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Evolution Of Punishments In India

The correlation between crime and punishment has been a subject of matter of never- ending interest and discussion for criminologists and social scientists. The escalating bewilderment which surrounds the arena of crime and punishment bespeaks a compromise between distinct and partly conflicting principles.

The etymology of the word Punishment has its derivation from the Old French word "puniss" or "punir" which means to punish. The same has been has been recorded in English since 1340. Punishment may be defined as "an authorized imposition of deprivations of freedom or privacy or other goods to which the person otherwise has a right, or the imposition of special burdens because the person has been found guilty of some criminal violation, typically, though not invariably involving harm to the innocent."

Historical Aspect
Hindu Criminal Law
During the ancient times, dominance of the Hindu law dates back to the Rig Vedic times. In the Rig-Veda the King, also known as the Gopa janasya was vested with the powers of protecting his people. The laws during that era were categorically arranged which could easily be reflected through the criminal legal system laws as well. Arthashastra, Yajnavalkya Smriti, Manu Smriti, etc. are notable pieces of legal literature regarding criminal jurisprudence.

Manusmriti mentioned assault, battery, gambling, defamation, theft, robbery, cheating, trespass, transgression and fornication as crimes. The various types of punishments which were prevalent under the Hindu system of criminal law comprised of censures, rebukes, fines, forfeiture of property, corporal punishment, imprisonments, banishment, mutilation and death penalty.

Islamic Criminal Law
The Koran and the other scriptures of Islamic Law such as the Hadith or Sunnat, Ijma and Qiyas have bestowed a lot for the advancement of the criminal law. Under the Mohammedan Law, the Sultan himself as a ruler exercised criminal jurisdiction over his subjects and accordingly sentenced the offenders to temporal punishments. The office of Qazi, also known as the judge inherited their positions to award punishments. The Islamic system of criminal law followed a different structure of punishment which composed of retaliation, deterrence, personal retaliation, mutilation, death penalty and fines.

Development of Criminal Law in British India
The enactment of the Indian Penal Code was mandatory to regulate the criminal laws in Empirical India. The Hindus and the muslims had their own codes and practices to punish individuals for particular offences. Hence with the IPC, a general penal code for India for formulated by Lord Macaulay in 1860 which enlisted various types of offences and their punishments.

Types Of Punishments Under The IPC

Chapter III, of the Indian Penal Code titled as 'OF PUNISHMENTS', which ranges from Section 53 to 75 deals with the different types of punishments including Solitary Confinement. Section 53 enlists five types of punishments which may be imposed in case of the commission of an offence.
  • Death Penalty
    Death Sentence is also known as Capital Punishment because it is the highest form of punishment which is provided under criminal law.
    Some of the offences which are punishable with death penalty are:
    • Waging war against the Government of India
    • Abetting mutiny actually committed
    • Giving or fabricating false evidence upon which an innocent person suffers death
    • Threatening or inducing any person to give false evidence - if an innocent person convicted and threatened and sentenced in consequence of such false evidence, with death
    • Murder
    • Abetment of suicide of a minor or an insane or an intoxicated person
    • Attempt to murder by life convicts
    • Kidnapping for ransom, etc
    • Causing death or resulting in persistent vegetative state of rape victim
    • Repeat offenders of an offense punishable for rape or gangrape
    • Dacoity accompanied with murder
    • Attempt to murder by a person under sentence of imprisonment for life, if hurt is caused.
Sub- section 5 of Section 354 of the Code of Criminal Procedure states that the death sentence shall be executed by hanging the person by neck till he is dead.

The Supreme Court in Deena V. Union Of India (1983) held that the mode of execution of death sentence by hanging a convict by a rope shall be by the least painful method and it involves no barbarity, torture or degradation. Therefore, this process is constitutionally valid.

The constitutionality of death penalty was challenged in the case of Jagmohan Singh V. The State Of U.P.(1973). The apex court while upholding the constitutionality held that discretion in the matter of the sentence has to be exercised by the judge judicially, after balancing all the aggravating and mitigating factors of the crime.

