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Judgments of Supreme Court of India and High Courts

Union Of India vs Dharam Pal on 24 April, 2019



Union of India and Ors. … Appellantss


Dharam Pal … Respondent


Leave granted.

2. The instant criminal appeal is directed by the State

against the decision of the High Court of Judicature of Punjab

and Haryana at Chandigarh in Civil Writ Petition No. 7436 of

2013 (OM) whereby the High Court allowed the Writ Petition

filed by the Respondent Dharam Pal, and commuted the death

sentence awarded to him to life imprisonment. The Respondent

was tried and convicted under Section 302/Section34 of the Indian

Penal Code (hereinafter, “SectionIPC”) for the commission of murder of

five persons belonging to the same family.

3. The brief facts leading to the impugned Writ Petition are

that, the Respondent Dharam Pal, in an earlier incident, was

convicted under Section 376/Section452 of the IPC vide judgment

dated 04.07.1992 passed by the Additional Sessions Judge,

Sonepat, in Sessions Case 11 of 1991 and sentenced to

undergo rigorous imprisonment for ten years. The Respondent

was released on bail by the High Court while admitting his

appeal, however on the intervening night of 09.06.1993 and

10.06.1993 at around 03:30 a.m., the Respondent accompanied

by his brother Nirmal Singh committed the murder of five

persons who were the family members of the prosecutrix for

whose rape the Respondent was convicted.

4. The Respondent and his brother were tried and convicted

under Section 302/Section34 of the IPC by the Sessions Court,

Sonepat in Sessions Case No. 65 of 1993. Vide its judgment

dated 05.05.1997, the said Court sentenced both the accused

to be hanged until death. Death Reference was heard and the

conviction and sentence was affirmed by the High Court by its

judgment dated 29.09.1998. The Respondent and his brother,

further filed an appeal before this Court, which came to be

partly allowed, commuting the death sentence of the

Respondent’s brother Nirmal Singh into life imprisonment, but

upheld the death sentence of the Respondent taking into

account his conviction in the rape case, and commission of

murder of five family members of the prosecutrix of that case

while on bail. Thus, this Court vide judgment and order dated

18.03.1999 confirmed his death sentence and directed that he

be hanged until death.

5. The Respondent filed a mercy petition before the Governor

of the State of Haryana under SectionArticle 161 of the Constitution of

India, which came to be rejected after which, on 02.11.1999,

the Respondent sought pardon from the President of India in

exercise of powers under SectionArticle 72 of the Constitution.

However, on 25.03.2013, the President rejected his application,

after an inordinate and unexplained delay of 13 years and 5

months, and a date was fixed for his execution. It is pertinent to

mention that in the meantime, the Respondent had filed an

appeal against his conviction in Sessions Case No. 11 of 1991

under Section 376/Section452 of the IPC before the High Court, which

came to be allowed acquitting him for the said offence vide

order dated 19.11.2003.

6. It is under these circumstances that the Respondent filed

the impugned Writ Petition before the High Court praying for

his death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment in light

of the change in circumstances viz. his acquittal in the rape

case, which was an important deciding factor by this Court in

negating his appeal. He also challenged it on grounds of delay

in deciding his mercy petition by the President, among other


7. The High Court while allowing his Writ Petition held that it

is a case of violation of the fundamental rights of the

Respondent, which makes him eligible for getting his death

sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and orders were

passed accordingly. The State has filed this appeal against the

decision of the High Court.

8. In the Statement of Objections filed by the State of

Haryana before the High Court, it is admitted that the

Respondent has remained in solitary confinement for a period

of 18 years, and has undergone imprisonment for a total period

of more than 25 years till date. It is also an admitted position

that the order of acquittal of the Respondent in the Sessions

Case No. 11 of 1991 was not put to the notice of the President

while deciding the mercy petition, the failure of which is argued

to be pivotal in deciding the mercy petition causing prejudice

against the Respondent.

