Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab

DATE OF JUDGEMENT – 16th August 1982

COURT – Supreme Court of India

JUDGES – Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, Justice A. Gupta, Justice N. Untwalia, Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Justice R Sarkaria and Justice A.C. Gupta

CITATION – AIR 1980 AC 898

Subject: The validity of death penalty in murder cases as violative of Articles 19 and 21

PARTIES – Bachan Singh (Petitioner)

State of Punjab (Respondent)

FACTS – The appellant/Petitioner in the case was convicted for three murders and was therefore was given a punishment to death penalty under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. The High Court upon appeal confirmed the same and dismissed his appeal. The Appellant therefore by way of a SLP (Special Leave Petition) approached the court, to question the ‘special reasons’ for him being awarded death penalty and the validity of the same as under Section 354 (3) CrPC as well as the Indian Constitution.

Whether Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code providing death penalty in certain cases is unconstitutional as well as validity of Section 354(3) CrPC based on the arbitrary powers given to the Court?

CONTENTIIONS –

Petitioner – The Petition of provided the simple argument of death penalty in murder cases as a concept is flawed with reference to the application of the same due to the rights provided under Article 19 of the Constitution. It was further submitted that the right to live so as to enjoy certain basic enjoyments as guaranteed under Article 19 clauses (a) to (e) as well as (g) was being curtailed by the provisions in question. It was also argued that the penalty serves no inherent social purpose and is therefore not within the ambit of being a “reasonable restriction” under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Finally, it was also argued that the dignity of an individual is bestowed upon in the very Preamble of the Constitution as well as the six

rights under Article 19 and the right to life under Article 21 without any reasonable restrictions, which in this case were the penalties for the charge of murder.

Defendant – The contentions made by the respondents were based on the principle of sic uteri tou ut alienum non laedas which means that a person may use the property in such a way that it does not injure someone else’s rights. The arguments were that the six rights as provided for under Article 19 upon which the unconstitutionality of the Section were mainly surrounded are not absolute rights but are subject to certain reasonable restrictions so as to not injure the rights of another. Since the restrictions levied upon Article 19 are with reference to the heinous crime of murder under Section 320 which affects the civil well-being of the society, the same is necessary and hence the procedural law which are therefore not ultra-vires to the Constitution.

JUDGEMENT – Dismissing the appeal and the SLP, the Court held that the fundamental rights provided under the Constitution are not absolute and hence the Section 320 and its related procedural laws are within the purview of rights as provided under Article 19 and the reasonable restrictions envisaged for the same under Article 19 (2). For the people convicted for the offense of murder, life imprisonment was made a rule and death sentence an exception. With the majority of 4:1, the Court struck down Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code as unconstitutional and void.

Regarding the second issue, the Court decided in a majority view that Section 354(3) directs the courts to punish a person for the offense of murder with death penalty or imprisonment for life only when they have “special reasons” for the same. In exceptionally grave circumstances the death penalty or an alternative imprisonment for life is awarded. Sufficient weightage was given to aggravating and mitigating factors while giving the judgment. Since such reasons have been well identified by various cases, there is no arbitrariness in the same.

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