The Supreme Court in the landmark judgement of Bachan Singh V. Satate Of Punjab  (1980) laid down the doctrine of "rarest of the rare case". It observed that for persons convicted of murder, life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception.
  • Imprisonment For Life:

    The imprisonment for life means the imprisonment for the remainder of a person's life till his death. This type of punishment is a rigorous sentence which comprises of hard labour. As per Section 57 of the IPC, for the purpose of calculating the fraction of term for administrative purposes shall be deemed to be equivalent to be twenty years.Before 1955, the imprisonment for life was termed as transportation for life. Vide the amendment act of 1955, it was changed to imprisonment for life.
  • Sentence:

    According to Section 53 of the IPC, there are two types of sentences, one, simple imprisonment and second, rigorous imprisonment. Rigorous imprisonment means the punishment which involves hard labour. However, what constitutes hard labour is decided by the jail authorities in accordance to their jail manual.If an offence is punishable with simple imprisonment only, then only such kind of imprisonment can be imposed. If an offence is punishable with rigorous imprisonment only, then only such kind of imprisonment can be imposed. If the offence is punishable with simple as well as rigorous imprisonment, that is, it is punishable with either description, then it is the discretion of the court either to award simple or rigorous punishment.
  • Forfeiture Of Property:

    Forfeiture of specific Property is retained as a punishment in some cases which include:
    • Committing depredation on territories of Power at peace with the Government of India
    • Receiving property taken by war on depredation as mentioned above or in waging war against any Asiatic power at peace with the Government of India
    • Public servant unlawfully buying or bidding for property.
    Absolute forfeiture of property was a punishment inflicted on persons guilty of high political offences or on persons guilty of offences punishable with death. However, it has been now been abolished by the Act of 1921.
  • Fine:

    The Code sanctions either a term of imprisonment or a fine or both and it is the discretion of the court whether to inflict a sentence of imprisonment or a fine or both. If the law permits a sentence of fine as an alternative there is no need of sentence of imprisonment unless the gravity of the offence or the antecedents of the offender demand it.

Fine is the only punishment in the following cases:
  • Liability of person for whose benefit riot is committed
  • Liability of agent of owner or occupier for whose benefit riot is committed
  • False statement in connection with an election
Section 63, 65 and 67 deal with the amount of the fine which can be levied when an offence is committed. In case, no amount of fine is mentioned for the commission of an offence, the fine which can be imposed will be unlimited but it cannot be excessive.

In case of default of payment of fine, the court can also imprison such person till the fine has been paid. Where the offence is punishable with fine only, the amount of imprisonment which can be awarded will not exceed 6 months if fine levied is more than Rs. 100. A default of payment of fine when any offence is punishable with imprisonment and fine or imprisonment or fine, the imprisonment may extend to 1/4th of the maximum punishment which is provided for such offence.

The aim of criminal law is not only to denounce certain types of conduct as something not to be practiced but it has other aims as well- of deterrence, retribution and substantial reformation. However, crime is now considered to be a problem of social hygiene and punishment is the most effective approach to undergo that change.

The principal object of punishment is the prevention of offences. The types of punishments have varied from time to time according to a particular form of crime. Punishment is compelled to justify itself by its actual effect on society, in maintaining order without legalizing brutality on the criminal, in deterring him or in aiding his reform.


  1. Bare Act: The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Edition 2018)
  2. Commentary: Law of Crimes by Ratanlal and Dhirajlal (23rd Edition), 1993 Published by Bharat Law House Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi.
  3. The Indian Penal Code by Ratanlal and Dhirajlal (35th Edition), 2017 Published by Lexis Nexis
  4. Shubham Banerjee, History Of Punishments In India
  6. Evolution of criminal justice system in ancient India Dr. Rahul Tripathi Associate Professor, Amity University Rajasthan, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
  7. Introduction to Criminal Law: Origin and Development Prof. (Dr.) G.S. Bajpai Registrar, National Law University Delhi
  8. Origins and Forms of Punishment in Ancient Hindu and Mohammedan Law

Written By: Aanandita Tandon, Advocate practising in Chandigarh

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