9. The learned counsel for the appellant argued that the

impugned judgment is erroneous as the delay in disposing the

mercy petition pending before the President was justified. He

tried to explain the various stages and reasons for the delay in

deciding the petition. He further brought to our attention the

nature of the offence committed by the Respondent, i.e. the

gruesome cold­blooded murder of five persons. He finally

prayed the impugned judgment be set aside and orders for

executing the Respondent be passed.

Per contra, the counsel for the Respondent supported the

judgment of the High Court inasmuch as there is a real and

apparent violation of the Respondent’s fundamental rights due

to the inordinate delay in deciding the mercy petition, 18 years

of solitary confinement before the rejection of the mercy petition

and that the acquittal in the rape case was not put on record

before the President at the time of deciding the mercy petition

causing grave prejudice and injustice against the Respondent.

He prayed that the appeal may be dismissed, and the

Respondent be released from prison upon remission of sentence

as he has already spent over 25 years in prison.

10. We have heard the parties at length and have perused the

case records. It is our considered opinion that the High Court is

entirely justified in allowing the Writ Petition filed by the

Respondents. We find no error or illegalities with the order

passed, and concur with its findings.

11. As mentioned supra, it is admitted that the Respondent

has undergone incarceration for a total period of over 25 years,

out of which 18 years were in solitary confinement. Throughout

the period of deciding his mercy petition by the President, he

was kept in solitary confinement in various jails. Solitary

confinement prior to the disposal of the mercy petition is per se

illegal and amounts to separate and additional punishment not

authorized by law. It is pertinent to quote Section 30 of the

Prisoners Act, 1894 at this juncture.

“30. Prisoners under sentence of death­
(1) Every prisoner under sentence of death shall,
immediately on his arrival in the prison after
sentence, be searched by, or by order of, the Jailer
and all articles shall be taken from him which the
Jailer deems it dangerous or inexpedient to leave in
his possession.

(2) Every such prisoner shall be confined in a cell
apart from all other prisoners, and shall be placed
by day and by night under the charge of a guard.”

In the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Admn. [(1978) 4 SCC 494,

(Constitution Bench)], the interpretation of the words

“prisoners under sentence of death” fell for consideration

before this Court. Krishna Iyer, J. concurring with the

majority, in paragraphs 89 to 91 and 110 to113 of the said

judgment held thus:

“89. xxx… This [Section 30, SectionPrisoners Act] falls in
Chapter V relating to discipline of prisoners and
has to be read in that context. Any separate
confinement contemplated in Section 30 (2) has
this disciplinary limitation as we will presently see.
If we pull to pieces the whole provision it becomes
clear that Section 30 can be applied only to a
prisoner “under sentence of death”. Section 30(2)
which speaks of “such” prisoners necessarily
relates to prisoners under sentence of death. We
have to discover when we can designate a prisoner
as one under sentence of death.


90. The next attempt is to discern the meaning
of confinement “in a cell apart from all other
prisoners”. The purpose is to maintain discipline
and discipline is to avoid disorder, fight and other
untoward incidents, if apprehended.

91. Confinement inside a prison does not
necessarily import cellular isolation. Segregation of
one person all alone in a single cell is solitary
confinement. That is a separate punishment which
the Court alone can impose. It would be a
subversion of this statutory provision (Sections 73
and Section74 IPC) to impart a meaning to Section 30(2) of
the Prisons Act whereby a disciplinary variant of
solitary confinement can be clamped down on a
prisoner, although no court has awarded such a
punishment, by a mere construction, which clothes
an executive officer, who happens to be the
governor of the jail, with harsh judicial powers to
be exercised by punitive restrictions and
unaccountable to anyone, the power being
discretionary and disciplinary.

x x x x x

110. The ingenious arguments to keep Batra in
solitudinous cell must fail and he shall be given
facilities and amenities of common prisoners even
before he is ‘under sentence of death’.

111. Is he under sentence of death? Not yet.

112. Clearly, there is a sentence of death passed
against Batra by the Sessions Court but it is
provisional and the question is whether under
Section 30(2) the petitioner can be confined in a
cell all by himself under a 24­hour guard. The key
words which call for humanistic interpretation are
“under sentence of death” and “confined in a cell
apart from all other prisoners.”

