The death penalty has been a longstanding form of punishment, deeply ingrained in the annals of criminal justice history, utilized for the eradication of offenders and as a retribution for heinous crimes. In India, where criminal jurisprudence draws from a blend of deterrent and reformative principles, the debate surrounding capital punishment remains contentious. While proponents argue for its necessity in deterring crime, opponents advocate for its abolition, aligning with global trends where many nations have already abandoned it.

Despite widespread global abolition, India retains the death penalty for specific offenses such as murder, rape, terrorism, and violations under defense legislation. The justification for its continuance stems from the complexities of India’s diverse population, vast geographical expanse, and varying social and moral values. Recognizing these challenges, the Law Commission of India emphasized the indispensability of maintaining law and order in such a heterogeneous society.

The Commission’s recommendations led to amendments in the Criminal Procedure Code, mandating the provision of “special reasons” before imposing a death sentence. This requirement seeks to ensure the judicious application of capital punishment, balancing the imperative of justice with the imperative of mitigating risks to social order. In essence, the retention of the death penalty in India reflects a nuanced understanding of the country’s unique socio-cultural landscape and the imperative of upholding law and order amidst its diversity.


In India, the death penalty is reserved for severe crimes such as murder, gang robbery resulting in murder, and terrorism-related offenses. Courts typically reserve this penalty for murder cases, evaluating each instance to determine if it meets the criteria of being among the “rarest of the rare” cases.

India maintains the death penalty within its legal framework, reflecting a stance that balances the need for justice with societal concerns. The term “capital punishment” derives from the Latin “capitalis,” meaning “of the head,” harkening back to ancient execution methods. In Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court emphasized that the death penalty should be reserved for the most egregious crimes, as dictated by the doctrine of the rarest of rare cases.

Section 354 of the CrPC, added in 1973, mandates judges to justify death penalties with ‘special reasons.’ Post-conviction, sentencing aligns with the crime’s severity, but no rigid formula dictates it. Judges must provide specific justifications for all sentences, emphasizing ‘special reasons’ for death penalties.


After serving a 14-year prison sentence for the murder of his wife under Section 302 of the IPC, Bachan Singh was released. However, on July 4, 1977, he perpetrated a gruesome act by murdering three of his cousin Hukum Singh’s children with an axe, following objections to his living arrangement with the family. Subsequently, Bachan Singh was convicted by the Sessions Court for the murders of Desa Singh, Durga Bai, and Veeran Bai, and sentenced to death under Section 302 of the IPC. Despite appealing to the High Court, his appeal was dismissed, and the death sentence was upheld.

Bachan Singh pursued further legal action by appealing to the Supreme Court, questioning whether the circumstances of the case justified the requirement of ‘special reasons’ under Section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973. This provision requires judges to justify death sentences with specific reasons. The Supreme Court, in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, deliberated on whether the case qualified as an instance of “the rarest of the rare” doctrine, thereby necessitating the death penalty.

The case underscored the critical examination of mitigating and aggravating factors surrounding the crime, weighing the gravity of the offense against the possibility of reformation. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s verdict would have significant implications for Bachan Singh’s fate and for the broader jurisprudential understanding of capital punishment in India.

  • Whether Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), prescribing death penalty for murder, is unconstitutional.
  • Whether Article 19 of the Constitution applies in assessing the constitutionality of Section 302 of the IPC.
  • Whether the disputed aspect of Section 302 of the IPC infringes upon Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty.
  • Whether Section 354(3) of the CrPC, governing the sentencing procedure and allowing for discretion in imposing the death penalty, is unconstitutional due to its potential for arbitrary application.

In a majority decision, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal challenging the constitutionality of Section 302 of the IPC, which includes the death penalty as a punishment for murder, as well as Section 354(3) of the CrPC, 1973, which governs the sentencing procedure. The Court affirmed that the provision of the death penalty under Section 302 of the IPC serves as an alternative to other punishments for murder and is not inherently unreasonable or against public interest. This stance was grounded in the understanding that Parliament had already considered such aspects during the revision of the criminal code in 1973.

Rather than deeming the death penalty unconstitutional, the Court established the doctrine of the “rarest of the rare,” stipulating that only cases falling within this category could warrant a death sentence. Moreover, the Court emphasized the necessity for judges to provide special reasons when imposing such a penalty.

Furthermore, the Court delineated aggravating and mitigating circumstances that should guide judges in determining the appropriateness of a death sentence, highlighting the importance of weighing both factors proportionately.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 302 of the IPC and Section 354(3) of the CrPC, finding no violations of Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian Constitution. This decision underscored the judiciary’s nuanced approach to capital punishment, ensuring that its application aligns with principles of justice and fairness while acknowledging the gravity of the crime committed.



