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Life Imprisonment: Barbarism Or Mercy?

Life Imprisonment refers to the punishment of being put in jail for a very long time or in some cases until death. It is a form of punishment widely being followed by most of the countries around the world. In India, the punishment of Life imprisonment is recognized as a crucial form of punishment, and is considered as a good alternative for Death Penalty. It has been a common belief that Life Imprisonment is less severe and more humanitarian as compared to death penalty.

But the reality is very different. Life Imprisonment is inherently torturous and gives considerable pain to the offender's loved ones as well as to the offenders. This blog discusses the punishment of Life imprisonment in Indian context and legal provisions related to it. The blog also draws a comparison between life imprisonment and death penalty.

What is Life Imprisonment?

It is a legal penalty authorized and recognized by countries across the globe as a way to punish the offenders. In countries like the UK life imprisonment is a punishment for the remainder of one's life. In the United States of Americait is classified as "determinate life sentences" and "indeterminate life sentences" based on the duration of the punishment imposed or on the basis of possibility of a parole or an early release.

Determinate life sentences are ones without any possibility of an early release or a parole, whereas indeterminate life sentences are for a specific time period or a tenure to be served in prison with a possibility of an early parole or mercy. In Indian context, Indian Penal Code (1860) mentions two types of punishments i.e. imprisonment and Life imprisonment. The offender can be punished for the maximum of 25 years for an offence (Section 157, IPC). However, it is the state jurisdiction to decide whether the duration for life imprisonment is 14years, 25 years or until convict's death.

Generally, the responsibility to determine one's tenure under life imprisonment is vested upon the state government. The usual factors which determine the tenure of a person's tenure under life imprisonment consist of the prisoner's state of health, circumstances of his/her family, and circumstances leading up to their actions. All of it is considered duly before imposing the punishment.

According to the supreme court of India if a person is punished with life imprisonment then he/she must serve a minimum of 14 years tenure in prison with a maximum being till the remainder of one's life. This was defined in the case of Bhagirath and Ors. V Delhi Administration. Often life imprisonment is misunderstood in the Indian context. According to the Indian Penal Code, 1860 "imprisonment for life" is different from what is meant with mere "imprisonment", which is further classified a:
  1. Rigorous or Harsh
  2. Simple
It is debated whether or not a life imprisonment be coupled with that of rigorous or harsh imprisonment requiring the prisoner to do hard labour work while he is serving his sentence or should it be a simple sentence which does not require any additional work to be carried out.Considering the issue a notice was filed in the supreme court of India in the case of Ram Kumar Sivare V state of Chattisgarh which was later denied making it somewhat evident that the apex court was in agreement with it being a rigorous imprisonment under the punishment of "life imprisonment".

It is observed by the United Nations under an assessment made per sustainable development goals that life imprisonment is the most common type of punishment given across the world. It is so because it is considered to be more humane punishment than death penalties or other barbaric cruel sentences and these can be reversed or reduced by the courts based on prisoner's behaviour, or new findings of the caseof punishment around the world.

Evolution of life imprisonment in India:

Prior to the advent of British rule in India, during the Mughal rule forms of strict punishment included either death sentence or mutilation which was then reformed by the British who introduced life imprisonment or transportation as form of strict punishment to the convicts. The prisoners were then shifted to the prison on the island territory of Andaman for serving their tenure of imprisonment. After the independence from British rule, the Government of India amended the Indian Penal Code, 1860 replacing life imprisonment in place of transportation.

In 2015, the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India in Union of India V V. Sriharan ruled that the High Court or the Supreme Court could extend the sentence of life imprisonment even if the convict has been granted remission for a set amount of time. It means that even if the convicts have been granted remission by the state or the central government, the Supreme Court or the High Court of the state has the authority to extend one's term of life imprisonment. Recently, independent petitioners have filed a PIL against the remission order favoring the convicts of BilkisBano.

Laws Governing life imprisonment in India

  1. Section 55 of IPC:
    As per section 55 of the Indian Penal Code,1860 an appropriate government may order life imprisonment without prisoner's consent the term of which may not exceed a duration of 14 years. For this every state government has its own set of drafted rules. The convict is automatically freed at the end of 14 years as per this section.
  2. Section 57 of IPC:
    Section 57 of Indian Penal Code 1860, is only restricted for computing the term of one's Life Sentence. It simply breaks down a life term into fractions of a minimum of 20 years. It does not guarantee convict's freedom at the end of 20 years. According to this section, life sentence must be lasting for the entirety of the convict's life. However, remissions could be granted as per the prison act 1894 or thr Jail Manual which are considered to be administrative orders under Section 432 of CrPC.

Life Imprisonment v/s Death Penalty

The death penalty also known as capital punishment is a punishment in which the offender's life is terminated by hanging him or by other alternate prescribed methods. In the recent era, many countries across the globe has a belief that punishing the offender with death penalty is clear violation of human rights and does not send a good message amongst humans.

As even the offender falls under the ambit of Human Rights Law, several courts of justice grant the punishment of Life Imprisonment instead of Death Penalty to the offenders in response to the commission of heinous crimes, which protects the offender's right to life. Capital Punishment may be awarded in the "rarest of the rarest cases."

An ordinary man might feel disappointment as it has the response of emotions emerged after the commission of crime, but the court of Law in majority of cases prefers and prioritizes Life Imprisonment against Capital Punishment. In the recent case of Pappu v/s the State of Uttar Pradesh , the Apex Court commuted the order awarding the convict Capital Punishment to Life Imprisonment who was accused for the rape and murder of seven year old girl. This verdict strengthened the argument of favoring Life Imprisonment to Death Penalty.

The Apex Court had also put a condition of restriction of remission before suffering actual incarceration for the period of 30 years. The Apex Court also instructed the subordinate court of not awarding capital punishment in response to the grievous nature.

It is needless to say that Life Imprisonment in itself a very cruel and torturous form of punishment. The punishment of moving captives was introduced by the British in India. Later, after independence Indian Government replaced it with Life imprisonment. In our observation, doctrines which legalizes life imprisonment are anomalous and unjustified.

It is very clear from our observation that Judiciary and the Executive lack confidence working with one another while establishing the Legal Framework of these sensitive issues. India is a long way behind when being compared to the understanding of several liberal and democratic countries like US. To make a constructive change, Judiciary and Executive should work in coordination to clear their stance on Life Imprisonment. Any ambiguity and contradiction in this regard needs to be clarified and resolved at the earliest.


  1. Life Imprisonment Without Prospect of Release: Comparative Remarks from a Human-Rights Perspective. Mauri, Diego. (2020)
  2. Life Imprisonment In India: A Short History Of A Long Sentence, Nishant Gokhale, 11 NUJS L. Rev. 3 (2018)
  3. Life Imprisonment in India from a Human Rights Perspective: Issues and Challenges, Himangshu Kalita & Ananya Pathak
  4. Life imprisonment in India (Sneha Mahavar) September 13, 2022

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