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Key cases dealing with death penalty and its application

  • In 1980 verdict (Bachhan Singh v State of Punjab) – the Supreme Court said that death penalty is constitutional but should be given only in the rarest of rare cases.
  •  In 1996 verdict (Ravji v. State of Rajasthan) – the Supreme Court had ruled that while determining whether to award the death penalty “it is the nature and gravity of the crime” alone that demand consideration.
  •  In 2009 verdict, the Supreme Court, however, declared its earlier ruling in Ravji incorrect. The court held that even in those cases where the crime is brutal and heinous the criminal’s antecedents, including his economic and social background, must have a bearing on the award of the death sentence.
  • In recent verdicts (while dealing with three different death penalty cases)
  • In two of those cases, the court entirely absolved the accused from wrongdoing.
  • While in the third the court not only found the accused guilty of murder, but also deserving of capital punishment.

Collectively, from the above cases, we can draw the following –

How arbitrary the death penalty is? 

How its application is mired by a belief in conflicting values? and

How the fundamental requirement of precision in criminal law has been replaced by a rhetorical cry for avenging crime by invoking the “collective conscience” of society?

Why retention of the death penalty utterly undermines India’s moral foundations?

India’s broken criminal justice system cannot support the death penalty:

  • In many instances, the courts found several innocent men guilty of a heinous crime, brought them to the brink of execution. However, were later found to be innocent and acquitted. (Example – Ankush Maruti Shinde case)
  • Such grave errors must trigger the moral honesty to accept that we are playing with fire by keeping the death penalty in such a system.
  • There’s almost no empirical evidence available showing that the death penalty actually deters crime.

 The decision-making process of a Judge:

  • Life of the person depends on the reasons articulated by such honorable Justices.
  • In this aspect, concerns over judge-centric variations of arguments have been raised in the past.
  • There are several instances of “extremely uneven application” of the norms.
  •  Public outrage and capital punishment
  • In recent times, public outrage, the need for deterrence, and the clamor for a befitting punishment to render substantial justice have dominated the general discourse.
  •  Disproportionate application of the sentence
  • In India, the most economically and socially marginalized are the ones who suffer the most.
  • According to Death Penalty India Report (DPIR) 74% of prisoners on death row, at the time of the study, were economically vulnerable, and 63% were either the primary or sole earners in their families.
  • 76% of those sentenced to death belonged to backward classes and religious minorities, including all 12 female prisoners.


Thus, the question of capital punishment needs to be debated away from the general public discourse and on a higher moral plane where there shall be no death penalty in law, regardless of the nature, circumstances and consequences of an offence. 

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