”.

Implications of the Case:

  • The judgement in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab has had a significant impact on the imposition of the death penalty in India.
  • The “rarest of rare” principle laid down in the case has been used as a guideline in subsequent cases involving the death penalty.
  • The judgement has also led to a decrease in the number of death sentences imposed in India.

Glossary

Article 19: guarantees the right to freedom of speech, expression, and peaceful assembly.
Article 21: guarantees the right to life and personal liberty.
Indian Penal Code, 1860: The main criminal code of India which outlines various criminal offenses and their corresponding punishments.
Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973: The main procedural law for criminal trials in India which lays out the procedures and guidelines for conducting criminal trials.
Section 302: A section of the Indian Penal Code which defines the offense of murder and provides for the punishment of death or life imprisonment.
Section 354(3): A section of the Code of Criminal Procedure which lays out the procedures for sentencing in cases of murder and other capital offenses.
“Rarest of rare” case: A term used in Indian criminal law to describe cases where the death penalty is deemed appropriate due to the heinous nature of the crime.

This article is part of the series “Landmark Judgements that Shaped India” under the Indian Polity Notes & Prelims Sureshots. We aim to make the articles comprehensive while leaving out unnecessary information from the UPSC perspective. If you think this article is useful, please provide your feedback in the comments section below.

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