The case of Sunil Batra (I) is considered as the most important case in Indian criminal justice system that sat the law against unnecessary and unhuman solitary confinement and bar fettering. The reasoning of the case directed the way of Indian criminal justice system against the arbitrary prison practices and also established that if anything unhuman happened behind the silent walls of the prison, the courts as the guardian of prisoners will come to right the wrong.

(NoteThe lawmatics has published more than 20 articles on both of Sunil Batra cases, you can check out here)

Origin of the case

The case arose when two petitioners, Sunil Batra and Charles Shobhraj of the Tihar Prison, filed two writ petitions against the Solitary confinement and bar fettering respectively. Sunil Batra, an Indian, was under death sentence by the Delhi session court and Charles Shobhraj, a French, was facing grave charges at the time of present writ petition.

In the wisdom terms of the Justice Krishna Iyer who delivered the judgement of the case-

“The soul of these twin litigations is the question, in spiritual terms, whether the prison system has a conscience in constitutional terms, whether prisoner, ipso facto, forfeits person- hood to become a rightless slave of the State and, in cultural terms, whether man-management of prison society can operate its arts by ‘zoological’ strategies.”

The grievance of Batra, sentenced to death by the Delhi Sessions Court, is against to facto solitary confinement, pending his appeal, without to jure sanction. And the complaint of Sobraj is against the distressing disablement, by bar fetters, of men behind bars especially of undertrials, and that for unlimited duration, on the ipse dixit of the prison ‘brass’.

The petitioners, seek to use the rule of law to force open the iron gates of Tihar Jail where they were lodged, and the Prison Administration resists judicial action, in intra-mural matters as forbidden ground. relying on sections 30 and 56 of Prisons Act, 1894. The Petitioners invoke articles 14, 21(and 19, in the case of Batra) of The Constitutional.

The provisions for solitary confinement and bar fetters

Section 30 of the Prisoner Act, 1894 makes provision for solitary confinement in its sub-section (2)-

“(2) Every such prisoner shall be confined in a cell apart from all other prisoners, and shall be placed by day and by night under the charge of a guard.”

And section 56 of the act provides for the bar fetters if it is required due to circumstances.

56. Confinement in irons. —Whenever the Superintendent considers it necessary (with reference either to the state of the prison or the character of the prisoners) for the safe custody of any prisoners that they should be confined in irons, he may, subject to such rules and instructions as may be laid down by the Inspector General with the sanction of the State Government, so confine them.”

Intervener in the case

Although, both of these writ petitions were not class action as both were representing the individual problem of two prisoners but the court noted that the essence of this class of litigation is not adjudication on particular grievances of individual prisoners but broad delivery of social justice.

Citizens for Democracy, an organisation operating in the field of human rights, had been allowed to intervene in the sobraj case and, on its behalf, Shri Tarkunde, made legal submissions fuelled by passion for jail reforms.

The court appreciated the fact that the intervention of social welfare organisation in litigative processes pregnant with wider implications is a healthy mediation between the People and the Rule of law. Wisely permitted, participative justice, promoted through mass based organizations and public bodies with special concern seeking to intervene, has a democratic potential for the little men and the law.

The questions before the court

The specific questions before the court were-

  • Whether the quasi-solitudinous cellular custody of sorts imposed on Batra is implicit in his death sentence and otherwise valid and,
  • the heavy irons forced on the person of Sobhraj still standing his trial comport with our constitutional guarantees qualified and curtailed by the prison environs.

The case of Batra

Sunil Batra, sentenced to death and although his appeal against the death sentence was pending he was being subject to solitary confinement which is contrary to the provision of the Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, the Prison Act and Articles 14, 19 and 12 of the Constitution.

The Sessions Court of Delhi held him guilty of a gruesome murder compounded with robbery and awarded the capital penalty, way back in January, 1977. Until then, Batra was class prisoner eligible for amenities which made his confinement bearable and companionable. But once the death penalty was pronounced, the prison superintendent promptly tore him away from fellow human, stripped him of the B class facilities and locked him up in a single cell with a small walled yard attached, beyond the view and voice of others save the jail guards and formal visitors in discharge of their official chores and a few callers once in a blue moon.

