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Reforming Death Penalty- UPSC Current Affairs

Apr 18, 2022


Enhance your UPSC exam preparation with our daily dose of knowledge in our Current Affairs Dialog box. In today’s edition, we will talk about Reforming Death Penalty and its relevance to the CSE syllabus.

Prelims: Important Cases Related to Death Penalty, Provisions for Death Penalty, Article 21.

Mains: Judiciary, Government Policies & Interventions, Issues Arising Out of Design & Implementation of Policies, Death penalty and Arguments Related to it.

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Why in the News?

Recently, a Supreme Court Bench has agreed to comprehensively examine procedures in death penalty cases. 

  • It is to ensure that judges who have to choose between life imprisonment and the death sentence have comprehensive sentencing information.

Probable Question

The paths of reforming the death penalty on one hand and abolishing it on the other, go alongside each other for a very long distance. Comment


Image Source: India.com

Key Points


  • Earlier, the Supreme Court has acknowledged concerns with the manner in which death penalty sentencing is being carried out. 
  • While the death penalty has been held to be constitutional, the manner in which it has been administered has triggered accusations of unfairness and arbitrariness.

About Death Penalty

  • Death penalty or capital punishment is the highest degree of punishment that can be awarded to an individual under any penal law in force.
  • Capital punishment in India is a legal penalty for some crimes under the country's main substantive penal legislation, the Indian Penal Code, as well as other laws.

How has the Supreme Court historically seen the death penalty?

  • The Supreme Court has always said that the death sentence should be given rarely.
  • In ‘Mithu vs State of Punjab’ (1983), the Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory death penalty is unconstitutional.
    • It struck down Section 303 in the IPC, which entailed a mandatory death sentence for a person who commits murder while serving a life term in another case.
  • It said that all murders would come under the ambit of Section 302, where a court would have the discretion to award life term or death sentence.
  • Similarly, the Supreme Court ruled in ‘State of Punjab vs Dalbir Singh’ in 2012 that the mandatory death penalty as punishment for crimes under Section 27 (3) of the Arms Act, 1959, was unconstitutional.
  • In ‘Jagmohan Singh vs State of UP’ (1973), then in ‘Rajendra Prasad vs State of UP(1979), and finally in ‘Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab’ (1980), the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional validity of the death penalty.

How are Judges meant to choose between Life and Death sentences?

Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980)

  • In May 1980, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the death penalty in Bachan Singh’s case.
  • In this case a “rarest of rare cases” framework was developed for judges to follow when they had to choose between life imprisonment and the death penalty.  
  • It made clear that life imprisonment would be the default punishment and judges would need to give “special reasons” if they wanted to impose the death sentence. 
  • The judgement laid down that a court must scrutinize both the crime as well as the criminal, and then decide whether the death penalty is the only suitable punishment in connection to the accused.

Concerns Related to the Bachan Singh Framework

  • The Supreme Court has repeatedly lamented the inconsistency in the application of the Bachan Singh framework. 
  • Similar concerns have been expressed by the Law Commission of India (262nd Report).
  • A study by Project 39A looking at 15 years of death penalty sentencing in trial courts has shown that the Bachan Singh framework has broken down, with judges attributing to it multiple and inconsistent meanings.

Give an extra edge to your UPSC CSE preparation with our Prelims Booster series. Watch a detailed video on 15th Finance Commission Report by Prem Sodhani Sir, our Current Affairs faculty:


What is the Reason for this?

  • One of the main reasons is that very sparse sentencing information about the accused is brought before the judges. 
  • It is an actual fact that the vast majority of death row prisoners are economically challenged and frequently get inadequate legal assistance.
  • Also, there has been no real guidance on how judges must go about assigning weight to aggravating and mitigating factors, and how they should approach weighing one factor against another.

Way Forward

  • There must be a very high degree of fairness in a system that is interested in subjecting individuals to the experience of death row, and ultimately taking lives through the instrumentality of the law. 
  • The criminal justice system needs to do all it can to ensure that systems are created for procedural fairness.
What is Mitigation, and what are mitigating factors?
A criminal trial has two stages:

The guilt stage
The sentencing stage.
Sentencing happens after the accused has been found guilty of the crime; this is the stage where punishment is determined.

Therefore, anything presented or said during sentencing cannot be used to reverse or change the finding of guilt.

It is a fundamental tenet of criminal law that sentencing must be individualized, i.e, in the process of determining punishment, the judge must take into account the individual circumstances of the accused.

The idea of mitigation is to present an individual in all their complexity and the various factors that contributed to a set of decisions and actions in their lives.

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