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Machhi Singh vs The State of Punjab

The case of Machhi Singh vs the State of Punjab plays a very important role in the judiciary of India with regards to death penalty. Under this case the three judge bench further strengthened the Rarest of rare doctrine by laying down certain guidelines regarding the parameters that would be considered while deciding whether the case falls under the ambit of rarest of rare or not.

Machhi Singh And Others Vs The State Of Punjab

Petitioner :Machhi Singh And Others v/s Respondent: State Of Punjab
Date Of Judgement: 20 July 1983
Citations: 1983 Air 957, 1983 Scr (3) 413
Case Number: Criminal Appeal No 78-79, 80-84, 85-86, 87 And 88-89 Of 1981 And 419 Of 1982.
  • M.P. Thakkar
  • Syed Murtaza Fazl Ali
  • A. Varadarajan
Court: Supreme court

On the night between August 12 and 13 seventeen murder and three injuries took plce in a series of 5 incidents at 5 different villages within the vicinity of each other in Punjab.This tragic incident took place because of a family feud between the accused (Machhi Singh) and Amar Singh and his sister Piaro Bai.

All the people who died and got injured in this tragic accident were all related to Amar Singh and Piaro Bai. The victims in this case included women, men and children. The accused and 11 of his companies along with close relatives and associates were prosecuted in 5 session cases, where each case was related to different villages in which the murdered took place. The victim who survived these series murder stood as witness in the respective sessions trials.

These series of ghasthly murder started at 8:30 pm when Machhi and Mohinde each with and armed rifle and his 3 accomplicess each with a kirpan attacked Amar Singh house were they killed his wife Biran Bai and his 3 who were of the ages 15, 10 and 9. Amar singh and his daughter managed to escape this nightmare.

After the murder were committed the 7 men men left the house and in the morning Amar Singh reported to the head constableWassan Singh regarding the occurrence of last night. Later at about 9-10 pm on the same day nine men with deadly weapons marched into the house of Kahar singh of Sowaya Rai and killed members of the house and injured the third (Smt. Nankobhai) by gunshots.

From there they headed straight away to the village nearby called Kho Kunjuka where they forcefully entered the house of Bishan Singh where they attacked and killed Bishan Singh, his wife Paro Bai and their child Balbir Singh with a rifle. While Hakam Singh who fled away sustained a gunshot and was injured. The Next murder took place at 11pm where Machhi Singh and his 2 brothers killed Wanjar Singh and his garndson at Mamujou.

The member of the house who managed to escape was Smt. Sabhan who was Wanjar Singh's wife. The fourth incident took place at Kamrewala village at 1am in the night between 12 and 13 August where Mohinder Singh the brother of Amar Singh and husband of Piaro Bai was killed by a gunshot. A FIR was lodged in the police station by his wife on his behalf.

At about 3.30 a.m. on the night between August 12 and August 13, 1977 five miscreants armed with deadly weapons forcibly entered the house of Ujagar Singh at Dandi Khur village where they killed attacked and murdered his sister Paro bai and four of his relatives. Out of the five victims three of them died on the spot while 2 of them sustained gunshot wounds and died in the hospital five days later.

When the cases were tried in the sessions courts the accused (Machhi Singh) was common in all the cases and on the only his the people who were accused with him differed in number and identity from one trial to another. At the end of the trial of the Sessions court all the accused who were part of this tragic incident were found guilty and four of them were awarded with capital and the nine of them were subjected to imprisonment for life.

After receiving the sentence from the sessions court 14 appeals were made to the Punjab and Haryana High where all the appeals were heard at once. On hearing the appeal in the high court, the high court also confirmed the death sentences of the accused. This case was then further appealed in the Supreme Court through a special leave petition.

Issue Raised
  • Should Machhi Singh and the other convicts be provided with death sentences by applying the rarest of rare doctrine laid down in the case of Bachan Singh vs the State of Punjab?
  • What normal guidelines are to be followed so as to identify the "rarest of rare cases" formula for imposing a death sentence?

In the judgement of Machhi Singh vs the State of Punjab a new interpretation was provided for the doctrine of 'rarest or rare' which was laid down in the case of Bachan Singh vs The State of Punjab. In this interpretation the court stated that firstly the society as a being is built on the foundation of 'reverence for life'.

If any member of the society violates this belief by killing another member of the society then the society will not be bound by the doctrine of 'death sentence in no case'. Secondly every member of the community is protected by the protective arm of the community and the rule of law enforced by it and every member of the community must value this protection.

When a member of the community kills another member and the community feels that the killer must be killed then this protection which is provided can be withdrawn to sentence the member to death. But this sentence can be provided only in the rarest of rare cases where the collective conscience of the society is shocked.

