LANDMARK CASE-Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)


Author:Janvi J Kothari, A Student at Smt.Kamalaben Gambhirchand Shah Law School.


Recently, a 38-year old man was convicted for killing his mother and attempting to kill his neighbour as well. The Court considered the case to be ‘rarest of the rare’ and awarded him the death penalty. Another man was awarded the death penalty for committing the gruesome act of raping a minor girl and then killing her. 

In the present case, the accused, Bachan Singh, was convicted for the murder of two persons and was given the death sentence by the Sessions Judge, which was upheld by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. This decision was further appealed but dismissed by the Supreme Court of India. The death penalty has always been a topic of debate, and this case stands as a landmark in Indian criminal law. It addressed the constitutionality of the death penalty, established the importance of considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and introduced the guiding principle of the ‘rarest of rare doctrine’. This judgement has had a significant impact on the sentencing process in death penalty cases, aiming to maintain a balance between justice and the fundamental rights of convicted persons. 

Death penalty in India

In India, the death penalty is imposed in cases of murder, gang robbery coupled with murder, abetting the suicide of an insane person, a minor, abetting a mutiny by a member of the armed forces, and waging war against the government. Capital punishment is also awarded under anti-terror laws for those who have a significant involvement in committing terrorist acts. 

India is thus one of those countries that retains the death penalty within its legal framework for the rarest of the rare crimes, and yet it is not in favour of abolishing it completely. The death penalty is the execution of a convicted person under a death sentence imposed by a competent authority. It is also referred to as ‘capital punishment’. The word ‘capital’ is derived from the Latin word ‘capitalis’ which means ‘of the head’. The reason being that in ancient times, the death penalty was carried out by beheading a person. Capital punishment represents the maximum quantum of punishment permitted by law for a criminal in India. In the present case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court held that the death penalty must be imposed in the most heinous crimes where the doctrine of the rarest of rare case applies.

Background of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)

There were quite a few judicial pronouncements before the Court gave the judgement in Bachan Singh regarding whether the death penalty is in lieu of constitutional provisions. 

In Jagmohan Singh v. State of U.P. (1972), the Supreme Court held that the death penalty did not violate Articles 1419, and 21 that guarantee the right to equality, freedom of speech and expression, and the right to life. The facts, circumstances, and nature of the crime committed would be the factors scrutinised by the judge when making the choice between awarding the death penalty or life imprisonment. Therefore, the decision to award the death penalty was made according to the procedure that has been laid down by law under Article 21.

In Rajendra Prasad v. State of U.P. (1979), the Court held that unless it was shown that the individual is a terrible and continuing threat to social security, capital punishment would not be justified. Justice Krishna Iyer opined that the death penalty should be inflicted in the case of three categories of criminals:

for white-collar offences,

for social offences, and

for eradicating a person who is a threat to society, that is, a seasoned killer.

The Court also held that the death penalty for the offence of murder, which is awarded pursuant to Section 302 of the IPC, 1860, would not be a violation of the constitutional provisions. In grave cases of extreme culpability, capital punishment can be awarded, and the convict’s condition must be taken into consideration.

Provisions involved in the case

Section 354 (3) of the CrPC, 1973.

Section 302 of the IPC, 1860. 

Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

Facts of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)

Having previously been convicted for the murder of his wife under Section 302 of the IPC, Bachan Singh served 14 years in prison. After his release, he resided with his cousin, Hukum Singh, and his family. However, this living arrangement was objected to by the wife and children of his cousin. On July 4, 1977, the appellant committed an atrocious act by murdering three out of four children of his cousin using an axe.

Bachan Singh was thus convicted for the offence of committing the murder of Desa Singh, Durga Bai, and Veeran Bai by the Sessions Court. He was given the death penalty under Section 302 of the IPC. He appealed to the High Court; however, the Court dismissed his appeal and upheld the death sentence. 

Judgment in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)

The Supreme Court, with the majority opinion, had dismissed the appeal. The Court dismissed the challenge to the constitutionality of Section 302 of the IPC in so far as it prescribed the death penalty as one of the punishments, as well as the constitutionality of Section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973.

The Court stated that the provision of the death sentence is only an alternative to other punishments prescribed for murder under Section 302 of the IPC, 1860, and cannot be considered unreasonable and not in the public interest since the Parliament had already taken this into consideration while revising the Code of 1898, eventually replacing it with the CrPC, 1973. The Court did not hold the sentence of death penalty as unconstitutional but established the doctrine of the ‘rarest of the rare’, wherein only cases falling under rarest of rare category could be punished with a death sentence, and that too only after the courts provide special reasons for such punishment. 

Critiques of the judgement in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)

  • There is a lack of theoretical framework in the present case, which has impacted the procedural fairness of sentence hearings.
  • Abolitionists of the death penalty still held a different view and were not satisfied with this judgement.
  • Despite the Court’s clarity on the constitutionality of the death penalty, various ambiguities persisted, resulting in the absence of meaningful criteria for awarding death sentences. 

Rarest of rare doctrine

As mentioned previously, the doctrine of “rarest of rare” was developed in the present case. Retentionists have argued that it has limited the scope of imposing a death sentence, ensuring that it is imposed in a reasonable rather than arbitrary manner. In contrast, abolitionists have argued that there is ambiguity involved in this doctrine, as the power to decide will always be in the hands of the judges and is thus based on their discretion. Furthermore, they emphasise that once the punishment has been executed, it becomes irrevocable in nature.

