This Case Summary is written by Nandini Arya, a student at National Law University, Jodhpur
The Shatrughan Chauhan case is indeed a landmark judgement delivered by the honourable Supreme Court of India. It upheld death-row convicts’ rights irrespective of the nature of the crime committed. The court held that capital punishment of death-row convicts could be commuted if there is an inordinate and unreasonable delay by the executive or if the convict suffers from insanity. The court also held that the death-row convicts could not be kept in solitary confinement. Despite its merits, the judgement has raised certain apprehensions among various legal scholars and jurists. It is also pertinent to note that human-rights activists demand the abolition of capital punishment altogether. Thus, there’s a long way to go in the field of human rights.
In Devender Pal Singh Bhullar vs. State (NCT) of Delhi, the court held that mere delay cannot be the sole basis for clemency. The case also distinguished between the death-row convicts booked under TADA and other death-row convicts.
The petitioners in the present case represent death-row convicts. These death-row convicts have been waiting for years for their mercy petition to be decided. The death-row convicts are booked under various sections. Some of them are booked under TADA.
A three-judge bench was formed by the Supreme Court to deliver the judgement. The bench being larger, overruled the ratio laid in Devender Pal Singh Bhullar vs. State (NCT) of Delhi. Mr T.R. Andhyarujina was appointed as the amicus-curiae of the case.
FACTS OF THE CASE
Several writ petitions were filed under article 32 of the Indian Constitution in the Supreme Court of India either by the death-row convicts or by their relatives or by People’s Union for Democratic Rights and other like-minded public-spirited bodies. After the death-row convicts were awarded capital punishment by the Supreme Court of India, a mercy petition was filed before the Governor or the President.
The petitioners have alleged unreasonable delay in rejecting the mercy petitions. Some of the petitioners have further stated that the death-row convicts were suffering from mental illness. Solitary confinement, judgments declared per incuriam and procedural lapses were other grounds for filing the writ petition.
Thus, the petitioners have prayed that the death sentence rendered to the convicts be commuted to life imprisonment after the mercy petition has been rejected by the President and the Governor. The petitioners prayed that the rejection of mercy petitions by the President and the Governor in the present case be declared as ultra vires.
It was further prayed that a set of guidelines be formed by the Supreme Court of India when a mercy petition is to be considered and the rights of death row convicts are duly protected by the Supreme Court.
- Whether unreasonable delay in rejecting a mercy petition can be a valid ground for commuting the death sentence into life imprisonment?
- Whether the mental illness of a death-row convict be regarded as a valid ground for commuting the death sentence into life imprisonment?
- Whether solitary confinement of a death-row convict be regarded as a valid ground for commuting the death sentence into life imprisonment?
- Whether procedural lapses in rejecting a mercy petition be regarded as a valid ground for commuting the death sentence into life imprisonment?
- Whether the judgements declared per incuriam later by the Supreme Court be regarded as a valid ground for commuting the death sentence into life imprisonment?
The petitioners have argued the following –
- The decision of the death penalty is not being challenged rather the supervening events that occurred after the confirmation of the death penalty are the basis for filing the petition.
- The mercy petitions of the death-row convicts were rejected without taking into account the supervening circumstances such as delay, solitary confinement, insanity, procedural lapses and judgements declared per incuriam.
- Executing a death penalty after an inordinate and unreasonable delay would infringe the death-row convicts’ fundamental right under article 21. Hence, the convict can approach the court by filing a writ petition.
- Human life is sacred and inviolable. Therefore, every effort shall be made to protect it.
- The death-row convicts are protected under article 21 till their last breath. It includes the death-row convicts which were booked under TADA.
- The procedure for rejecting a mercy petition was not duly followed and hence, it led to serious injustice to both the death-row convicts and their families.
The respondents have argued the following –
- For examining a mercy petition, many documents have to be procured from various authorities. Thus, it takes a lot of time.
- There cannot a specific time limit to decide a mercy petition. It varies on the number of mercy petitions filed, the nature of the case and the scope of inquiry to be made.
- The courts cannot fix any time limit on their own since no time limit is fixed for the president under article 72 for the same.
- The power of the president under article 72 is discretionary and it overrides all laws, rules and regulations in force.
- Delay by itself does not entail the person under sentence of death to request for commutation of a sentence into life imprisonment. It is against the victim’s interest.
- Delay in the execution of a death sentence must not be a ground for commutation because the crime committed by the accused is heinous.
- The judiciary should not decide if an unreasonable delay is apparent. The matter should be referred back to the executive.
