Life imprisonment and powers of remission
Bikram Jeet Batra
Can the judiciary curtail the remission power of the executive?
ON SEPTEMBER 16, in Md. Munna v. Union of India and Others, the Supreme Court, relying on Gopal Vinayak Godse's case, reiterated that life imprisonment was to be understood as imprisonment for life, subject to the remission powers of the executive. Shortly thereafter The Hindu reported the judgment on the front page. Interestingly while the 30-year-old point was reported, the vital importance of this Supreme Court judgment was missed.
That life imprisonment means imprisonment for life has been pronounced by the Supreme Court periodically in a number of cases over the years. However reading Sections 432 and 433A of the Code of Criminal Procedure together makes clear that the appropriate government can exercise its powers of remission at any stage, except in serious offences where the convict must serve minimum 14 years before remission or commutation.
Various courts have often recognised that the remission power is the prerogative of the executive. However in some cases, courts have overstepped the boundary and attempted to curtail the power of the executive. In Dalbir Singh v. Punjab ( 3 SCC 745), the Supreme Court noted that life imprisonment "may, at the option of the convicting court, be subject to the condition that the sentence of imprisonment shall last as long as life lasts where there are exceptional indications of murderous recidivism and the community cannot run the risk of the convict being at large." This observation however was a mere obiter and the bench commuting the death sentences awarded in that case to life imprisonment did not set any duration, suggesting that it was merely testing the waters.
In 1982, however, the Bombay High Court ignored the caution of the Supreme Court, and in convicting an accused, noted that he "will remain in jail at least for a period of 25 years notwithstanding the remissions and concessions, if any, granted to him under the relevant rules" (State of Maharashtra v. Manohar Kashinath Ghodake, 1982 Cri LJ 600). However better sense prevailed and shortly, a full bench of the same court said that "such a direction in effect amounts to preventing the appropriate government from exercising its powers of remission."
The court clarified that "[A]ny direction which will require an accused to undergo such imprisonment as will be specified by a court, if it is more than 14 years, is bound to trench upon the powers of the executive specifically bestowed upon it under Sections 432 and 433" (Madhav Shankar Sonawane v. State of Maharashtra, 1982(1) Bom CR 702).
The Supreme Court appears to have disregarded the wisdom of the Bombay High Court and in a series of decisions over the past decade, has set minimum periods of 20 years in awarding life sentences. The apex court went one step further when in Subhash Chander, etc. v. Krishan Lal & Others (2001 III AD Supreme Court 370), referring to one accused Krishan Lal, the court directed that "for him the imprisonment for life shall be the imprisonment in prison for the rest of his life. He shall not be entitled to any commutation or premature release under Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, Prisoners Act, Jail Manual or any other statute and the Rules made for the purposes of grant of commutation and remissions."
In awarding this sentence, the apex court did not discuss or distinguish any previous judgments, and it remains unclear as to whether the 1982 Bombay High Court judgment was brought to its attention. The constitutional validity of Krishan Lal's judgment remains suspect as the Supreme Court has overstepped by placing restrictions on the remission powers of the executive. This would be in clear violation of the doctrine of separation of powers, which is understood to be part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.
Constitutional questions apart, there is also the question about where exactly the convict, Krishan Lal, will stand in a decade from now when his minimum sentence of 14 years will end.
In this context the recent Supreme Court judgment in Md. Munna's case is perhaps more important than it initially appeared to be, as it acknowledges the state's primacy over remission and commutation powers. This may be a subtle acknowledgement that the Supreme Court got it wrong in the Krishan Lal case. On the other hand, this could be a classic case of one bench of the court not knowing what the other has done. Either way, one has to thank this bench for at least setting the record straight on this point of law.
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