113. A convict is ‘under sentence of death’ when,
and only when, the capital penalty inexorably
operates by the automatic process of the law

without any slip between the cup and the lip.

Rulings of this Court in Abdul
Azeez v. Karnataka [(1977) 2 SCC 485 : 1977 SCC
(Cri) 378 : (1977) 3 SCR 393] and D.K.

SectionSharma v. M.P. State [(1976) 1 SCC 560 : 1976 SCC
(Cri) 85 : (1976) 2 SCR 289] , though not directly
on this point strongly suggest this reasoning to be

It is worthwhile to cite the relevant portion of the majority

opinion through the words of Desai, J. in paragraphs 220 and

223 of the same judgment.

“220. xxx… Sub­section (2) of Section 30 merely
provides for confinement of a prisoner under
sentence of death in a cell apart from other
prisoners and he is to be placed by day and night
under the charge of a guard. Such confinement can
neither be cellular confinement nor separate
confinement and in any event it cannot be solitary
confinement. In our opinion, sub­section (2) of
Section 30 does not empower the jail authorities in
the garb of confining a prisoner under sentence of
death, in a cell apart from all other prisoners, to
impose solitary confinement on him. Even jail
discipline inhibits solitary confinement as a
measure of jail punishment. It completely negatives
any suggestion that because a prisoner is under
sentence of death therefore, and by reason of that
consideration alone, the jail authorities can impose
upon him additional and separate punishment of
solitary confinement. They have no power to add to
the punishment imposed by the Court which
additional punishment could have been imposed by
the Court itself but has in fact been not so
imposed. Upon a true construction, sub­section (2)
of Section 30 does not empower a prison authority

to impose solitary confinement upon a prisoner
under sentence of death.

x x x x x

223. The expression “prisoner under sentence of
death” in the context of sub­section (2) of Section
30 can only mean the prisoner whose sentence of
death has become final, conclusive and
indefeasible which cannot be annulled or voided by
any judicial or constitutional procedure. In other
words, it must be a sentence which the authority
charged with the duty to execute and carry out
must proceed to carry out without intervention
from any outside authority. …xxx… Therefore, the
prisoner can be said to be under the sentence of
death only when the death sentence is beyond
judicial scrutiny and would be operative without
any intervention from any other authority. Till then
the person who is awarded capital punishment
cannot be said to be a prisoner under sentence of
death in the context of Section 30, sub­section (2).
This interpretative process would, we hope, to a
great extent relieve the torment and torture implicit
in sub­section (2) of Section 30, reducing the
period of such confinement to a short duration.”

The sum and substance of the judgment in Sunil Batra

(supra), is that even if the Sessions Court has sentenced the

convict to death, subject to the confirmation of the High

Court, or even if the appeal is filed before the High Court and

the Supreme Court against the imposition of death

punishment and the same is pending, the convict cannot be

said to be “under sentence of death” till the mercy petition

filed before the Governor or the President is rejected. This

Court in SectionShatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India [(2014) 3 SCC

1, (3 Judge Bench)] with approval of Sunil Batra (supra) has

observed thus:

“90. It was, therefore, held in Sunil Batra
case [Sunil Batra v. Delhi Admn., (1978) 4 SCC
494 : 1979 SCC (Cri) 155] that the solitary
confinement, even if mollified and modified
marginally, is not sanctioned by Section 30 of the
Prisons Act for prisoners “under sentence of death”.
The crucial holding under Section 30(2) is that a
person is not “under sentence of death”, even if the
Sessions Court has sentenced him to death subject
to confirmation by the High Court. He is not “under
sentence of death” even if the High Court imposes,
by confirmation or fresh appellate infliction, death
penalty, so long as an appeal to the Supreme Court
is likely to be or has been moved or is pending.
Even if this Court has awarded capital sentence, it
was held that Section 30 does not cover him so
long as his petition for mercy to the Governor
and/or to the President permitted by the
Constitution, has not been disposed of. Of course,
once rejected by the Governor and the President,
and on further application, there is no stay of
execution by the authorities, the person is under
sentence of death. During that interregnum, he
attracts the custodial segregation specified in
Section 30(2), subject to the ameliorative meaning
assigned to the provision. To be “under sentence of
death” means “to be under a finally executable
death sentence”.

