Are Indian lower courts awarding too many death sentences?.

In 2018, India was among top seven countries to award death penalty. The lower courts awarded death penalty to 162 convicts, according to Project 39 of the National Law University, Delhi

three milestone judgments - Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab of 1980 being the last of the series - the Supreme Court laid the principle of "rarest of rare" for awarding death penalty to convicts found guilty of murder.

Three years later, the Supreme Court struck down Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code that made it mandatory to award death penalty to a person already convicted of some offence if she commits murder.

This establishes that the Supreme Court considers death penalty an avoidable sentence to the maximum extent possible.

Yet, in 2018, India was among top seven countries to award death penalty. The lower courts awarded death penalty to 162 convicts, according to Project 39 of the National Law University, Delhi. This is the figure quoted by the Amnesty International in its annual report on death penalty.

In the top eight countries - all awarding death sentences in excess of 100 in 2018 - India is clubbed with countries such as China, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Viet Nam. China and Viet Nam are communist dictatorial regimes while the rest have Islam as their state religion and are not known for guarantee to human rights.

With 162 death sentences, the number of convicts having been awarded death penalty was the highest in 2018 since the turn of the century, according to Project 39. The previous highest was 154 death sentences awarded in 2007. At the end of 2018, there were 426 people on the death row.

Of these death sentences, 45 were awarded for murder and 58 for murder involving sexual offences.


According to Project 39, the high courts confirmed only 23 death penalties in 2018 in 18 cases. The corresponding figures for 2017 were 11 death sentences confirmed by the high courts against 108 awarded by the trial courts; and 15 death sentences confirmation in 2016 against 150 awarded by the lower courts.

What is more, the high courts in 2018 acquitted 23 persons who were awarded death sentences by the lower courts in 12 cases. The corresponding figures for 2017 and 2016 were 35 and 20.

The Supreme Court, however, upheld death sentences to only three persons in 2018, and seven and one in previous two years. The Supreme Court, overall, heard 12 cases involving death sentences awarded to convicts in 2018. It upheld death sentences in just one case.

India awards death sentences to persons convicted of:

Waging war against the State


Aiding or abetting Sati

Aiding or abetting suicide by minor

Falsely implicating an SC/ST person in a capital case


Rape/gangrape and murder

Rape/gangrape of minor below 12

Death penalty for rape of a minor below 12 was introduced following public outcry in the aftermath of gang rape and murder of a paramedic student in Delhi in December 2012 - known as the Nirbhaya case.

Nevertheless, Law Commission report of 2015 dismissed the idea that death penalty is a deterrent to heinous crimes including rape and murder. The Law Commission suggested doing away with death penalty except in the cases of waging war against the State and those related to terrorism.

However, the lower courts awarded 420 death sentences in the subsequent three years (2016-18). This may be in the sharp contrast to the general principle of "rarest of rare" laid out by the Supreme Court and the observations of the Law Commission but is in sync with the growing clamour for death penalty in society especially in the view of reports of crimes against women.

Execution of death penalty, though, has been slow in India. Only four convicts have been hanged in the last 20 years. Three of them - Ajmal Kasab, Afzal Guru and Yaqoob Memon - were convicted in cases related to terrorism. The other convict, Dhananjoy Chatterjee was hanged for raping and killing a 14-year-old girl in West Bengal. (Source: The Indian Express)

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