The death penalty, sometimes known as capital punishment, is a contentious topic of discussion in many countries. Life imprisonment is the rule, and the death penalty is an exception. In other words, the death penalty should only be used when life in prison proves to be an entirely insufficient punishment in light of the specific circumstances surrounding the offense. The situations that the Court referred to as the “Rarest of Rare” are those in which the crime is heinous, cruel, and impacts society, and there is no alternative punishment being sufficient for such crime.

The “Rarest of Rare” doctrine was developed by the Supreme Court of India in a landmark decision that set forth specific restrictions on the use of the death penalty. The “rarest of rare doctrine” cannot be strictly applied in India. In the case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980), the doctrine of the rarest of the rare was established. The origin and seriousness of the offense are the two main elements of a criminal trial, and these two components decide the magnitude of the punishment. Furthermore, substantial evidence must support the death penalty as the last remaining option.

In a later case, Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab (1983), the Court attempted to establish standards for determining whether a crime qualified as one of the “rarest of rare.” In the Machhi Singh case, the Court established standards for determining whether a case qualifies as one of the rarest of the rare. The criteria are the manner of commission of murder (when a murder is carried out in a visibly brutal way), the motive for the commission of the murder, the magnitude of the crime (when there have been several killings and the proportion of the crime is significant), the personality of the victim (where the victim is a vulnerable woman or an old age person or a prominent figure, or an innocent child), and the socially undesirable nature of the crime (victims of bride burning cases). The Court wishes to emphasize that the death sentence should only be applied in extreme circumstances that are heinous, cruel, and impact humanity.  

Like any other topic, the definition of the rarest of the rare is not without critics. Many critics have argued that this idea is highly vague and open to many interpretations. The dissenting opinion of Justice Bhagwati contained the following intense criticism, “such a criterion would give rise to a greater amount of subjectivity in decision making and would decide whether a person shall live or die dependent on the composition of the bench.” According to him, the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution are violated because an offender’s life is predicated on the Court’s thoughts. The Indian Constitution’s protection of the right to life takes precedence. This does not imply that somebody who has committed a horrific act will not face the consequences. Although the victim must get legal justice, the accused’s rights cannot be violated. Since adopting this doctrine, the death sentence has become an extremely unusual punishment in our judicial system, with life imprisonment far preferable because human life is at stake.

Since there is no legal definition of what “rarest of rare” entails, there is a debate every time the court sentences someone to death. The intensity of the crime for which the death sentence is being applied must be considered. Petty offenses shouldn’t warrant the imposition of the death penalty. To serve as a deterrent and prevent potential criminals from committing such a horrible crime, it must be related to the gravity of the conduct. The criteria for identifying cases as the rarest of rare cases should be outlined in a uniform guideline. Last but not least, the constitutional bench should carefully consider every aspect of the case before imposing the death penalty and make sure that its decision is not made in a hurry.

Author: Saumya Gupta, a 2nd year law student at Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad


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