The prisoner filed an appeal against his conviction and sentence to the High Court, which also heard the reference for confirmation of the death sentence unclear sec. 395 of the Criminal Procedure Code (for short, the Code). In the meanwhile-and it proved a terribly long while-he was warehoused, as it were in a solitary cell and kept substantially incommunicado.

The quasi-solitary confinement was challenged in the High Court, perhaps vaguely (not particularising the constitutional infirmities of Sec. 30 of The Prisons Act and the Punjab Jail Rules) but was given short shrift by the High Court. The learned single Judge reasoned:

‘The only point for consideration is whether the petitioner can have the facility as demanded by him till the sentence of death is confirmed. By going through all these rules I am of the clear view that he cannot be given the facilities as it might lead to disastrous consequences. It also becomes the function of the State to look to the personal safety of such a condemned prisoner. There is no force in the petition which is hereby dismissed”.

The appeal to a division bench was withdrawn and the present writ petition under Art. 32 was filed, where the lay prisoner urged his litany of woes and some constitutional generalities, later supplemented by Sri Y. S. Chitale as amicus curie.

1.      Condition of Sunil Batra in Solitary Confinement

Justice Krishna Iyer, while discussing the condition of Sunil Batra described that,

“His lurid lot was pathetically painted by counsel. Grim walls glare at him from all sides night and day; his food is inserted into the room and his excretory needs must be fulfilled within the same space. No pillow to rest his restless head, no light inside, save the bulb that burns blindly through the night from outside. No human face or voice or view except the warder’s constant compulsory intrusion into the prisoner’s privacy and the routine revolutions of officials’ visitations, punctuated by a few regulated visits of permitted relatives or friends, with iron bars and peering warder’s presence in between.

No exercise except a generous half hour, morning and evening, in a small, walled enclosure from where he may do asanas were he yogi, do meditation were he sanyasi and practise communion with Nature were he Wordsworth or Whiteman or break down in speechless sorrow were he but common clay. A few books, yes; newspapers? No talk to others? No; save echoes of one’s own soliloquies; no sight of others except the stone mercy in pathetic fallacy.

For the great few, solitude sometimes is best society but for the commonalty the wages of awesome seclusion, if spread over long spells, is insanity. Cage his lonely person and monitor his mind and mood with a sensitive understanding. Then you know that moments bear slow malice; hours hang heavy with ennui; days drop dead, and lonely weeks wear a vicious stillness; for sure. weary months or singleness, with monotonous nights, made more hurtful by the swarms of mosquitoes singing and ‘stinging, and in many cells. by the blood-thirsty armies of bugs, invisibly emerging from nocturnal nowhere, to hide and bite, make for lunacy. Time cries halt and the victim wonders, is death a better deal? Such is the torture and tension of the solitary cell, picturised by counsel.”

2.      The stand of Respondent (Delhi Administration) as revealed by their counter affidavit

The respondent’s counter-affidavit alleged, in substantiation of cellular seclusion and deprivation of fellowship, the following facts: –

“……Under the provisions of the new Cr. P.C. Capital Punishment is awarded only to the exceptionally few prisoners because now it is the exception rather than rule, and the learned Courts have to record special reasons for awarding the extreme punishment. This implies that the prisoners under sentences of death are exceptionally dangerous prisoners, who do require maximum security measures while confined in Jail. Under the existing arrangements in the Jail there can be no substitute to the confinement treatment of such prisoners otherwise than in the cells. After having been awarded the capital punishment the prisoners sentenced to death harbour feelings of hatred against the authorities. If such prisoners are allowed to remain outside the cells, then there is every possibility of incidents of assaults etc. On the fact (sic) of such prisoners. ….. If the prisoners sentenced to death are mixed up with other categories of prisoners, then the very basic structure of superintendence and management of jails will be greatly jeopardised. …. I submit that the provisions of Section 30 of the Prisons Act are absolutely necessary looking to the state of mind of prisoners under sentence of death, the possibility of such prisoners harming themselves or getting harmed by others or escaping in view of the relevant sociological aspects of security relating to the Society in the modern States.”