91. Even in SectionTriveniben [Triveniben v. State of
Gujarat, (1989) 1 SCC 678 : 1989 SCC (Cri) 248] ,
this Court observed that keeping a prisoner in

solitary confinement is contrary to the ruling
in Sunil Batra [Sunil Batra v. Delhi Admn., (1978) 4
SCC 494 : 1979 SCC (Cri) 155] and would amount
to inflicting “additional and separate” punishment
not authorised by law. It is completely unfortunate
that despite enduring pronouncement on judicial
side, the actual implementation of the provisions is
far from reality. We take this occasion to urge to
the Jail Authorities to comprehend and implement
the actual intent of the verdict in Sunil Batra [Sunil
Batra v. Delhi Admn., (1978) 4 SCC 494 : 1979 SCC
(Cri) 155].”

12. Thus, solitary confinement prior to the rejection of

mercy petition, which has taken place in spite of various

decisions of this Court to the contrary, is unfortunate and

palpably illegal. In the present case, the Respondent

underwent such a long period of solitary confinement that

too, prior to his mercy petition being rejected, thereby making

it a formidable case for commuting his death sentence into

life imprisonment, as rightly held by the High Court.

13. The next main ground of challenge is the

unexplained and inordinate delay in disposing the

Respondent’s mercy petition by the President. Although the

appellants tried to justify the delay citing various bona fide

reasons, the same cannot be accepted as the prolonged delay

in execution of a sentence of death has a dehumanizing effect

and this has the constitutional implication of depriving a

person of his life in an unjust, unfair and unreasonable way

so as to offend the fundamental right under SectionArticle 21 of the

Constitution. The High Court placed apt reliance on the

judgment of this Court in Shatrughan Chauhan (supra) for

condemning the inordinate delay and thereby commuting the

sentence of the Respondent.

Some important observations of Shatrughan Chauhan (supra)

are reiterated herewith:

“19. In concise, the power vested in the President
under SectionArticle 72 and the Governor under SectionArticle
161 of the Constitution is a constitutional duty. As
a result, it is neither a matter of grace nor a matter
of privilege but is an important constitutional
responsibility reposed by the People in the highest
authority. The power of pardon is essentially an
executive action, which needs to be exercised in the
aid of justice and not in defiance of it…xxx.

x x x x x

45. Keeping a convict in suspense while
consideration of his mercy petition by the President
for many years is certainly an agony for him/her. It
creates adverse physical conditions and
psychological stresses on the convict under
sentence of death…xxx.

x x x x x

47. It is clear that after the completion of the
judicial process, if the convict files a mercy petition
to the Governor/President, it is incumbent on the

authorities to dispose of the same expeditiously.

Though no time­limit can be fixed for the Governor
and the President, it is the duty of the executive to
expedite the matter at every stage viz. calling for
the records, orders and documents filed in the
court, preparation of the note for approval of the
Minister concerned, and the ultimate decision of
the constitutional authorities. This Court,
in SectionTriveniben [Triveniben v. State of Gujarat, (1989)
1 SCC 678], further held that in doing so, if it is
established that there was prolonged delay in the
execution of death sentence, it is an important and
relevant consideration for determining whether the
sentence should be allowed to be executed or not.

48. Accordingly, if there is undue, unexplained
and inordinate delay in execution due to pendency
of mercy petitions or the executive as well as the
constitutional authorities have failed to take note
of/consider the relevant aspects, this Court is well
within its powers under SectionArticle 32 to hear the
grievance of the convict and commute the death
sentence into life imprisonment on this ground
alone however, only after satisfying that the delay
was not caused at the instance of the accused
himself. To this extent, the jurisprudence has
developed in the light of the mandate given in our
Constitution as well as various Universal
Declarations and directions issued by the United