The Supreme Court determined that the death penalty under Section 302 of the IPC is not irrational or against public interest, aligning with the principles of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. It affirmed that the Constitution allows for deprivation of life or personal liberty under fair and just procedures established by legitimate legislation, as implied by Article 21. Section 354(3) of the CrPC was challenged for not requiring exceptional reasons for granting the death penalty when life imprisonment is also an option. Relying on precedents like Jagmohan Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh and Rajendra Prasad v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the Court concluded that the death penalty doesn’t abridge freedoms under Article 19(1) and doesn’t violate Article 14. However, it acknowledged that a death sentence should be the exception rather than the rule.


Justice Bhagwati dissented from the majority opinion, arguing that the provision in Section 302 of the IPC prescribing the death penalty as an alternative to life imprisonment is unconstitutional and violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. He contended that the provision lacks clear legislative guidance on when a death sentence can be imposed, leading to potential arbitrariness. According to Justice Bhagwati, the absence of specific criteria for determining when the death penalty is warranted undermines the principles of fairness and justice enshrined in the Constitution. He emphasized the need for legislative clarity and guidance to ensure that the imposition of the death penalty is consistent with constitutional principles and fundamental rights.


  • Death penalty is warranted only in the gravest cases of extreme culpability.
  • Judges should assess both the circumstances of the crime and the offender before imposing the death penalty.
  • Life imprisonment is the norm, with death sentence reserved as an exception.
  • Death penalty should only be considered when life imprisonment appears insufficient.
  • Before opting for the death penalty, a balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating factors must be created.
  • Mitigating circumstances should be given significant weight, and a fair balance between aggravating and mitigating factors must be struck.

The ambiguity surrounding the criteria for imposing the death penalty, as observed in the Bachan Singh case, has led to various interpretations diverging from the actual judgment. Critics argue that the lack of normative clarity within the framework fails to elucidate the interrelationship between aggravating and mitigating factors. While factors like age, mental state, and socio-economic background of the offender are considered, judges are left with significant discretion to interpret and apply these criteria, leading to inconsistency in sentencing.

Moreover, the absence of a theoretical framework developed in the Bachan Singh case has undermined procedural fairness in sentencing proceedings. This normative gap allows judges to exercise their discretion based on personal considerations, further exacerbating inconsistencies in the application of the death penalty.

Contrary to the majority opinion in Bachan Singh, the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent to heinous offenses has been widely contested. Surveys and statistical reports, including those conducted by the UN, have failed to provide conclusive evidence supporting the notion that executions act as a deterrent. Countries like Canada, which abolished the death penalty in 1976, saw a decrease in the homicide rate, challenging the notion of deterrence.

Additionally, concerns regarding wrongful convictions leading to the execution of innocents persist. In the USA, numerous cases have surfaced where individuals sentenced to death were later exonerated or released due to innocence. In India, biases in criminal investigations against marginalized communities have resulted in disproportionate application of the death penalty, raising questions of fairness and justice.

Calls for the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes have gained momentum, with the 262nd Law Commission Report in 2015 advocating for its abolition in ordinary crimes. Activists continue to advocate for abolishing the death penalty, citing concerns over fairness, justice, and human rights violations.

As challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty persist in courts, the Supreme Court faces the task of clarifying whether the absence of political will is sufficient grounds to override an individual’s right to life.


The concept of the “rarest of the rare” category, as exemplified in cases like Nirbhaya’s, signifies crimes that shock the collective conscience, yet its application remains subjective and arbitrary. Distinguishing between ordinary and rare murders lacks clarity, leaving judges to rely on personal values and sensitivity in awarding the death penalty. Instances like the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, despite their brutality, didn’t result in death sentences, prompting questions on the evolving nature of crime severity and punishment.

There’s an urgent need for a structured framework to govern the imposition of the death penalty, evaluating its societal benefits. Courts must prioritize crime prevention and reformation alongside punishment, ensuring a balance between the rights of convicts and victims for societal peace and future crime prevention.

The Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab case remains pivotal in the discourse on the death penalty’s constitutionality, establishing the “rarest of the rare” doctrine. While serving as a guiding precedent, courts must exercise caution due to the irreversible nature of the death penalty, necessitating clear guidelines for its imposition.


Bachan Singh vs State Of Punjab on 9 May, 1980 (indiankanoon.org)

Case Summary: Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab – LawLex.Org

Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab | LawFoyer

Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) : case analysis (ipleaders.in)

Bachan Singh Vs State Of Punjab – Case Analysis – Law Corner

Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab – Law Times Journal

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