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.

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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.

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.”

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.

On Validity of Section 30 and 56 of the Prisoners Act, 1894

  • The court upheld the vires of section 30 and section 56 of the prison act. The court had the view that although these provisions are out of tune with current penological values and mindless to human-rights moorings, but the court expressed its hope that it will be revised by fresh legislation.

On Death sentencees under Solitary Confinement

  • The court held that solitary confinement, even if mollified and modified marginally, is not sanctioned by Sec. 30 for prisoners ‘under sentence of death’. But it is legal under that Section to separate such sentencees from the rest of the prison community during hours when prisoners are generally locked in.

The court also upheld the special watch, day and night, of such sentencees by guards. Infraction of privacy may be inevitable, but guards must concede minimum humanity in practice.

  • With respect of prisoners under death sentence, the court held that by necessary implication, prisoners ‘under sentence of death’ not’ shall not be denied any of the community amenities, including games, newspapers, books, moving around and meeting prisoners and visitors, subject to reasonable regulation of prison management.

The court emphasised that Sec. 30 is no substitute for sentence of imprisonment and merely prescribes the manner of organising safe jail custody authorised by Sec. 366 of the Cr. P.C.

If the prisoner desires loneliness for reflection and remorse, for prayers and making peace with his maker, or opportunities for meeting family or friends, such facilities shall be liberally granted, having regard to the stressful spell of terrestrial farewell his soul may be passing through the compassion society owes to him whose life it takes.

  • The crucial holding under Sec. 30(2) was that a person is not ‘under sentence of death’, even if the sessions court has sentenced him to death subject to confirmation by the High Court. He is not ‘under A sentence of death’ even if the High Court imposes, by confirmation or fresh appellate infliction, death penalty, so long as an appeal to the Supreme Court is likely to be or has been moved or is pending. even if this Court has awarded capital sentence, Sec. 30 does not cover him so long as his petition for mercy to the Governor and/or to the President permitted by the Constitution, Code and Prison Rules, has not been disposed.

But once rejected by the Governor and the President, and on further application there is no stay of execution by the authorities, he is ‘under sentence of death’, even if he goes on making further mercy petitions. During that interregnum he attracts the custodial segregation specified in Sec. 30(2), subject to the ameliorative meaning assigned to the provision. To be ‘under sentence of death’ means ‘to be under a finally executable death sentence’.

On ‘Dangerousness’ of Prisoner

  • The court cleared that further restraint on such a condemned prisoner if clear and present danger of violence or likely violation of custody is, for good reasons, may be made out, with due regard to the rules of fair play implied in natural justice.
  • Minimal hearing shall be accorded to the affected if he is subjected to further severity.
  • Sec. 56 must be tamed and trimmed by the rule of law and shall not turn dangerous by making the Prison ‘brass’ an imperium in imperio. The Superintendent’s power shall be pruned and his discretion bridled in the manner indicated.
  • Under-trials shall be deemed to be in custody, but not undergoing punitive imprisonment. So much so, they shall be accorded more relaxed conditions than convicts.

On Bar fetters

  • Fetters, especially bar fetters, shall be shunned as violative of human dignity, within and without prisons. The indiscriminate resort to handcuffs when accused persons are taken to and from court and the expedient of forcing irons on prison inmates are illegal and shall be stopped forthwith.
  • Bar fetters from the person of Sobhraj shall be removed and he will be allowed the freedom of undertrials inside the jail, including locomotion-not if he has already been convicted. In the eventuality of display of violence or escape attempts or creds evidence bringing home such a potential adventure by him, he may be kept under restraint. Irons shall not be forced on him unless the situation is one of emergency leaving no other option and in any case that torture shall not be applied without compliance with natural justice and other limitations indicated in the judgment.
  • Where an undertrial has a credible tendency for violence and escape a humanely graduated degree of ‘iron’ restraint is permissible if only if-other disciplinary alternatives are unworkable. The burden of proof of the ground is on the custodian. And if he fails, he will be liable in law.
  • The ‘iron’ regimen shall in no case go beyond the intervals, conditions and maxima laid down for punitive ‘irons’. They shall be for short spells, light and never applied if sores exist.
  • The discretion to impose ‘irons’ is subject to quasi-judicial over sight, even if purportedly imposed for reasons of security.
  • A previous hearing, minimal may be, shall be afforded to the victims. In exceptional cases, the hearing may be soon after.
  • The grounds for ‘fetters’ shall be given to the victim. And when the decision to fetter is made, the reasons shall be recorded in the journal and in the history ticket of the prisoner in the State language. If he is a stranger to that language it shall be communicated to him as far as possible, in his language. This applies to cases as much of prison punishment as of ‘safety’ fetters.
  • Legal aid shall be given to prisoners to seek justice from prison authorities, and, if need be, to challenge the decision in court-in cases where they are too poor to secure on their own.
  • No ‘fetters’ shall continue beyond day time as nocturnal fetters on locked-in detenus are ordinarily uncalled for, viewed from considerations of safety.
  • The prolonged continuance of ‘irons’, as a punitive or preventive step, shall be subject to previous approval by an external examiner like a Chief Judicial Magistrate or Sessions Judge who shall briefly hear the victim and record reasons. They are ex-officio visitors of most central prisons.
  • The Inspector General of Prisons shall, with quick despatch consider revision petitions by fettered prisoners and direct the continuation or discontinuation of the irons. In the absence of such prompt decision, the fetters shall be deemed to have been negatived and shall be removed.


While concluding the remark on the case, Justice Krishna Iyer said,

“Prison laws, now in bad shape, need rehabilitation; prison staff, soaked in the Raj past, need reorientation; prison house and practices. a hangover of the die-hard retributive ethos, reconstruction; prisoners, those noiseless, voiceless human heaps, cry for therapeutic technology; and prison justice, after long jurisprudential gestation, must now be re-born through judicial midwifery, if need be. No longer can the Constitution be curtained off from the incarcerated community since pervasive social justice is a fighting faith with Indian humanity.

I, hopefully, alert the nation and, for the nonce, leave follow-up action to the Administration with the note that stone walls and iron bars do not ensure a people’s progress and revolutionary history teaches that tense bastilles are brittle before human upsurges and many tenants of iron cells are sensitive harbingers of Tomorrow-many a Socrates, Shri Aurobindo, tilak, Thoreau, Bhagat Singh Gandhi! So it is that there is urgency for bridging the human gap between prison praxis and prison justice; in one sense, it is a battle of the tenses and in another, an imperative of social justice.

If I may end with an answer to the question posed at the beginning, so long as constitutional guarantees are non- negotiable, human rights, entrenched in the National Charter, shall not be held hostages by Authority. Emergency, exigency, dangerousness, discipline, security and autonomy are theoretically palatable expressions, but in a world where prison are laboratories of torture or warehouses where human commodities are sadistically kept and the spectrum of inmates range from drift-wood juveniles to heroics dissenters, courts- and other constitutional instrumentalities should not consent to make jails judge proof to tearful injustice.

Until current prison pathology is cured and prison justice restored, stone walls and iron bars will not solve the crime crisis confronting society today.”


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