In such cases the judicial power may provide death sentence irrespective of their personal opinion if the case fits the guidelines laid down in this case by Justice Thakkar which are mentioned as follows:
  1. The Manner of Commission of Murder:
    When the murder is committed in an extremely heinous, repulsive, diabolic, revolting or dastardly manner so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of community.
  2. Motive for Commission of Murder:
    When the murder is committed for a motive which evince total depravity and meanness
  3. Anti-Social or Socially abhorrent nature of crime
  4. Magnitude of crime:
    When the crime is enormous in proportion. For e.g. killing all the members of the family.
  5.  Personality of victim murder:
    when the murder take place the victim is an innocent child, helpless women, an old or sick person, a victim where the murderer is in a dominant position or position of trust or the victim is a public figure.
Under this case the three judge bench applied these guidelines as well as the guidelines laid down in the case of Bachan Singh vs the State of Punjab and concluded this case to be a rarest of rare case.

After applying these guideline the bench also asked and answered the following questions:
  1. Is there something uncommon about the crime which renders a sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence?
  2. Are the circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose a death sentence even after according to the maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offender?

Looking at the helplessness of the victims and the cold blooded manner in which the murder were committed. The court sentenced the three murder Machhi Singh, Kashmir Singh and Jaggar Singh to capital punishment for the cruel, atrocious and henious crimes they had committed.

The constitutionality of death penalty has undergone major changes in India since 1898. In Criminal Procedure Code of 1898 death penalty was a punished by default and to give life imprisonmemt sentences judges were required to give reasons. But a substantial change came in 1973 CrPC under section 354 (3) of 1973 CrPC life imprisonment was made default punishment and death sentence required special reasons to be provided while imposing it.

However, there were no indications of what these special reasons might be. This gap was filed by Bachan Singh where a sentence framework applicable to section 354(3) of 1973 CrPC was developed. This framework focused on individualising sentencing in capital cases. Bachan Singh required the court to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of offence and the offender.

If the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors then the case will be eligible for death sentence. Sentencing judges were also required to establish that the alternative option of life imprisonment under section 302 of the IPC was unquestionably foreclosed. By doing so Bachan Singh had limited the power of sentencing courts by laying down guiding principles for subsequent courts.

A three benched Supreme Court judgement in Machhi Singh further reflected on the question of death penalty and gave introduced the concept of collective consciouness into capital punishment framework and laid down five catergories where the community would expect the holder of judicial powers to impose death sentence since collective consciousness was outraged. The case of Machhi Singh gave rise to a crime centric approach to death penalty which diluted mitigating factors.

Due to which there have been cases where death sentences have been imposed only on the basis of circumstance of crime. For instance in the case of Sangeet and Anr vs the State of Haryana the Session court and High court considered the aggravating factors on the basis of which death sentence was provided. But the Supreme Court observed that the approach of considering aggravating and mitigating factors as mentioned in Bachan Singh needs a fresh look.

In events where the crime and the criminal are equally important the sentencing process becomes judge centric sentencing rather than principle centric sentencing. In such cases awarding a sentence of life imprisonment is not unquestionably foreclosed. But in cases where the approach laid down in Machhi Singh is properly interpreted it can become a principle centric sentencing which is evident in Manoharan vs State by the Inspector of Police. Justice Khanna noted that the case of Machhi Singh vs State of Punjab required two questions to be answered to determine if a case was rarest of rare.

Firstly to check there was something uncommon about the crime which rendered life in prisonment inadequate and the circumstances were such that there was no other alternative than to impose the death sentence. Justice Khanna was of the view that the five categories mentioned in Machhi Singh vs the State of Punjab were to the first question according to him the second was regarding reference to mitigating factors to decide if the sentence for life is unquestionably foreclosed. In the case Justice Khanna noted that appellants had confessed to crime before the magistrate without compulsion.

According to him this was the first step of repentance and a chance to step back into society and should be treated as mitigating circumstances. In Such a circumstance he believed appropriate punishment would be life imprisonment without remission.

There is a lot of controversy attached to Machhi being judge centric but if Macchi Singh is applied with the essence with which the decision was laid down the guidelines provided in Macchi Singh along with the guidelines provided in Bachan Singh can provide the with proper directions to used while dealing with cases related to death penalty.

The Machhi Singh case, decided by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court three years after the Bachan Singh case, was the first attempt to further develop on the original death penalty sentencing framework. In addressing the issue of the death penalty, the court in Machhi Singh looked into why the community as a whole does not support the humanistic approach to the death penalty in all cases.

Machhi Singh incorporated collective conscience into the framework of capital sentencing and established five categories in which the community would expect the holders of judicial power to impose a death sentence.

  • Anonymous 'Machhi Singh And Others vs State Of Punjab on 20 July, 1983' retrieved from accessed on 05-02-2022
  • Dwivedi.I (2021) 'Machhi Singh And Others V. State Of Punjab' retrieved from accessed on 06-02-2022
  • Anonymous 'Sangeet & Anr vs State Of Haryana on 20 November, 2012 ' retrieved from accessed on 07-02-2022
  • Anonymous 'Manoharan vs State By Inspector Of Police, ... on 1 August, 2019' retrieved from accessed on 07-02-2022

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