Meaning of Life Imprisonment In India, as per SC

Life imprisonment in India means jail term for entire life, clears Supreme Court or India’s Apex Court. That said, is Life Sentence too lenient for rarest of the rare cases?


Meaning of Life Imprisonment In India, as per SCYesterday, the Minister of Home Affairs India, sushil Kumar Shinde made a controversial statement to the media. A day prior to the Apex Court verdict, the minister told media that those convicted in Delhi sexual assault case will get Capital Punishment (Death Penalty). The statement seemed as one putting an indirect pressure on the Judiciary. Whether the convicted get capital punishment or not will only be known today, when the Court awards the punishment; but irrespective of the punishment meted out by the convicts, the Minister’s statement is surely problematic.

The statement has started a debate on Capital Punishment in India. Those in support of Death Penalty, find Life Sentence too lenient in the rarest of the rare cases, such as the December 16 Delhi Sexual Assault.

Is the Life term imprisonment too lenient a punishment?

Clearing a major misconception (in Hindi ‘Bhram’) regarding Life Sentence, the Honorable Supreme Court bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Madan B. Lokur says,

“Life imprisonment implies a jail term for the convict’s entire life. It appears to us there is a misconception that a prisoner serving a life sentence has an indefeasible right to be released on completion of either fourteen years or twenty years imprisonment. The prisoner has no such right. A convict undergoing life imprisonment is expected to remain in custody till the end of his life, subject to any remission granted by the appropriate government,”

The apex court also said that its Constitution bench’s landmark judgement of 1980 on criteria for imposing death penalty needs a “fresh look” as there has been “no uniformity” in following its principles on what constitutes “the rarest of rare” cases.

The bench however clarified that under remission the appropriate government cannot reduce the period of sentence less than 14 years for a life convict.

Clarifying on the minimum 14 year period, the Apex Court says,

“In the case of a convict undergoing life imprisonment, he will be in custody for an indeterminate period. Therefore, remissions earned by or awarded to such a life convict are only notional. In his case, to reduce the period of incarceration, a specific order under Section 432 of the CrPC will have to be passed by the appropriate government. However, the reduced period cannot be less than 14 years as per Section 433-A of the CrPC,”

The apex court order also seeks to put an end to the practice of en-masse release of the convicts by various governments on “festive” occasions and said each release requires a case-by-case basis scrutiny.

Is Life Sentence Too lenient for rarest of the rare cases?


The December 16 brutal sexual assault of a paramedic in Delhi, by all estimates can be placated as the rarest of the rare. The girl was not only sexually assaulted but she was disemboweled (the removal of some or all of the organs). A month later the young girl died. That’s why a section of Indians are demanding a death penalty for the culprits. Since Life is the most prized entity to most humans, the demand for a capital punishment is understandable. If culprits had no regard for human life, then why not they be deprived of the same? , is the question.

On the contrary, those who are opposed to Death penalty, say that Life Sentence in no way less punishing than the Capital punishment. According to these people, spending a single day in a prison cell is difficult, imagine the ordeal one has to go through by spending years in a jail.

Life term imprisonment in India Vs Death Penalty

To understand Death penalty better, one has to understand why it’s going out of favor in most countries of the world.

With each passing year, the list of countries abolishing death penalty is increasing. Even in those countries where it’s legally alright to award a death penalty, the governments are choosing to put it on a moratorium (to delay the execution of Death penalty). India is one such country.

Reasons for Capital Punishment going out of favor


The common place logic in support of  the abolition of death penalty is: If humans can’t give Life to someone, then they have no right to take it from someone.

Another logic says: In a civilized world of 21st century, where increasing number of humans are becoming neural, death penalty looks savage.

There’s still another logic says: When Compared with Life Sentence, a Death Sentence is a less suffering for the Culprit. You tighten the noose around the neck, or strap one on to an Electric chair or make one stand in front of a death squad… and within seconds all the suffering is over.

That apart, a Death Penalty;s reformative value for the society is debatable. But it may surely be said that its reformative value for the wrongdoer is zero. For the culprit it has no reformative value.

Life Sentence or Life term imprisonment in India means years in jail … and jail is not a Happy Place to be in


You may be on any side of the Death Penalty debate. You may be in support of it or in opposition to it. That’s not the point of debate here. The point of debate is: Are we understanding Life Sentence, the way we understand the Death Penalty?

For instance, one of the myths regarding the Life Sentence is the duration of the Sentence. The Supreme Court says it’s imprisonment for at least 14 years. That’s life term imprisonment in India can’t be reduced below 14 years, whatever the circumstances or the conduct of the person may be.

When questioned a noted lawyer, he informed that in India, people usually spend 30-35 years in jail under a life sentence. Spending 14 years or more in a jail… which is not a happy place to be in, is a big punishment. It’s an ordeal the person has to go through every single day. There are severe restrictions on food, comfort, movement and above all aspirations. A jail term is a difficult punishment for a person irrespective of his/her status.

Another thing which is often overlooked in a Death Penalty vs Life Sentence debate is that Life Sentence not only punishes the person years on end, it gives him ample time or hollow time to reflect back on his misdeeds.

It robs him of his human identity as well. For instance, a person in jail is cut off from his family, friends and society. He/she is cut off from the people in a way, that will make most people shudder in fear. For instance, he doesn’t see his children grow, study, marry. He doesn’t have the opportunity to be by the bedside of dying parents, spouse or siblings. The friends, family and neighbors shrug off the person from their lives. They treat such a person no more than a stone lying by a road side. For such a person, time stands still and; when he finally comes out, he/she is forgotten by everyone. Being forgotten is much bigger a punishment than getting hanged.

There are reasons why countries are disfavoring Death penalty.

One of the reasons I think of is, Death Penalty increases lawlessness and violence in the society. For instance, in countries (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan) where Taliban publicly executes the wrongdoers, the society itself starts awarding instant justice. The people appropriate the role of the Courts and start killing people (lynch is the right word here). In such a state of affairs, punishment becomes the goal which and many a times engulfs innocent as well. Thus when people start demanding death sentence, they easily extend that Brick for a brick OR Eye for an Eye logic to need for punishing young lovers on Valentine’s day, or a crowd mercilessly beating  a woman or man for consensual and legally approved relations.

To conclude, the debate into life imprisonment and capital punishment opens up the debate into the necessity to relook into definition of “the rarest of the rare” cases. The emphasis of Honorable SC on the need to relook on the criteria for defining “the rarest of the rare” cases thus becomes important here. As the criteria for “the rarest of rare” cases is not that clear in most cases, the courts are finding it difficult to award quantum of punishment. For instance, in in the Delhi Sexual Assault Case a capital punishment may look apt, but that cannot be said for some other crimes. For instance, if the culpability of Asaram in the sexual assault of the 16 year old girl is established, will that case be treated as “the rarest of rare” cases. Take for instance the Asaram sexual assault case. Some will reason that since Asaram was a guardian and teacher figure for the Girl he assaulted, hence Asaram’s case can be tagged as “the rarest of the rare” case. But unless the Court has clear criteria on how to tag a case as rarest of the rare, the haziness will remain.