Does imprisonment for life mean rigorous imprisonment for life? Need for an amendment

In absence of a categorical mention of the prefix “rigorous’’ before imprisonment for life, it cannot be assumed by the courts.
Imprisonment for life
Imprisonment for life

The Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the Indian Penal Code (IPC) lay down the procedural and substantive law on a majority of crimes, except those covered by special/local statute books. As per the procedure, conviction results in sentencing, which in turn entails a prescribed punishment. Only when conviction is followed with proportionate punishment, the trial stands completed.

One of the punishments prescribed by the IPC is ‘imprisonment for Llfe’. Interestingly, there is no explanation given in the IPC as to whether ‘imprisonment for life’ can be either simple or rigorous. In this piece, let us read whether ‘imprisonment for life’ can be construed as ‘rigorous imprisonment for life’.

Historical background

Initially, Section 53 of the IPC prescribed six types of punishments - death, transportation for life, penal servitude, imprisonment (rigorous i.e with hard labour, and simple), forfeiture and fine. In 1949, the punishment of “penal servitude” was done away with.

Therefore, Section 53 as it stands today reads as follows –

“53. Punishments.—The punishments to which offenders are liable under the provisions of this Code are—

First — Death;

Secondly.—Imprisonment for life;

Fourthly —Imprisonment, which is of two descriptions, namely:—

(1) Rigorous, that is, with hard labour;

(2) Simple;

Fifthly —Forfeiture of property;

Sixthly —Fine.”

In 1955, when the punishment of “transportation for life” was substituted with “imprisonment for life”, the Joint Committee which reported on the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Bill, 1954 recorded,

“The mere substitution of the expression “imprisonment for life” for “transportation for life” should not change the nature of punishment. As a form of punishment, imprisonment for life must remain distinct from rigorous or simple imprisonment.”

The amendment Act of 1955 did not make any provision to indicate the character and nature of the punishment of imprisonment for life. The Prisons Act, 1894 and the Prisoners Act, 1900 are silent on this point and so are the Jail Manuals and state prison rules. This is important because rigorous imprisonment involves hard labour. In fact, if a prisoner awarded rigorous imprisonment remains idle or is negligent, that in itself is a ‘prison offence’ u/s 45(8) and 45(9) of the Prisons Act, 1894.

There is thus no punishment called ‘rigorous Imprisonment for life’ in the list of prescribed punishments under the IPC. Section 60 IPC provides that a court is at liberty to prescribe each kind of imprisonment i.e. rigorous and/or, simple, for a period it deems fit and proper. However, as per Section 45 IPC, the punishment for imprisonment for life is for the remaining natural period of life of a human being. Therefore, the use of Section 60, which grants a discretionary power to a judge to choose rigorous or simple as a mode of punishment for a period of time, cannot be extended to a punishment of imprisonment for life as it is not for a fixed period.

Construction of imprisonment for life as laid down by Section 53A IPC

Firstly, a plain reading of Section 53A reveals that in all situations, transportation for life was not to be automatically replaced with imprisonment for life, nor do the terms appear to be interchangeable. Secondly, reference to “transportation” that transportation for life be construed as a reference to imprisonment for life cautiously omits the word “rigorous”. It therefore apparently differentiates between imprisonment for life and rigorous imprisonment in different contexts.

Below is a table depicting the offences for which simple and rigorous imprisonment are prescribed:

Prescribed punishments under IPC
Prescribed punishments under IPC

Thus, no offence in the IPC provides punishment in form of a ‘rigorous imprisonment for life’. Further, IPC Sections 302, 304, 305, 307, 311, 313, 326, 363A, 364, 364A, 376, 376A, 376D, 376E, 377, 388, 389, 394, 395, 396, 400 prescribe imprisonment for life but do not mention whether it is to be rigorous in nature. Offences under Sections 194 and 449 of the Code are punishable with rigorous imprisonment ‘only’ and without any alternative of simple imprisonment being imposed.

Rigorous imprisonment for life in other statute books

In some other criminal statute books, punishments are prescribed as mentioned hereunder:-

a) POCSO Act, 2012

Section 14(3) prescribes that the punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault by directly participating in pornographic acts to be rigorous imprisonment for life.

b) Explosive Substances Act, 1908

· Section 3(b) of the Act mandates the punishment to be death or rigorous imprisonment for life.

· Section 4(b)(ii) of the Act mandates the punishment in the case of any special category explosive substance, to be rigorous imprisonment for life, or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years and fine.

· Section 5 of the Act mandates the punishment to be rigorous imprisonment for life, or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, along with fine.

Therefore, in at least two statute books, there is a categorical mention of ‘rigorous imprisonment for life’ as a form of punishment. Therefore, had the legislative intent in offences under IPC been to have rigorous imprisonment for life as punishment, the same ought to have been categorically mentioned. In the absence of an express mention of the expression ‘rigorous’ before ‘imprisonment for life’, it should be read as ‘imprisonment for life’ alone and the word ’rigorous’ cannot be supplanted by the judiciary while prescribing a sentence.

Furthermore it would also be useful to advert to Section 433 CrPC.

“433. Power to commute sentence. The appropriate Government may, without the consent of the person sentenced, commute-

(a) a sentence of death, for any other punishment provided by the Indian Penal Code;

(b) a sentence of imprisonment for life, for imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years or for fine;

(c) a sentence of rigorous imprisonment, for simple imprisonment for any term to which that person might have been sentenced, or for fine;

(d) a sentence of simple imprisonment, for fine.”