Views on same-day sentencing

Same-day sentencing refers to a situation where a person, when convicted, receives the sentence order from the court on the same day. This practice is often criticised and is generally argued as being biassed against the accused person. Since the accused gets a chance to produce evidence to show mitigating circumstances in their favour only after their conviction, this same-day sentencing hinders the rights of the convicted person. The following issues relate to this matter:

  • Whether the hearing on sentencing should be held on the same day of conviction or on a subsequent day.
  • Whether deciding the sentence on the same day prevents convicted persons from having a fair chance to explain reasons for a life term instead of the death penalty? 
  • Whether there is a legal requirement to hold a separate hearing to decide the quantum of sentence after the date of conviction.

In Bachan Singh’s case, the judgement also stressed the need for holding a separate hearing for sentencing, stating reasons for either granting or not granting the death penalty. According to Section 235 of the CrPC, 1978, when the accused is convicted, the court will have to hear the convicted person on the sentencing to pass a sentencing order. Further, Section 354(3) emphasises the necessity of recording reasons for the sentence awarded, in cases of the death penalty or imprisonment for life. 

Key highlights of the judgement in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)

  • The court stated that the fact that India is a member of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not affect the constitutional validity of capital punishment.
  • Unlike Article 21, Article 19 does not deal with the right to life and personal liberty and is not applicable for checking the constitutional validity of the provisions of Section 302 of the IPC, 1860.
  • The Court noted that the state had discharged its burden by producing the 35th Law Commission Report, 1967, and several judgements in which the death penalty has been recognised as a deterrent. 
  • The question of whether the death penalty serves a penological purpose is a difficult one and has various divergent views. 

Key judgments on death penalty over the years

The discussion by the Hon’ble Supreme Court on the constitutional validity of the death penalty can be traced back to the case of Jagmohan Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh in 1973. In this case, a five-judge bench upheld the validity of the death penalty, stating that as the death penalty is imposed according to the procedure established by law, it cannot be said to be violative of the right to life under Article 21. The court also affirmed that it does not violate Article 19 and Article 14, and the court’s discretion in granting the death penalty is not unfettered. This decision was reaffirmed by another five-judge bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the present case in 1980. While upholding the constitutional validity of the death penalty as an alternative punishment for murder under Section 302 of the IPC, 1860, the court also clarified the need to consider the circumstances of the criminal along with the circumstances of the crime, stating that imprisonment for life is considered as a rule, and death penalty as an exception. 

As aforementioned, In 1983, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court in the case of Mithu v. State of Punjab struck down Section 303 of the IPC, 1860, as it violated Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. According to  Section 303, if a person committed murder while undergoing imprisonment for life, the person would be sentenced to death. This mandatory death penalty in such cases had prevented the courts from exercising discretion and was thus held to be arbitrary. 

Additionally, in the case of Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab, as mentioned above, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court stated that the courts must consider the following, while imposing the death penalty:

  • Motive of the accused person,
  • Manner in which a crime was committed, 
  • Anti-social nature of the crime,
  • Personality of the victim, and
  • Magnitude of the crime.

The courts must strike a balance between aggravating and mitigating circumstances while deciding any case for the death penalty.


The category of ‘rarest of the rare’ is always evolving. The Nirbhaya case violated collective conscience and clearly fell under the scope of this doctrine. However, this doctrine is quite arbitrary, subjective, and discriminatory.

It is quite difficult to draw a line of distinction between a rare and an ordinary murder, and subsequently the rarest case. The crime is mostly described as heinous, grotesque, and so on, but it does not lay a clear line of demarcation. It is ultimately up to the judges to award the death penalty as per their values, sensitivity, and special reasons regarding the gravity of the crime.

In the Kathua rape case as well as the Unnao rape case, the facts and circumstances were quite brutal. However, the courts did not award the death penalty to the culprits. It raises the pertinent question of whether a rare form of crime becoming common causes the courts to punish the culprits with life imprisonment instead.

The main aim of courts is and should always be focused  on eliminating crime rather than just punishing criminals. The emphasis should be on reformation in cases where it is possible, and punishment should be given in order to achieve the goal of maintaining an orderly society. There needs to be a balance between the rights of convicted persons and victims to ensure the restoration of peace and prevent future crimes. The present case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab is a landmark Supreme Court judgement on the constitutionality of the death penalty in India. It introduced the rarest of the rare doctrine, which has since served as a precedent in many cases.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1)When was the death penalty introduced?

The history of the death penalty can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi, and it has been a form of punishment in India since the time of the British.

2)Is the death penalty still awarded in India as a punishment?

Yes, India is one of those countries where the death penalty is still awarded for a few crimes as a punishment.

3)Why is the punishment of death sentence still awarded in India?

The punishment of death sentence is still in existence in our country, as it is believed to be a better deterrent than any other punishment. 

4)Which is the landmark judgement on the death penalty?

Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab is considered the landmark case on the death penalty, as it limited the scope of this punishment to offences falling under the rarest of the rare cases.

5)What was held in the case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab?

The constitutionality of the sentence of the death penalty was upheld under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 354(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. 

6)Which doctrine was introduced in the case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab?

The doctrine of “rarest of the rare” was introduced in the case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab.

7)Which provisions of the Constitution are said to be violated by the death penalty in the case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab?

It was contended that the death penalty violated Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian Constitution; however, the Court rejected this contention and held that the death penalty is not violative of Articles 14, 19, and 21. 

8)What is the doctrine of “rarest of the rare”?

According to this case, only those criminals can be punished with the death sentence whose offence is exceptional, and the criminal’s actions are so heinous and extraordinary that they constitute the rarest of the rare cases. This doctrine was developed to limit the scope of the death penalty. 


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