3.      Argument by Additional Solicitor General

The learned Additional Solicitor General made a broad submission that solitary confinement was perfectly constitutional and relied on citations from the American Courts at the lesser levels Its bearing on the structure of his argument is that if even in a country like the United States where the VIIIth Amendment balls cruel and unusual punishment, the ‘solitary’ has survived judicial scrutiny, it is a fortiori case in India, where there is no constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

4.      The questions for consideration in Batra case

While analysing the questions posed before the court in the case, the court investigated-

  • Whether, as a fact, Batra is being subjected to solitary confinement.
  • whether S.30 of the Act contemplates some sort of solitary confinement for condemned prisoners and, if it does, that legalizes current prison praxis.
  • whether such total seclusion, even if covered by S. 30(2) is the correct construction, having regard to the conspectus of the relevant provision of the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code.
  • upon the vires of S. 30(2), if it does condemn the death sentence to dismal solitude.

5.      The court’s holding

While pointing out its view, the court said that,

“Law India stands for Life, even the dying man’s life and lancets its restorative was into that limbo where languish lonely creatures whose personhood is excoriated even if their execution is unexecutable until further affirmation.”

And, the court further directed that

“Until further orders of this Court the petitioner Sunil Batra will not be kept in ‘confinement’ as contemplated by S. 30(2) of the Prisons Act, 1894. A Reasons to follow”.

The case of Shobhraj

 Another prisoner, Sobhraj, an undertrial prisoner kept indefinitely under bar fetters, as a security risk, was arguing against the constitutionality of this obvious torture, sought to be justified by the State under the prison law as a safety procedure.

Chief Justice Beg and his companion Judges including justice Krishna Iyer (who delivered the judgement in the case) did incidentally see Sobraj standing in chains in the yard, with iron on wrists, iron on ankles iron on waist and iron to link up, firmly riveted at appropriate places, all according to rules.

Sobraj has been in custody since July 6, 1976, having been arrested from Vikram Hotel, along with three criminal companions of British, Australian and French extraction. His Interpol dossier was stated to be terrible and his exploits include jail break and grave crime. The Sobraj story, since his arrest in July 1976, was one of continuous and indeterminate detention, partly under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and currently as an undertrial facing serious charges, including murder. The prisoner challenged the legality of arbitrary ‘irons’ in the High Court but was greeted with laconic dismissal. The parsimonious words, in which the order was couched, ran:

“This is a petition from jail. In view of the facts the petition is not maintainable. It is dismissed in limine. The petitioner informed of the order’…. Discomfited Sobraj has moved this Court.

Argument by the counsel of Sobhraj

The agonising aspect, highlighted by Dr. Ghatate for the petitioner and by Shri Tarkunde as intervener, is that until the Court some time ago directed a little relaxation in the rigour of the ‘iron’ prescription, Sobraj has been continuously subjected to the torturesome bar fetters, through twenty-four hours daily and every day of the month, ‘religiously’ for nearly two years. Sobraj bitterly complains of persistence in bar fetters notwithstanding wounds on heels and medical advice to the contrary.

Argument by the respondent

 The State defended bar fetters statutorily by section 56 of the Prisons Act and realistically as preventive medicine for ‘dangerousness’ pathology, in exercise of the wise discretion of the Jail Superintendent, overseen by the revisory eye of the Inspector General of Prisons and listened to by Jail Visitors.

The counter-affidavit of Shri Marwa, the then Superintendent, taken up an extreme position. For instance, he asserted that the Resident Medical officer had examined the petitioner on 3rd September 1977, and found no wound on his ankles. Significantly on September 4, 1977, this Superintendent has recorded a note in his journal:

“1 was informed by Shri S. S. Lal, A.S., that Charles Sobraj has inflicted injury on his ankles deliberately. I am certain in my mind that he has done so as to be produced before Hon’ble Supreme Court of India on 6-9-1977 in connection with his Writ Petition, wherein he has mentioned that his ankles are injured and thus his bar fetters should be removed.”

Direction of the court

In sobraj case too, the court directed to remove the bar fetter of Charles sobraj.


Sunil Batra Etc. vs Delhi Administration: 1978 AIR 1675, 1979 SCR (1) 392

(Note- For detailed holdings of the court in the present case, read the following article.)