This Section also gives a classification of four kinds of sentences which can be brought down to lesser scale. Importantly, it does not make imprisonment for life interchangeable with rigorous imprisonment for life.

Affirmation/grant of rigorous imprisonment for life under IPC

The first cases before the Supreme Court on this issue include appeals from the Madhya Pradesh High Court and the Bombay High Court. In State of Madhya Pradesh v. Ahamadullah, the Supreme Court while allowing the appeal by the State, sentenced the accused to ‘rigorous imprisonment for life’. The appeal from the Bombay High Court was filed by the accused against a sentence of rigorous imprisonment for life and the Supreme Court in KM Nanavati v. The State of Maharashtra held that the conviction u/s 302 IPC and sentence of imprisonment for life was correct.

The first instance where this issue was directly raised was before the Kerala High Court in Mathammal Saraswathi v. The State, where the trial court had not specified if imprisonment for life was meant to be simple or rigorous, and the High Court clarified it to be simple in nature. The Orissa High Court in Urlikia Median v. The State, however, held that imprisonment for life meant rigorous imprisonment for life, while noting that Section 60 IPC has no application to imprisonment for life.

In last 12 years, I found at least 10 cases where the Supreme Court either affirmed or awarded rigorous imprisonment for life for offences punishable under the IPC.

Cases where SC affirmed or awarded rigorous Imprisonment for life
Cases where SC affirmed or awarded rigorous Imprisonment for life

Judicial interpretation

The question fell for consideration before the Privy Council for the first time in 1945 in Kishori Lal v. Emperor. In this case, the appellant prisoner was found to be unsuitable for transportation to Andaman since he was deemed a terrorist and the Government of India had not authorised terrorists to be deported. So he was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. The Privy Council discussed the then existing provisions and held that till such time of transportation, the sentence had to be rigorous imprisonment.

In Gopal Vinayak Godse v. Maharashtra, the issue was whether the appellant could be legally confined in India if sentenced to transportation for life, and if yes, for what period he could be confined. The Supreme Court quoted the Privy Council decision and then went on to consider the effect of Section 53A(2) i.e. where sentence had already been passed before the amendment of 1955.

Though the exact issue was not in question, these two decisions were relied on in Naib Singh v. State of Punjab, wherein a Habeas Corpus writ was filed on the ground that the petitioner had served more than the maximum prescribed sentence. The Supreme Court held that since imprisonment for life replaced transportation, it implied that imprisonment for life necessarily meant rigorous Imprisonment for life. While holding so, this Court extensively quoted and relied upon the case of Kishori Lal (Privy Council).

In Satpal Singh – (1992) 4 SCC 172, before a two judge bench of the Supreme Court, an argument was raised as to refer Naib Singh to a larger bench which was refused by a coordinate bench.

In State of Gujarat v. Hon’ble High Court of Gujarat, a three-judge Bench relied on Godse and Naib Singh to hold that imprisonment for life is rigorous. In Mohd. Munna v UOI, the Supreme Court held that it was unnecessary for the legislature to specifically mention that the imprisonment for life would be rigorous imprisonment for life, as the same is imposed as punishment for grave offences.

In past five years, at least on four occasions, the said argument has been advanced, but the Supreme Court refused to reconsider the issue by pronouncing an authoritative judgment -

a) Order dated December 16, 2016 passed in SLP Criminal CRLMP No. 20566/16 – Notice was issued, limited to the question whether life imprisonment could be coupled with the condition that such imprisonment has to be rigorous imprisonment. However, vide order dated July 28, 2017, the SLP was dismissed in limine.

b) Order dated January 20, 2017 passed in SLP (Criminal) No. 395/2017 – Notice was issued limited to the question whether life imprisonment could be coupled with the condition that such imprisonment has to be rigorous imprisonment. Matter was tagged along with SLP (Criminal) No.10111 of 2016 and was dismissed along with the same.

c) Order dated July 8, 2013 passed in Criminal Appeal No. 76/2013 – Similar issue was raised before the Court once again and notice was issued, but the SLP was dismissed on September 21, 2017.

d) Order dated July 27, 2018 passed in SLP Crl No. 6220/2018 - Similar issue was raised before the Court once again, but the SLP was dismissed recently on September 14, 2021, with the Court holding that “In view of the authoritative pronouncements of this Court on the issues that arise for consideration in these SLPs, there is no need to re-examine the limited point for which notice was issued.”

In my view, the legislative intent could have never been to force someone to do hard labour for one’s remaining life while being in prison. In absence of a categorical mention of the prefix “rigorous’’ before imprisonment for life, it cannot be assumed by the courts. To stand proportionate to the crime committed, a suitable amendment needs to be brought in and a portion of such life imprisonment may be allowed to be rigorous in nature.

As ‘Prisons’ is a State subject under Item 4 of the State List of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India, the states have the primary role, responsibility and authority to amend the current prison laws, rules and regulations. The sentence of rigorous life imprisonment, till then, should not be awarded. The judgments holding imprisonment for life as rigorous imprisonment for life require a thorough reconsideration. The Law Commission of India way back in its 39th Report in 1968 had sought clarification by suitable amendment in this regard, but the same hasn't been done till date.

Namit Saxena is an Advocate on Record at the Supreme Court.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bar & Bench.

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