Under Indian Penal Code, death is the punishment that must be awarded for murder by a person under sentence of imprisonment for life (Sec. 303). This apart, the Penal Code prescribed ‘death’ as an alternative punishment to which the offenders may be sentenced, for the following seven offences:

(1) Waging war against the Government of India. (S. 121)

(2) Abetting mutiny actually committed (S. 132)

(3) Giving or fabricating false evidence upon which an innocent person suffers death. (S. 194)

(4) Murder which may be punished with death or life imprisonment (S. 302)

(5) Abetment of suicide of a minor on insane, or intoxicated person. (S. 305)

(6) Dacoity accompanied with murder. (S. 396)

(7) Attempt to murder by a person under sentence of imprisonment for life if hurt is caused. (S. 307)

The procedure to give death penalty

Under the CrPC, 1898, as it stood before its amendment by Act No. 26 of 1955, even for the seven offences mentioned earlier, which are punishable in the alternative with death, the normal sentence was the death sentence, and if the Court wanted to depart from this rule, it had to give reasons for doing so. This requirement was embodied in Sub-section (5) of Section 367, which, as it then stood, was as follows:

“If the accused is convicted of an offence punishable with death and the Court sentences him to any punishment other than death, the Court shall in its judgment state the reason why sentence of death was not passed.”

Law Commission in its 35th Report

The Law Commission in its 35th Report (Vol. I), made the following comments on this provision:

“…..a considerable body of opinion is in favour of a provision requiring the Court to state its reasons for imposing the punishment either of death or of imprisonment for life. Further, this would be good safeguard to ensure that the lower courts examine the case as elaborately from the point of view of sentence as from the point of view of guilt….

It would increase the confidence of the people, in the courts, by showing that the discretion is judicially exercised. It would also facilitate the task of the High Court in appeal or in proceedings for confirmation in respect of the sentence (where the sentence awarded is that of death) or in proceedings in revision for enhancement of the sentence (where the sentence awarded is one of imprisonment for life)”

Section 66 of the CrPC

In deference to this recommendation, Section 66 of the CrPC (Amendment) Act, 1955 (XXVI of 1955) deleted old Sub-section (5) of Section 367 with effect from January 1, 1956, and thereafter, for such capital offences, it was left to the Court, on the facts of each case, to pass, in its discretion, for reasons to be recorded, the sentence of death or the lesser sentence. This led to some difference of opinion whether, even after the Amendment of 1955, in case of murder the normal punishment was death or imprisonment for life.

Overruling its earlier decision, the Bombay High Court in the State v. Vali Mohammad [AIR 1969 Bom 294], held that death is not a normal penalty for murder. As against this, the Division Bench of the Madras High Court in Valuchami Thevar AIR 1965 Mad 48 at p. 49 held that death was the normal punishment where there were no extenuating circumstances. The third set of cases held that both the sentences were normal but the discretion as regards sentence was to be exercised in the light of facts and circumstances of the case.

Section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973,

Section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973, marks a significant shift in the legislative policy underlying the Code of 1898, as in force immediately before April 1, 1974, according to which both the alternative sentences of death or imprisonment for life provided for murder and for certain other capital offences under the Penal Code, were normal sentences.

Now according to this changed legislative policy which is patent on the face of Section 354(3), the normal punishment for murder and six other capital offences under the Penal Code, is imprisonment for life (or imprisonment for a term of years) and death penalty is an exception.

The Joint Committee of Parliament in its Report, stated the object and reason of making this change, as follows: A sentence of death is the extreme penalty of law and it is but fair that when a Court awards that sentence in a case where the alternative sentence of imprisonment for life is also available, it should give special reasons in support of the sentence.

Accordingly, Sub-section (3) of Section 354 of the current Code provides:

“When the conviction is for an offence punishable with death or, in the alternative with imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term of years, the judgment shall state the reasons for the sentence awarded, and, in the case of sentence of death, the special reasons for such sentence.”

Sections 432, 433 and 433-A,

We may also notice Sections 432, 433 and 433-A, as they throw light as to whether life imprisonment as currently administered in India, can be considered an adequate alternative to the capital sentence even in extremely heinous cases of murder.

Sections 432 and 433 of the Code of 1973 continue Sections 401 and 402 of the Code of 1898, with necessary modifications which bring them in tune with Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution. Section 432 invests the “appropriate Government” as (defined in Sub-section (7) of that section) with power to suspend or remit sentences. Section 433 confers on the appropriate Government power to commute sentence, without the consent of the person sentenced. Under Clause (a) of the section, the appropriate Government may commute a sentence of death, for any other punishment provided by the Indian Penal Code.

With effect from December 18, 1978, the CrPC (Amendment) Act, 1978, inserted new Section 433-A which runs as under:

433A. Restriction on power of remission or commutation in certain cases.- Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 432, where a sentence of imprisonment for life is imposed on conviction of a person for an offence for which death is one of the punishments provided by law, or where a sentence of death imposed on a person has been commuted under Section 433 into one of imprisonment for life, such person shall not be released from prison unless he had served at least fourteen years of imprisonment.”

