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  • Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code provided for mandatory death sentence to people who committed murder while serving a life sentence.
  • This provision was mainly enacted for the purpose of protecting the jail officials from the life convicts. It was enacted with keeping in mind that if a person who has already been sentenced to death penalty commits murder, he is not capable of reforming and entering the society.
  • This section of IPC violated Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution of India and hence were declared unconstitutional by the Apex Court in Mithu vsState of Punjab.
  • This provision also does not provide for any alternative punishment and gave death sentence without considering facts and circumstances of individual situations.


Capital punishment, also known as “death sentence” or “death penalty”, is the highest degree of punishment an accused can receive. It is imposed for heinous crimes such as murder, rape, terrorist activities, etc. Death penalty is that power of the state which sanctions taking an individual’s life if he is seen as a threat to the society. The foundation of such a punishment is based on the principle of retributive justice. It proposes that a person who has committed such a heinous act must face the same destiny. It is assumed that giving death penalty for such crimes will produce such an effect that individuals will be afraid of the consequences of their actions. This punishment has been in existence as long as the concept of state has been in existence.

The makers of Indian Penal Code, 1860 made sure to successfully add death penalty as a part of it. The provisions have survived time and are still very much in use in the contemporary India with a few and subtle changes. Section 303 and 302 of the IPC enshrine the provisions for death penalty in case of murder. Between these, Section 303 provided for mandatory death penalty in case of murder if the offender was serving a life sentence. This section was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.


Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 says that-

“Punishment for murder by life-convict.—Whoever, being under sentence of [imprisonment for life], commits murder, shall be punished with death.”

This section provides for mandatory death penalty.This provision explicitly states that if the accused is found guilty of murder while he is convicted with life imprisonment, he will face the death penalty immediately. The basic condition here was that the person who has committed the murder has to be already serving a life sentence.

This provision was inserted in IPC considering the fact that if a term of life imprisonment was insufficient to serve as a deterrent and the criminal became hardened enough to commit a murder while serving that sentence, the only punishment he merited was death. The 42nd Law Commission Report has observed(para 16.17) the object of this section as-“the primary object of making the death sentence mandatory for an offence under this section seems to be give protection to the prison staff”.

The framers of the Act had in mind only the case of murder of a jail official by a life convict. This implies that the main reason was for the protection of Englishmen who were appointed as jail officials during that time. The indigenous people were very likely to attack white people during those times.

It was presumed that this section would apply only if a person who is undergoing life imprisonment himself commits murder.

1. Mahabir Gope v. State of Bihar

It was observed that Section 303 would apply even in cases where a person undergoing sentence of imprisonment for life is convicted either under Section 302(Punishment for murder) read with S.34 (Acts done by several persons with common intention) and also in the cases where S.302 is read with S. 149(Offence committed by the members of unlawful assembly).

2. Pratap v. State of UP

It was observed by the Supreme Court that “under Section 303 I.P.C., the person's sentence must be in force if the person is to be dealt with for a subsequent offence of murder under that section.” It was also discussed that Section 303 is like a proviso to Section 302 and a court trying a person for murder could apply the provisions of S. 303 if it is brought to its notice that the person being tried is under a sentence of life imprisonment.


3. Mithu v. State of Punjab

This section was declared unconstitutional by the Apex Court in this landmark case. The petitioners in this case had challenged the validity of Section 303. The petitions contended that Section 303 is wholly unreasonable and arbitrary and hence, violates Article 21 of the Constitution. It was argued that the procedure by which this section authorises the depravation of life is unfair and unjust and so it is unconstitutional.

The court gave following reasons for the same-

The court held that there is no rational justification for making a distinction in terms of punishment between people who commit murders while serving a life sentence and people who commit murders while not serving a life sentence. Further, no rationale can be seen to treat people who murder after serving their life sentence and people who murder while still serving their sentence. This was held to be a distinction based on irrelevant considerations and it bears no nexus with the object of the statute which is imposition of mandatory death sentence. Hence, this section violates Article 14 of the Constitution.

The court pointed out that murders can be committed for a number of reasons like hate, lust, sex, jealousy, gain, revenge, etc and these can be a motive force in any situation and does not at all relates to sentence of life imprisonment.

The court also pointed out- “There is no comparable statistical data in our country in regard to the behaviour of life convicts who are released on parole or bail but there is no reason to assume that the incidence of murders committed by such persons is unduly high. Indeed, if there is no scientific investigation on this point in our country, there is no basis for treating such persons differently from others who commit murders.”

The court pointed out that the mandatory death sentence while serving life imprisonment is illogical as there are about 51 sections in IPC which provide for life imprisonment. If suppose a person was sentenced to life imprisonment for forgery under Section 467 or for breach of trust or for counterfeiting a coin, he will still have to be mandatorily sentenced to death under this section if he commits a murder. The fact that there is nothing in common between the two offences will not be taken into consideration at all. The motivation of both the crimes would be different. Therefore, the court held that “to prescribe a mandatory sentence of death for the second of such offences for the reason that the offender was under the sentence of life imprisonment for the first of such offences is arbitrary beyond the bounds of all reason”.

By referring to the case of Jagmohan Singh v. State of U.P.,the court observed that the judges have very wide discretion in the matter of fixing the degree of punishment but the provision does not provide the Court any discretion in passing a judgement against a life-convict, which must be a death sentence only.

The court agreed that this section violates Article 14 as well as Article 21 of the Constitution as no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedures established by the law.

Justice Chinnappa Reddy gave a separate but concurring judgement and observed that Section 303 excludes judicial discretion and particularly violates Article 21.


Section 302 provides the punishment for the crime of murder. It says- “Whoever commits murder shall be punished with death or [imprisonment for life], and shall also be liable to fine. This section, unlike Section 303, provides death sentence as an alternative sentence rather than the only punishment. The normal and main punishment for murder is life imprisonment. The court can only grant death sentence in the rarest of rare cases. And if the court ever imposes a death sentence, it is under an obligation to give special reasons for imposing the same under Section 354(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code. Under Section 303, the courts do not have any discretion in awarding sentences and no special reasons need to be given by the courts.

4. Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab

The validity of Section 302 was concluded in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab. The main reason for this was that the death sentence provided by Section 302 is different from section 303 as it is an alternative which can only be used in rarest of rare cases and also after first considering the punishment of life imprisonment. Another reason was that court has to state the special reasons for departing from the normal and giving death sentence. Furthermore, under Section 235(2) of CrPC, the accused is entitled to be heard on the question of sentence.


The law regarding death penalty was enacted in 1860. Section 303 was made mainly to protect the interests of officials who worked in prisons and were most likely to get assaulted by indigenous people. Times have changed and today the Indian judiciary follows more of a reformative approach rather than retributive one, on the basic principle on “innocent until proven guilty”. The framers of the Act did not consider a lot of factors wile framing this Act and the only concern was the attacks on the jail officials. The denial of the right to provide evidence as to why they should not be sentenced to death will lead to severe, arbitrary, and unjust punishment.As soon as the judge declares the accused guilty of the crime, the scales of justice are removed from his hands. A death penalty is an irreversible decision, and the courts cannot impose it without the involvement of proper analysis as to why any other alternative would not work.There is no justification under Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code for prescribing a mandatory death sentence for a murder committed inside or outside of a jail by a person serving a life sentence.

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