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Decoding Capital Punishment in India: Analyzing State of Punjab v/s Dalbir Singh

Case Name

State of Punjab v. Dalbir Singh


(2012) 3 Supreme Court Cases 346

Date of Judgement

1st February 2012


Supreme Court

Case No

Criminal Appeal No 117 of 2006

Nature of Case



State of Punjab


Dalbir Singh


Ganguly. AK (J), Khehar. JS (J)


Facts of the Case

In this case, respondent/accused Dalbir Singh was a constable in 36th Battalion, Central Reserve Police Force in Amritsar. The Battalion Havaldar Major (BHM) reported to the Deputy Commandant Hari Singh that the accused had refused to perform the fatigue duty assigned to him. The Commandant ordered the BHM and Sub Inspector to produce the accused before him. The accused was produced before the Commandant and was given a verbal warning for non-compliance with orders of fatigue duty. The accused asked for the warning to be given to him in writing. On such response, he was to be produced again before the commandant.

However, as soon as this order was made, there was open firing carried out at Commandant’s office through a rifle which the Commandant observed to be carried out by accused. Both the Commandant and Havaldar major sustained multiple injuries. The Sub Inspector was a witness to this open firing and while the accused was trying to reload the gun, he was caught and produced before the police. The investigation took place in the presence of the Sub Inspector and Constable. Around 20 empty bullet Cartridges were then found at the Battalion Headquarters which were sent to the forensic lab.

The report after being processed was sent to the Magistrate who held that the case was to be triable in the Sessions Court. The Sessions Court booked the accused under Sections 302 and 307 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Section 27 of the Arms Act, sentencing him to three years imprisonment and Rs 1000 fine. The High Court reversed this decision owing to certain discrepancies in the investigation, evidence and thereby the prosecution’s case. An appeal was then made by the State against the order of High Court leading to present case before the Supreme Court.



·     Whether the acquittal of the accused by High Court was justified on the grounds of discrepancies in the report?

Whether Section 27(3) of the Arms Act, 1959[1] is constitutionally valid to confer mandatory death penalty to accused?

Judgement and Ratio

The Supreme Court didn’t interfere with the order of acquittal by the High Court in present case since it was not perverse and based on a proper examination of facts. However, primarily the vires of Section 27(3) of the Arms Act was questioned and the Court aimed to examine this issue in detail.

As per Section 27(3) of the Arms Act, ‘whoever uses any prohibited arms or prohibited ammunition or does any act in contravention of section 7 and such use or act results in the death of any other person, shall be punishable with death.’ Section 27(3) was challenged before the Court because it imposed a mandatory death penalty and was also very drastic provision, because apart from imposing mandatory death penalty it was widely worded and operated without any guidelines leading to mandatory punishment of death penalty.  

A comparison was made by Court in present case between Section 302[2] of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Section 27(3). While Section 302 in laying down punishment has made death penalty only optional and not mandatory with certain exceptions carved out under Section 300[3] of the IPC, Section 27(3) imposed mandatory death penalty and that too without any guidelines thereby making it arbitrary.

The Court further stated that under Article 13(2)[4], the State can’t enact any law which takes away or abridges the rights of any person. In the present case, Section 27(3) of the Arms Act was in clear contravention of the basic right to life and other rights guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution. As a result of this, it is in contravention of Article 13[5].

Further, it was also unconstitutional as it deprived the Judiciary from exersizing its power of Judicial Review i.e., the discretion of determining the sentencing procedure in accordance with Sections 235(2)[6] and 354(3)[7] of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. Hence, mandatory death penalty restricting the powers of Judiciary ran contrary to the statutory safeguards.

The Court further pointed out the unreasonableness of this provision as it provides that whoever ‘uses’ any prohibited arms or ammunitions in contravention of Section 7 which results in the death of any person shall be provided death penalty. The term ‘use’ has not been clearly defined and in common parlance it can have an extremely wide meaning. Owing to its wide meaning, even when the use was unintentional or accidental leading to death, the person will be awarded a death penalty.[8] As a result, the provision is not fair, just and reasonable, thereby failing the ‘due process’ test. Hence, Articles 14[9] and 21[10] accommodating ‘due process’ under its purview were also directly violated by provisions laid under Article 27(3).

Therefore, the Supreme Court in this case held Article 27(3) of the Arms Act, 1959 to be void and ultra vires the Constitution. The appeal was dismissed on its merits and the High Court Judgement acquitting the respondent was upheld.