Section 433-A restricts the power of remission and commutation conferred on the appropriate Government under Sections 432 and 433, so that a person who is sentenced to imprisonment for life or whose death sentence is commuted to imprisonment for life must serve actual imprisonment for a minimum of 14 years.

We may next notice other provisions of the extant Code (corresponding to Sections 374, 375, 376 and 377 of the repealed Code) bearing on capital punishment.

Section 366

Section 366(i) of the Code requires the Court passing a sentence of death to submit the proceedings to the High Court, and further mandates that such a sentence shall not be executed unless it is confirmed by the High Court. On such a reference for confirmation of death sentence, the High Court is required to proceed in accordance with Sections 367 and 368.

Section 367 gives power to the High Court to direct further inquiry to be made or additional evidence to be taken.

Section 368 empowers the High Court to confirm the sentence of death or pass any other sentence warranted by law; or to annul or alter the conviction or order a new trial or acquit the accused.

Section 369 enjoins that in every case so submitted, the confirmation of the sentence, or any new sentence or order passed by the High Court, shall, when such court consists of two or more Judges, be made, passed and signed by at least two of them.

Section 370 provides that where any such case is heard before a Bench of Judges and such Judges are equally divided in opinion, the case shall be referred to a third Judge.

In this fasciculus of sections relating to confirmation proceedings in the High Court, the Legislature has provided valuable safeguards of the life and liberty of the subject in cases of capital sentences. These provisions seek to ensure mat where in a capital case, the life of tide convicted person if at stake, the entire evidential material bearing on the innocence as guilt of the accused and the question of sentence must be scrutinised with utmost caution and care by a superior Court.

The High Court has been given very wide powers under these provisions to prevent any possible miscarriage of justice.

In State of Maharashtra v. Sindhi (1975)  Supreme Court reiterated, with emphasis, that while dealing with a reference for confirmation of a sentence of death, the High Court must consider the proceedings in all their aspects, reappraise, reassess and reconsider the entire facts and law and, if necessary, after taking additional evidence, come to its own conclusions on the material on record in regard to the conviction of the accused (and the sentence) independently of the view expressed by the Sessions Judge.

Similarly, where on appeal, the High Court reverses an acquittal, and convicts the accused person and sentences him to death, Section 379 of the Code of 1973, gives him a right of appeal to the Supreme Court. Finally, there is Article 136 of the Constitution under which the Supreme Court is empowered, in its discretion, to entertain an appeal on behalf of a person whose sentence of death awarded by the Sessions Judge is confirmed by the High Court.

Supreme Court on Judge’s discretion to give death penalty

In Jagmohan Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1972) the Supreme Court summed up propositions in following words,

“(i) The general legislative policy that underlies the structure of our criminal law, principally contained in the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, is to define an offence with sufficient clarity and to prescribe only the maximum punishment therefor, and to allow a very wide discretion to the Judge in the matter of fixing the degree of punishment.

With the solitary exception of Section 303, the same policy permeates Section 302 and some other sections of the Penal Code, where maximum punishment is the death penalty.

(ii) (a) No exhaustive enumeration of aggravating or mitigating circumstances which should be considered when sentencing an offender, is possible. “The infinite variety of cases and facets to each case would make general standards either meaningless ‘boiler plate’ or a statement of the obvious that no Jury (Judge) would need.” (Referred to McGantha v. California (1971) 402 US 183).

(b) The impossibility of laying down standards is at the very core of the criminal law as administered in India which invests the Judges with a very wide discretion in the matter of fixing the degree of punishment.

(iii) The view taken by the plurality in Furman v. Georgia (1972) decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, to the effect, that a law which gives uncontrolled and un-guided discretion to the Jury (or the Judge) to choose arbitrarily between a sentence of death and imprisonment for a capital offence, violates the Eighth Amendment, is not applicable in India.

We do not have in our Constitution any provision like the Eighth Amendment, nor are we at liberty to apply the test of reasonableness with the freedom with which the Judges of the Supreme Court of America are accustomed to apply “the due process” clause.

There are grave doubts about the expediency of transplanting western experience in our country. Social conditions are different and so also the general intellectual level. Arguments which would be valid in respect of one area of the world may not hold good in respect of another area.

(iv) (a) This discretion in the matter of sentence is to be exercised by the Judge judicially, after balancing all the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the crime.

(b) The discretion is liable to be corrected by superior courts. The exercise of judicial discretion on well-recognised principles is, in the final analysis, the safest possible safeguard for the accused. In view of the above, it will be impossible to say that there would be at all any discrimination, since crime as crime may appear to be superficially the same but the facts and circumstances of a crime are widely different.

Thus considered, the provision in Section 302, Penal Code is not violative of Article 14 of the Constitution on the ground that it confers on the Judges an un-guided and uncontrolled discretion in the matter of awarding capital punishment or imprisonment for life.

