“The very existence of the rule of law and the fear of being brought to book operates as a deterrent to those who have no scruples in killing others if it suits their ends. Every member of the community owes a debt to the community for this protection.”

Protagonists of the “an eye for an eye” philosophy demand “death-for-death”. The ‘Humanists’ on the other hand press for the other extreme viz., “death-in-no- case”. A synthesis has emerged in ‘Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)’ wherein the “rarest-of-rare-cases” formula for imposing death sentence in a murder case has been evolved by Supreme Court.

The reasons why the community as a whole does not endorse the humanistic approach reflected in “death sentence-in-no-case” doctrine are not far to seek. In the first place, the very humanistic edifice is constructed on the foundation of “reverence for life” principle.

When a member of the community violates this very principle by killing another member, the society may not feel itself bound by the shackles of this doctrine. Secondly, it has to be realized that every member of the community is able to live with safety without his or her own life being endangered because of the protective arm of the community and on account of the rule of law enforced by it.

The very existence of the rule of law and the fear of being brought to book operates as a deterrent to those who have no scruples in killing others if it suits their ends. Every member of the community owes a debt to the community for this protection.

When ingratitude is shown instead of gratitude by ‘Killing’ a member of the community which protects the murderer himself from being killed, or when the community feels that for the sake of self-preservation the killer has to be killed, the community may well withdraw the protection by sanctioning the death penalty.

But the community will not do so in every case. It may do so (in rarest of rare cases) when its collective conscience is so shocked that it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty irrespective of their personal opinion as regards desirability or otherwise of retaining death penalty.

Rarest of rare cases

The community may entrain such a sentiment when the crime is viewed from the platform of the motive for, or the manner of commission of the crime, or the anti-social or abhorrent nature of the crime, such as for instance:

I Manner of Commission of Murder-

When the murder is committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting, or dastardly manner so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of the community.

For instance,

(i) When the house of the victim is set aflame with the end in view to roast him alive in the house.

(ii) When the victim is subjected to inhuman acts of torture or cruelty in order to bring about his or her death.

(iii) When the body of the victim is cut into pieces or his body is dismembered in a fiendish manner.

II Motive for Commission of murder

When the murder is committed for a motive which evince total depravity and meanness.

For instance when-

(a) a hired assassin commits murder for the sake of money or reward

(b) a cold blooded murder is committed with a deliberate design in order to inherit property or to gain control over property of a ward or a person under the control of the murderer or vis-a-vis whom the murderer is in a dominating position or in a position of trust.

(c) a murder is committed in the course for betrayal of the motherland.

III Anti-Social or Socially abhorrent nature of the crime

(a) When murder of a Scheduled Caste or minority community etc., is committed not for personal reasons but in circumstances which arouse social wrath. For instance when such a crime is committed in order to terrorize such persons and frighten them into fleeing from a place or in order to deprive them of, or make them with a view to reverse past injustices and in order to restore the social balance.

(b) In cases of ‘bride burning’ and what are known as ‘dowry deaths’ or when murder is committed in order to remarry for the sake of extracting dowry once again or to marry another woman on account of infatuation.

IV Magnitude of Crime

When the crime is enormous in proportion. For instance when multiple murders say of all or almost all the members of a family or a large number of persons of a particular caste, community, or locality, are committed.

V Personality of Victim of murder

When the victim of murder is

(a) an innocent child who could not have or has not provided even an excuse, much less a provocation, for murder.

(b) a helpless woman or a person rendered helpless by old age or infirmity

(c) when the victim is a person vis-a vis whom the murderer is in a position of domination or trust

(d) when the victim is a public figure generally loved and respected by the community for the services rendered by him and the murder is committed for political or similar reasons other than personal reasons.

The guidelines laid down in Bachan Singh case

The following propositions emerge from Bachan Singh’s case:

(i) the extreme penalty of death need not be inflicted except in gravest cases of extreme culpability;

(ii) Before opting for the death penalty the circumstances of the ‘offender’ also require to be taken into consideration along with the circumstances of the ‘crime’.

(iii) Life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception. In other words death sentence must be imposed only when life imprisonment appears to be an altogether inadequate punishment having regard to the relevant circumstances of the crime, and provided, and only provided the option to impose sentence of imprisonment for life cannot be conscientiously exercised having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime and all the relevant circumstances.

(iv) A balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances has to be drawn up and in doing so the mitigating circumstances has to be accorded full weightage and a just balance has to be struck between the aggravating and the mitigating circumstances before the option is exercised.

In order to apply these guidelines inter-alia the following questions may be asked and answered:

(a) Is there something uncommon about the crime which renders sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence?

(b) Are the circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offender ?

If upon taking an overall global view of all the circumstances in the light of the aforesaid proposition and taking into account the answers to the questions posed here in above, the circumstances of the case are such that death sentence is warranted, the court would proceed to do so.


Macchi Singh v. State of Punjab (1983)