Capital punishment in India

Crime is as old as human civilization. Since time immemorial crime has been with us in different degrees. Every society has a pattern of suitable conduct and some human beings in every society have fallen outside this configuration. It is the reality which we can accept that crime cannot be abolished. Various reasons for the crime are greed, jealousy, anger etc.

‘Punishment’ is the force used to enforce the law and to reduce the crime. It is the duty of the State to punish the criminals in order to maintain law and order in society. In the past, there weren’t any specific laws. The quantum and extent of punishment were largely dependent on the King.

With time modern theories of punishment were developed and voluntary submission of our rights and power to maintain law and order was given to the state. The most brutal or we can say the highest punishment awarded in present time is ‘Capital Punishment’.

Capital Punishment is the practice of executing someone as punishment for a specific crime after a proper legal trial. Capital punishment is also known as ‘Death Penalty’. It is a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is put to death by the state as a punishment for a crime and can only be used by a State. The actual process of killing the person is called an execution. It is usually only used as a punishment for particularly serious types of crime. The method of punishment varies from country to country. Some countries hang the culprits until death and some shoot or give them a lethal injection.

Capital punishment in India

History of Capital Punishment

Capital punishment was a term to be the oldest trend to punish for a crime from ancient time, the only difference is in modern era death penalty is given in a rarest of a rare case only. The punishment in the ancient period was awarded in an arbitrary manner by the king. The death penalty was usually given for murder, theft, trespass and misuse of valuable things. 

The root of death penalty laws can be traced back to Babylon law, Hammurabi who was a first metropolis, the king of Babylon issued a set of laws to his people called Hammurabi Code. Hammurabi Code provides a harsh standard by which Babylon could order their lives and treat one another. In Hammurabi Code crime against high-class people was considered more serious than poor people. In Hammurabi, arbitrariness has been erased due to written law but the punishment of death was normal in crimes like murder, trespass etc. 

Rarest of Rare case

The legislative dictate has changed from death sentence being the norm to become an exception, and necessarily to be accompanied by good reasons. Bachan Singh v. the State of Punjab, AIR 1980 SC 898 63 was a landmark in escalating the debate on the question of the compatibility of the death sentence with Art.21 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court while holding the validity of the death penalty expressed the opinion that a real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life postulates resistance for taking a life through the law’s instrumentality. That ought not to be done save in the rarest of rare cases when the alternative option is unquestionably foreclosed. However, the Court declined to formulate any aggravating or mitigating factors as it would fetter judicial discretion but held that a murder “diabolically conceived and cruelly executed” may attract an extreme penalty. It is not possible, the court opined, to feed numerous imponderable circumstances in an imperfect and undulating society. But what is those rarest of rare occasions is the dilemma. What appears as brutal and gruesome, to one judge may not appear to be so to another.

Capital punishment in India

For example, in one case the murder of wife and two children with the motive of leading life with the paramour could not convince Justice for the death penalty, while the other Justice wondered what else could be a fit case for the death penalty than the one. It is submitted that if the difference in perception is so glaring among two judges of the highest court then what is relative position among a very large number of session’s judges.

It was, however, in Machi Singh v. the State of Punjab, (1983) 3 SCC 470 where four men were awarded death sentence by the Sessions Court and the High Court for shooting down seventeen persons including men, women and children within their homes at night, in five incidents. The motive was a family feud. The Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of the three-four persons. Justice Thakkar, speaking for the court, was compelled to attempt a definition of the ‘rarest of rare’ case, thus:

  1.  When the murder is committed in an extremely brutal manner. 
  2. When the murder is committed for a motive which shows total depravity and meanness. 
  3. Antisocial or socially abhorrent nature of the crime. 
  4. Crimes of enormous proportion, like multiple murders. 
  5. The personality of a victim of murders e.g. an innocent child or a helpless woman. However, these are the judicially evolved guidelines which are to assist the courts in determining the sentence.

The present scenario in India

In India Article 21 of the Constitution entitled ‘Protection of life and personal liberty’ says:

No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.

This article of the Constitution enshrines the Right to Life guaranteed to every individual in India. The constitutional validity of capital punishment has been called into question several times in the India judiciary.

Capital punishment in India

The Indian Penal Code awards death sentence as a punishment for various offences. Some of these capital offences under the IPC are punishment for criminal conspiracy (Section 120B), murder (Section 302), waging or attempting to wage war against the Government of India (Section 121), abetment of mutiny (Section 132), dacoity with murder (Section 396) and others. Apart from this, there are provisions for the death penalty in various legislations like the NDPS Act, anti-terrorism laws etc.

The Indian Constitution has provision for clemency of capital punishment by the President. Once the Sessions Court has awarded death sentence to a convict in a case, it must be confirmed by the High Court. Even after that, the convict may prefer an appeal to the Supreme Court. If this also fails the accused has the option of submitting a ‘mercy petition’ to the President of India and the Governor of the State. Detailed instructions regarding the procedure to be observed by the states for dealing with petitions for mercy from or on behalf of convicts under sentence of death and with appeals to the Supreme Court and applications for special leave to appeal to that court by such convicts are laid down by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In this respect we may refer to Article 72 of the Constitution of India which says:

“Power of President to grant pardons, etc, and to suspend, remit or commute sentences in certain cases-

(1) The President shall have the power to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of any person convicted of any offence;                

(a) in all cases where the punishment or sentence is by a Court Martial;

(b) in all cases where the punishment or sentence for an offence against any law relating to a matter to which the executive power of the Union extends;

(c) in all cases where the sentence is a sentence of death;

(2) Nothing in subclause (a) of Clause (1) shall affect the power to suspend, remit or commute a sentence of death exercisable by the Governor of a State under any law for the time being in force.”

Capital punishment in India

Similarly, the pardoning powers of the Governor of a State are mentioned in Article 161. These provisions ensure that the accused is sentenced to death only after there is no room for error left. The culprit gets multiple avenues to appeal and now life imprisonment has become the rule while the death sentence is the exception.


The preamble of India which says ‘we the people of India’  directly indicate it as a democratic country where the public at large prevails. Laws are made for human beings so that one may live their life with dignity without affecting others right. When any crime committed by accused he must be punished by the state through law as it effect public or the innocent victims. Capital Punishment is the most severe punishment of society. India did not abolish capital punishment but they limit its scope by awarding capital punishment on rarest of rare cases.

According to our judiciary, it must be imposed in exceptional cases i.e. in rarest of rare cases with special reasons. India is a nation of different cultures, different types of people having their different way of thinking and living. The acts of crimes are not the trend of the modern era but it has taken place from ancient period. Though in ancient period death punishment used to be awarded for petty offences but the need for capital punishment is for deterrence and creating fear in the minds of people.