(v) (a) Relevant facts and circumstances Impinging on the nature and circumstances of the crime can be brought before the Court at the pre-conviction stage, notwithstanding the fact that no formal procedure for producing evidence regarding such facto and circumstances had been specifically provided.

When counsel addresses the Court with regard to the character and standing of the accused, they are duly considered by the Court unless there is something in the evidence itself which belies him or the Public Prosecutor challenges the facts.

(b) It is to be emphasised that in exercising its discretion to choose either of the two alternative sentences provided in Section 302, Penal Code, “the Court is principally concerned with the facts and circumstances whether aggravating or mitigating, which are connected with the particular crime under inquiry.

All such facts and circumstances are capable of being proved in accordance With the provisions of the Indian Evidence Act in a trial regulated by the Cr. P. C. The trial does not come to an end until all the relevant facts are proved and the counsel on both sides have an opportunity to address the Court.

The only thing that remains is for the Judge to decide on the guilt and punishment and that is what Sections 306(2) and 309(2), Cr. P. C. purport to provide for. These provisions are part of the procedure established by law and unless it is shown that they are invalid for any other reasons they must be regarded as valid. No reasons are offered to show that they are constitutionally invalid and hence the death sentence imposed after trial in accordance with the procedure established by law is not tin-constitutional under Article 21.”

A study of the propositions set out above, will show that, in substance, the authority of none of them has been affected by the legislative changes since the decision in Jagmohan’s case. Of course, two of them require to be adjusted and attuned to the shift in the legislative policy.

The first of those propositions is No. (iv) (a) which postulates, that according to the then extant CrPC both the alternative sentences provided in Section 302, Penal Code are normal sentences, and the Court can, therefore, after weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the particular case, in its discretion, impose either of those sentences.

This postulate has now been modified by Section 354(3) which mandates the Court convicting a person for an offence punishable with death or, in the alternative with imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term of years, not to ins-pose the sentence of death on that person unless there are “special reasons” – to be recorded – for such sentence. The expression “special reasons” in the context of this provision, obviously means “exceptional reasons” founded on the exceptionally grave circumstances of the particular case relating to the crime as well as the criminal.

In Bachan Singh v. UOI (1980), the Supreme Court while considering Section 354(3) has concluded that, the legislative policy now writ large and clear on the face of Section 354(3) is that on conviction for murder and other capital offences punishable in the alternative with death under the Penal Code, the extreme penalty should be imposed only highly extreme cases.

The court also showed its agreement with the dictum of Supreme Court in Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab, 1973 , wherein the interpretation of Section 354(3) first came up for consideration. After surveying the legislative background, Untwalia, J. speaking for the Court, summed up the scope and implications of Section 354(3), thus:

“Under this provision the Court is required to state the reasons for the sentence awarded and in the case of sentence of death, special reasons are required to be stated. It would thus be noticed that awarding of the sentence other than the sentence of death is the general rule now and only special reasons, that is to say, special facts and circumstances in a given case, will warrant the passing of the death sentence. It is unnecessary nor is it possible to make a catalogue of the special reasons which may justify the passing of the death sentence in a case. While applying proposition (iv) (a), therefore, the Court has to bear in mind this fundamental principle of policy embodied in Section 354(3).”

Section 235(2)

Another proposition, the application of which, to an extent, is affected by the legislative changes, is No. (v). In portion (a) of that proposition, it is said that circumstances impinging on the nature and circumstances of the crime can be brought on record before the pre-conviction stage. In portion (b), it is emphasised that while making choice of the sentence under Section 302, Penal Code, the Court is principally concerned with the circumstances connected with the particular crime under inquiry.

Now, Section 235(2) provides for a bifurcated trial and specifically gives the accused person a right of pre-sentence hearing, at which stage, he can bring on record material or evidence, which may not be strictly relevant to or connected with the particular crime under inquiry, but nevertheless, have, consistently with the policy underlined in Section 354(3) a bearing on the choice of sentence.

The present legislative policy discernible from Section 235(2) read with Section 354(3) is that in fixing the degree of punishment or making the choice of sentence for various offences, including one under Section 302, Penal Code, the Court should not confine its consideration “principally” or merely to the circumstances connected with particular crime, but also give due consideration to the circumstances of the criminal.

Final proposition

The court in Bachan Singh (supra) held that,

“Attuned to the legislative policy delineated in Sections 354(3) and 235(2), propositions (iv) (a) and (v) (b) in Jagmohan, shall have to be recast and may be stated as below:

(a) The normal rule is that the offence of murder shall be punished with the sentence of life imprisonment. The court can depart from that rule and impose the sentence of death only if there are special reasons for doing so. Such reasons must be recorded in writing before imposing the death sentence,

(b) While considering the question of sentence to be imposed for the offence of murder under Section 302 Penal Code; the court must have regard to every relevant circumstance relating to the crime as well as the criminal. If the court finds, but not otherwise, that the offence is of an exceptionally depraved and heinous character and constitutes, on account of its design and the manner of its execution, a source of grave danger to the society at large, the court may impose the death sentence.”


Bachan Singh v. UOI (1980)

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