Apart from the Indian Penal Code, 1860, there are 23 statutes that prescribe the death penalty as a form of punishment in India. The Anti-Hijacking Act, 2016 is the most recent addition to this list.
The movement towards making the death penalty an exceptional punishment began in 1955, after the repeal of Section 367(5) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, which required courts to record reasons when deciding not to impose the death penalty. Several important substantive and procedural safeguards were then introduced by the legislature and the judiciary to ensure the fair administration of the death penalty.
When safeguards in the CrPC are not available
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (“CrPC”) requires the court in Section 354(3) to record “special reasons” while awarding the death penalty. It also requires the obligatory confirmation of the death sentence by the High Court. There are however, quasi-judicial bodies with the power to award the death penalty, which are bound only by the procedures prescribed in their parent statutes and not the CrPC. Some of these statutes include the Air Force Act, 1950 (“Air Force Act”), the Assam Rifles Act, 2006, the Defence of India Act, 1971, and the Karnataka Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999. These statutes remain bound by the principles of natural justice (S.N. Mukherjee v. Union of India, 1990 AIR 1984).
An example of a quasi-judicial proceeding that does not follow the procedures contained in the CrPC is that of “court martial”, provided for in the Army Act, 1950, the Air Force Act, and the Navy Act, 1957. The rules of procedure to be followed during a court martial proceeding are prescribed in the respective statutes itself. These procedures do not provide for safeguards similar to those in the CrPC. For example, there is no statutory onus on the court to provide “special reasons” in a court martial proceeding.
In S.N. Mukherjee v. Union of India, among the other issues before a constitution bench of the Supreme Court, inter-alia, were whether reasons are required to be recorded at the stage of (i) recording of finding and sentence by the court-martial; (ii) confirmation of the findings and sentence of the court-martial; and (iii) consideration of post-confirmation petition.
With respect to the first issue, the Court noted that the court martial is not required to record reasons at the stage of recording of findings and sentence. Similar conclusions were reached regarding the second and third issues as well. While these observations were made in relation to the provisions of the Army Act, these observations would hold true for the other two statutes as well since the procedures for court martial are similar.
Relying on the SK Mukherjeee dicta, the Delhi High Court in Balwinder Singh v. Union of India, 64(1996) DLT 385, decided not to interfere with the findings of court martial on the ground of absence of any ‘special reasons’ but commuted the death sentence to imprisonment for life on other grounds.
The petitioner was charged under Section 69 of the Army Act for committing murder. The general court martial found the petitioner guilty and sentenced him to death. This was further confirmed by the Central Government. The petitioner had also exhausted the recourse available to him under Section 164(2) of the Act. Section 164(1) and (2) provide for a remedy against, inter alia, the sentence of a court martial. The aggrieved party can present a petition before the confirming authority, and after that, to the Central Government or the Chief of Army Staff.
The petitioner, therefore, filed a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution challenging the above orders, questioning among other things, the absence of “special reasons” in the order of the general court martial, as stipulated under Section 354(3) of the CrPC. The petitioner also raised an argument in the alternative that the requirement under Section 354(3) should be read as a part of natural justice requirements of Article 21 of the Constitution.
The court reiterated the position laid down in SN Mukherjee, and said that the general court martial did not commit any error by not recording any ‘special reasons’ in the case. Similarly, the Court interpreted Section 162 of the Army Act to excuse even the confirming authority from providing reasons while confirming the sentence of death. Regardless, the court observed that if there are any shortcomings in the findings of general court martial or the confirming authority, they could be challenged under Article 32 or Article 226 of the Constitution. The Court failed to make any observation on the argument regarding Article 21 of the Constitution; that giving “special reasons” is essential in a case where death sentence is to be awarded irrespective of the nature of the court or tribunal.
Similarly, Section 64 of the Border Security Force Act, 1968 provides for the establishment of special courts. The General Security Force Court is empowered to pass a sentence of death under Section 72. Chapter VII (Sections 82 to 106), which lays down the procedure for the courts under this Act, does not contain any special procedure (as contained in CrPC) with respect to death sentence. The only additional requirement for passing a death sentence is that it should be passed with a concurrence of at least two-third members of the court. Other decisions of the Court can be passed by an absolute majority. This kind of voting requirement is present in other statutes that stipulate for trial by court martial as well.
Most of the other non-IPC legislations that stipulate death penalty among its punishments follow the special procedures mentioned in the CrPC with respect to the death penalty. For example, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, there is a provision in Section 14 for establishing a special court for trying of offences committed under the Act. However, this court is also bound by the procedures prescribed in the CrPC.
The incorporation of special provisions with respect to the death penalty in the CrPC signifies the legislature’s intent to include additional safeguards that aim at ensuring maximum protection to a person sentenced to death. Considering the general legislative and judicial caution against the death penalty, it is important that a larger bench of the Supreme Court revisit the findings in S.N. Mukherjee. The requirements of giving ‘special reasons’ and obligatory confirmation by the High Court should be made imperative, regardless of the statute under which a person has been sentenced to death.
(Rahul Raman is a Project Associate at the Centre on the Death Penalty, National Law University, Delhi.)