- The death-row convicts were not kept under solitary confinement. They were statutorily segregated for safety purposes.
- The cases, on which various courts have prescribed the death penalty to the death-row convicts at present, were not held to be per incuriam by any court.
- There were no procedural lapses involved.
On the basis of the facts and the arguments advanced from both the parties, the court held the following –
- The power of the President and the Governor to grant pardon is distinct, absolute and unfettered in nature. This power to grant pardon is not limited to death sentence cases.
- The executive orders regarding the grant of pardon are under limited judicial review with only the manner of exercise of executive power being under judicial review.
- Long undue delay in the execution of a death sentence entitles the death-row convict to approach the court under article 32. Long undue delay causes adverse physical conditions and psychological stresses on the death-row convict.
- Article 21 of the Constitution extends to the stage of execution of the sentence and undue, inordinate and unreasonable delay in execution of death sentence attribute to torture which violates Article 21.
- Insanity is a relevant supervening factor for consideration and the person declared insane cannot be executed under article 21.
- Solitary confinement is not sanctioned by Section 30 of the Prisons Act for death-row convicts. It would amount to infliction of “additional and separate” punishment not authorized by law.
- The contention by the petitioners that the judgements on which the court relied have been held per incuriam does not hold any ground. These judgements were clarified and they were not applied in some special cases.
The court gave the following reasons for its decision –
- The power of the President and the governor under article 72 and article 161 respectively is a constitutional duty. It is neither a matter of grace nor a matter of privilege.
- The court has limited judicial review powers because there’s a presumption that the executive works with an application of mind and it is irrelevant to lay down specific guidelines.
- The manner of exercise of executive orders is subject to judicial review to ensure that the constitutional authorities consider all the relevant materials before concluding.
- The right of the convicts under article 21 should be considered along with the right of the victims.
- The procedure prescribed by law, which deprives a person of his life and liberty must be just, fair and reasonable.
- The death-row convicts in the present case have approached the court as a victim of the violation of guaranteed fundamental rights under the Constitution seeking commutation of sentence.
- All the cases of capital punishment fall under the rarest of rare case. Thus, there cannot be a further distinction between the convicts.
- No decision was held per-incuriam. Rather they were clarified and distinguished from that case.
This landmark case attempted to ‘humanise’ capital punishment. Before this judgement, the process related to infliction of capital punishment after it has been announced by the Supreme Court was entirely under the executive domain. This judgment held that there can be judicial intervention if the executive function is discharged arbitrarily.
This judgement was important since there was no check on the process of mercy petition before. It gives a ray of hope to human rights activist. Even though capital punishment is in itself against humanity, this judgement is a step towards recognizing convicts’ rights. This judgement refused to distinguish between death-row convicts based on the nature of the crime. Thus, it overruled Devender Pal Singh Bhullar’s case.
The executive can no longer delay the mercy petition by giving unreasonable excuses. The honourable court has struck a perfect balance between the victim’s rights and the convict’s rights. The court also did commendable work in maintaining the doctrine of “separation of powers”.
However, despite various positive effects of the judgement, the following are the apprehensions raised by various scholars, legal jurists and lawyers –
- There’s an apprehension that the victim’s right might be curtailed by commuting the convict’s punishment. Also, the convict may exploit the procedural lapses and lead to a delay in his mercy petition. Thus, apprehension was on the rise during the Nirbhaya case.
- Nick Robinson has rightly said that there are many supreme courts of India. The supreme court has not shown a consistent approach in its judgement. While it upheld the convict’s rights, it has failed to properly recognise the LGBTQ+ community’s rights as a natural human right.
- There are only a few countries left where capital punishment is present. India is one of them. It is high time that capital punishment is absolved altogether.
- The honourable court, in this case, relied on certain foreign cases as well. However, in various instances, the court has reprimanded the counsels for relying on foreign cases.
- We must respect the established constitutional mechanism and delay should not be the sole basis for clemency. Other supervening circumstances should also be taken into account.
This landmark judgement has assured the death-row convicts of some rights. The Supreme Court has also framed various guidelines in this judgement. It was just short of providing a time frame within which the executive should dispose of the mercy petition. The court held that insanity and inordinate delay alone can be a ground for clemency.
However, there has been a huge cry for the abolition of capital punishment altogether. But the Supreme Court, in this case, justified death by hanging as the most humane way of killing someone. Given the circumstances, the Supreme Court and the legislature should contemplate abolishing capital punishment altogether. There is also a need to expand the horizon of human rights in the country. This judgement is the first step towards this. However, there’s a need for more steps to be taken by the court.