Capital punishment is a legal death penalty ordered by the court against the violation of criminal laws. Capital punishment, also called the death penalty, execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offence. It is the highest degree of punishment that can be awarded under penal laws. Because of its drastic and irreversible nature, it is being awarded only in instances of heinous crimes such as murder, a war against the state, rape etc. 

The concept of the death penalty has always been a topic of debate. It is being believed by the proponents of the death penalty that awarding death penalty sets an example in society and is an effective manner to stop crime. Whereas it had been debated that “Right to life” is a Human Right inherited by birth to every individual which is infringed by awarding death penalty to an individual. 

Meaning of death penalty- 

Oxford learner’s dictionary defines capital punishment as the punishment of being killed that is used in some countries for very serious crimes. The Lexico defines death penalty as Punishment by execution.

The constitutional validity of death penalty in India- 

The death penalty is a mode of punishment for stopping heinous crime since time immemorial. Various countries have a different outlook on it. India has retained the death penalty for “rarest of the rarest case” and in “special circumstances.”

There have been a plethora of cases challenging the constitutional validity, the very first case was of Jagmohan Singh Vs State Of U.P where the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the death penalty is the violation of the “right to life” which is guaranteed under article 19 of the Indian constitution. In another case Rajendra Prasad vs State of U.P., Justice Krishna Iyer has empathetically stressed that death penalty is violative of articles 14, 19 and 21, But year a later in the landmark case of Bachan Singh vs the State of Punjab, by a majority of 4 to 1 (Bhagwati J. dissenting) the Supreme Court overruled its earlier decision in Rajendra Prasad. It expressed the view that death penalty, as an alternative punishment for murder is not unreasonable and hence violative of articles 14,19, and 21, of the Constitution of India, because the “public order” contemplated by clauses (2) to (4) of Article 19 is different from “law and order” and also enunciated the principle of awarding death penalty only in the “rarest of rare cases”. The Supreme Court in Machhi Singh vs the State of Punjab laid down the broad outlines of the circumstances when a death sentence should be imposed.

Rarest of Rarest doctrine

The doctrine was propounded by the apex court for the first time in Bachan Singh’s case, 1980. Since then the life imprisonment is treated to be the rule and death penalty to be the exception. There is no statutory definition of “rarest of rarest” but the supreme court has laid down various guidelines. 

In Bachan Singh case Supreme Court expressed reasons related to wrongdoing and criminal in which (sections 161 at page 738 of the judgment). In section 163, Bacchan Singh further noted: “….in settling the level of discipline or settling on the decision of sentence for different offenses, including one under Section 302 of [the] Penal Code, the court ought not bind its thought “chiefly” or just to the circumstances associated with the specific wrongdoing, additionally give due attention to the circumstances of the criminal” .

In Santosh Kumar Bariyar vs State of Maharashtra[iii], the Supreme Court got an opportunity to explain this further: “The rarest of rare dictum serves as a guideline in enforcing Section 354(3) and entrenches the policy that life imprisonment is the rule and death punishment is an exception. It is settled law of interpretation that exceptions are to be construed narrowly. That being the case, the rarest of rare dictum places an extraordinary burden on the court, in case it selects death penalty as the favoured penalty, to carry out an objective assessment of facts to satisfy the exceptions ingrained in the rarest of rare dictum.”

Method for the execution of the death penalty- 

  • Hanging

Hanging is the method of execution in the civilian court system, according to the Indian Criminal Procedure Code.

  • Shooting

Under the 1950 Army Act, hanging as well as shooting are both listed as official methods of execution in the military court-martial system

The death penalty has been reserved for heinous crimes. According to Indian Penal Code,1860 the following offences are punishable with the death penalty-


Capital punishment has been substituted with life imprisonment and other punishment as prescribed in the penal laws and has been kept for the rarest of rarest cases as par the facts of the case. Whenever a court awards a capital punishment it has to verify it by giving special justification. It is the discretionary power of the court to award capital punishment wherever provided by statue.

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