Relevance and Explanation

The relevance of the case was significant in declaring that mandatory death penalty in its very essence is violative of the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. Further, the power of Judicial Review was also emphasized and being a post constitutional law, any law can be challenged for the violation of basic Fundamental Rights guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution.[11]

Even under foreign jurisdictions, mandatory death penalties for various offenses have been deemed unconstitutional. This is to safeguard the fundamental rights of citizens and ensure that due process remains fair, just, and reasonable. Mr. Bannerjee, the learned ASG, cited cases such as Woodson v. North Carolina[12] and Roberts v. Louisiana[13], which confirmed that no statute should impose mandatory death penalties for any offense. Instead, the severity and nature of the crime committed should determine the appropriateness of the penalty.

These judgments, in conjunction with an explanation of Sections 300 and 302 of the Indian Penal Code, which provide certain exceptions to murder, serves to highlight that an absolute death penalty is unjustifiable under any circumstances. The key point is that such penalties should only be used in moderation and when they are proportionate to the harm caused.


Supporting Case Laws

The Court relied on several caselaws to assert that mandatory death penalty is going to be violative of the basic Fundamental Rights and shall be declared unconstitutional. Reliance was placed on the case of Mithu v. State of Punjab[14] wherein Justice YV Chandrachud stated that death penalty prescribed under Section 303 of the IPC to a person who committed murder and was previously sentenced to life imprisonment is a savage sentence and is therefore directly violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. Further, he also stated that Court has the right to exercise discretion in matters of life and death. Any sentencing procedure which deprives the Court from exercising their jurisdiction not to impose a death penalty and compels them to shut their eyes to mitigating circumstances is unconscionable.

Further, the Court also relied upon the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[15], where the Court held that no law which provides for a death sentence that is irrevocable and without the involvement of Judicial mind can be stated as just, fair or reasonable.

The supporting caselaws also included case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab[16] and Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[17]. The Court in both these cases reiterated the conception of due process of law as a guarantee against cruel or harsh punishment such as mandatory death penalty which is also a mandate under Article 13(2) of the Constitution. At the same time, certain International Judgements had also been referred to while adjudicating upon this issue.



This case to a large extent focused on the aspects of right to life and liberty of accused by establishing that mandatory death penalty is unconstitutional. This is absolutely justified as mandatory capital punishment is not only detrimental to basic rights but also takes away the power of Judiciary to exercise their discretion in determining the death sentence. This also truncates Court’s power of Judicial Review which is absolutely unacceptable in a Democracy such as that of India.

Further, due process of law provides protection against cruel or harsh punishment. Hence, mandatory death penalty without any guidelines as in the present case (under the Arms Act, 1959) is in absolute contravention of the same. Even the ASG Mr. Bannerjee had stated that Section 27(3) of the Arms Act was to be initially amended for reducing the punishment of mandatory death sentence to either death sentence or life imprisonment the discretion of which shall remain with the Court on a case-to-case basis. The concept of death penalty in itself has remained a contentious issue and prescribing mandatory death penalty absolutely slaughters the basic rights which are intrinsic to even the convicts/accused.[18] Eventually, change was brought into Section 27(3) and punishment was reduced to either death penalty or imprisonment for life at Court’s discretion.



It can be concluded from this judgement that any law mandating absolute death penalty essentially abridges the rights of persons and hence should be declared void and unconstitutional. Even death penalty or any other form of capital punishment shall be used as last resort and should be optional at the discretion of the Court. Hence, this case acts as a landmark in Criminal Law Jurisprudence for protecting the Fundamental rights against arbitrary actions taken in the form of death penalties which has a tendency to directly violate the due process of law.

[1] Arms Act, No 54 of 1959 § 27(3)

[2] Indian Penal Code, No 45 of 1860 § 302

[3] Indian Penal Code, No 45 of 1860 § 304

[4] Constitution of India, Art 13(2)

[5] Constitution of India, Art 13

[6] Code of Criminal Procedure, No 2 of 1974 § 235(2)

[7] Code of Criminal Procedure, No 2 of 1974 § 354(3)

[8] Rohit, The Arms Act- Mandatory Death Penalty declared unconstitutional,, dated 8th February 2012, available at:

[9] Constitution of India, Art 14

[10] Constitution of India, Art 21

[11] Jahnavi Sindhu, Responsive Theory of Judicial Review: A view from India, National Law School of India Review, Volume 34 No 2 pp 68-82 (2022)

[12] Woodson v. North Carolina, (1976) 428 U.S. 280

[13] Roberts v. Lousiana, (1976) 428 U.S. 325

[14] Mithu v. State of Punjab, (1983) 2 SCC 277

[15] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978) 1 SCC 248

[16] Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) 2 SCC 684

[17] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration (1978) 1 SCC 248

[18] S Muralidhar, Hang them now, hang them not: India’s Travails with the Death Penalty, Journal of Indian Law Institute, Human Rights Special Issue Volume 40 No 1 (Jan-Dec 1998)

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