49. The procedure prescribed by law, which
deprives a person of his life and liberty must be
just, fair and reasonable and such procedure
mandates humane conditions of detention
preventive or punitive. In this line, although the
petitioners were sentenced to death based on the
procedure established by law, the inexplicable
delay on account of executive is inexcusable. Since
it is well established that SectionArticle 21 of the
Constitution does not end with the pronouncement

of sentence but extends to the stage of execution of
that sentence, as already asserted, prolonged delay
in execution of sentence of death has a
dehumanising effect on the accused. Delay caused
by circumstances beyond the prisoners’ control
mandates commutation of death sentence…xxx.

x x x x x

244. It is well established that exercising of power
under Articles 72/161 by the President or the
Governor is a constitutional obligation and not a
mere prerogative. Considering the high status of
office, the Constitution Framers did not stipulate
any outer time­limit for disposing of the mercy
petitions under the said Articles, which means it
should be decided within reasonable time.
However, when the delay caused in disposing of the
mercy petitions is seen to be unreasonable,
unexplained and exorbitant, it is the duty of this
Court to step in and consider this aspect. Right to
seek for mercy under Articles 72/161 of the
Constitution is a constitutional right and not at the
discretion or whims of the executive. Every
constitutional duty must be fulfilled with due care
and diligence, otherwise judicial interference is the
command of the Constitution for upholding its

245. Remember, retribution has no constitutional
value in our largest democratic country. In India,
even an accused has a de facto protection under
the Constitution and it is the Court’s duty to shield
and protect the same. Therefore, we make it clear
that when the judiciary interferes in such matters,
it does not really interfere with the power exercised
under Articles 72/161 but only to uphold the de
facto protection provided by the Constitution to
every convict including death convicts.”


14. In our considered opinion, the High Court examined

the inordinate delay in disposing the mercy petition in the

right perspective to hold it illegal, and thereafter commuted

the sentence to life imprisonment in light of the

aforementioned principles of law laid down in Shatrughan

Chauhan (supra). These aspects, coupled with the fact that

the authorities did not place the records regarding the

acquittal of the Respondent in the rape case before the

President for consideration of the mercy petition has caused

grave injustice and prejudice against the Respondent. On

receipt of a mercy petition, the Department concerned has to

call for all the records and materials connected with the

conviction. When the matter is placed before the President, it

is incumbent on the part of the concerned authority to place

all the materials such as judgments of the courts, as well as

any other relevant material connected with the conviction. In

the present case, this Court while upholding the death

sentence of the Respondent and commuting the sentence of

his brother to life imprisonment had placed reliance on the

fact that the Respondent was convicted in the rape case, and

the persons who he had killed were the family members of the

prosecutrix of the rape case. The fact that he was

subsequently acquitted for that case has great bearing on the

quantum on sentence that ought to be awarded to the

Respondent and the same should have been brought to the

notice of the President while deciding his mercy petition.

Failure to do so has caused irreparable prejudice against the


15. Therefore, considering the facts and circumstances of

this case, it is our considered opinion that the High Court has

not erred in setting aside the sentence of death of the

Respondent and commuting the same into life imprisonment.

Considering the aforementioned reasons discussed by us

such as the unconscionable delay of more than 13 years in

deciding the mercy petition, the failure to produce the

relevant documents regarding the Respondent before the

President for deciding the mercy petition, and that the

Respondent has undergone 18 years of illegal solitary

confinement, we find no reason to interfere with the decision

of the High Court. However, considering the fact that the

Respondent had violated the conditions of bail imposed on

him by the High Court in criminal appeal, inasmuch as he

had committed the murder of five persons while on bail,

cannot be overlooked while quantifying the actual sentence.

In our considered opinion, having regard to the totality of

facts and circumstances, and for the reasons mentioned

supra, it would be appropriate to direct the release of the

Respondent after the completion of 35 years of actual

imprisonment including the period already undergone by


16. Ordered accordingly. The appeal is disposed of in the

aforementioned terms.


(N.V. Ramana)

(Mohan M. Shantanagoudar)


(S. Abdul Nazeer)

New Delhi;

April 24, 2019.


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