Many international organisations support the argument that death penalty is a recipe of chaos. India is one of the dwindling minority countries that still hands down death because it is constitutionally valid. The only deviation is the mandate of law that it should be awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare’ case, a doctrine which came to be propounded by the Supreme Court only in early 80s.
A decade prior to this, a murder case had rocked Assam in which one retired district court judge, Upendra Nath Rajkhowa, was hanged to death for scripting the murder his wife and daughters. Prosecution’s failure to unhold the motive behind the murder made the story more intriguing. Except a street story that suspicion of wife’s infidelity provoked him to commit the crime, there was nothing on record to bare the motive behind the cruel murder.
Rajkhowa was executed almost four decades ago, but the evolving jurisprudence kindles a debate for discussion; was it a rarest of rare case deserving death penalty in today’s perspective?
Rajkhowa retired as District & Sessions Judge after his brief stint from July, 1969 to January 1970 at Dhubri, a tiny sleeping town on the western part of Assam. While he was still occupying his Govt. bungalow, his wife and three daughters suddenly disappeared. But the mystery shrouded when he too disappeared after few weeks . Relatives sought police help. Police traced him to a hotel in Siliguri, West Bengal, where he shocked everyone by revealing that his wife and daughters did not disappear but were actually murdered by him. He admitted to have killed his wife Putuli aka Putul Rajkhowa and one daughter viz. Nirmali aka Linu Rajkhowa on the night of 10-2-70. And after a fortnight he killed his other daughters viz. Jonali aka Luna Rajkhowa and Rupali aka Ruplekha aka Bhantu Rajkhowa on the night of 26-2-70. He buried the dead bodies in the backyard of his bungalow and fled to Siliguri.
Special judge was appointed to try this sensational murder case that hogged the headlines. Eventually Rajkhowa was convicted for the crime and was sentenced to death in May, 1973. Guwahati High Court affirmed his death penalty a year later. After rejection of his mercy petition by the President of India he was finally hanged in Jorhat jail on Saturday, February 14, 1976.
Indian Penal Code punishes the crime of murder either by death or imprisonment for life. Constitutional validity of death sentence was questioned in Jagmohan Singh’s case in the year 1972 when the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the death penalty is violative of “right to life” guaranteed under article 21 of the Constitution. Amendment of Criminal Procedure Code brought in 1973 requires a judge to give “special reasons” under Section 354(3) for awarding death sentences. On the later occasion while interpreting those ''special reasons'' Supreme Court formulated the ‘rarest of rare’ doctrine in the case of Bachan Singh’s case (1980) and enunciated that death penalty should be awarded only in ‘rarest of rare’ case only. It means death sentence can be inflicted only in a gravest case of extreme culpability. In the subsequent years Supreme Court framed broad outlines of the circumstances which warrants death sentence. But in absence of a strait jacket formula, ‘rarest of rare’ doctrine remained a judge centric dictum.
In 2008 Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment could be awarded when a “murder is committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly manner so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of the community”. In the same year in Swamy Shraddananda’s case, a three Judge Bench of the Supreme Court held that there is a strong basis for the Court to substitute a death sentence by life imprisonment or by a term in excess of fourteen years and prison for the rest of his life. Although doubt was raised by a two Judge Bench on this view, but subsequently a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in Murugan’s case (2015) upheld the decision of Swamy Shraddananda (supra) being well-founded. With this a new jurisprudence heralded in and applying this principle several cases of death sentences have been commuted to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court.
In a case of rape and murder of an innocent helpless minor girl who was in the custody of the accused Rajkumar, Supreme Court took the view that it doesn’t fall within the ambit of rarest of rare and thereby set aside the death sentence and awarded life imprisonment with the embargo of no remission without serving a minimum of 35 years in jail.
In the infamous ‘ Tandoor Murder Case’ accused Sushil Sharma shot his wife Naina Sahni to death in 1995 objecting her relationship with a male friend. He then chopped her body into pieces and tried to burn it in a restaurant’s ‘tandoor’ (oven). Trial Court awarded death sentence which was upheld by the High Court. But Supreme Court commuted the death to life sentence holding the view that, "It is not a crime against society, but it is a crime committed by the accused due to strained personal relationship with his wife".
The jurisprudence on death sentence is evolving to be more humane. Rajkhowa’s case is interesting on many counts. Neither was it against the society nor in true legal sense can it seems to be extremely brutal, grotesque and diabolic. It makes it unfit into the shoes of rarest of rare deserving death sentence and establishes a strong case for commutation.
(The writer is an Advocate with the Supreme Court of India. Email: email@example.com)(Published on 19th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 12)