(In the context of life sentences and even the death penalty being mooted for cow slaughter in some states, Jeydev C.S. examines whether the Indian Constitution requires proportionality in punishment)
How far can the State go? It is a general proposition that duly enacted penal statutes can prescribe punishments for undesirable conduct. Recent political developments suggest that this legislative freedom may be taken further than ever before. From a constitutional standpoint though, it is far from clear if the state actually has untrammelled discretion in sentencing. For instance, can it execute someone for relatively minor offences like petty theft, or sentence a man to rigorous imprisonment for life if caught driving drunk? Screaming headlines and political ramifications aside, the underlying issue here is whether our Constitution can be concerned with proportionality of punishment while dealing with the legality of penal statutes. In this post, I posit that this specific legal question has been answered in the affirmative, considering the findings of leading case law of the Supreme Court of India while interpreting the text of the Constitution.
Article 21 provides that “No person shall be deprived of his life or person liberty except according to procedure established by law”. A perfunctory reading of this clause suggests that, as far as the state has, one, established a certain procedure through law; and two, such procedure is followed by the state while depriving a person of her life or personal liberty, then such an action of deprival by the state would be permissible. However, this has not meant that unchecked excesses by state agencies under the garb of procedural propriety have been condoned by the courts. In the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that the “procedure established by law” must be just, fair, and reasonable so as to not be in violation of article 21. To put it another way, the Court read three non-textual pre-conditions into the nature of the administrative process, in the absence of which depriving actions of the state will be rendered unconstitutional. While arriving at this outcome, Chief Justice Beg particularly rejects the notion that articles 21 and 19 are independent compartments of rights; rather, they are available together (along with article 14, particularly with regard to reasonableness) when reviewing executive action. While Maneka Gandhi does much more in the realm of article 21 jurisprudence, this facilitative reading permits us to import certain relevant standards that have been laid out with respective to articles 19 and 14.
Article 19 of the Constitution primarily addresses the protection of certain rights (such as speech, assembly, association, movement, profession et cetera). These freedoms, as articulated in clause (1) are circumscribed by the limitations of clauses (2) through (6) – the common criterion of restriction under these clauses is that such restriction must be ‘reasonable’. While there have been many instances of the courts opining on the nature of what this actually entails, for our purposes, we may turn to the case of State of Madras v. V. G. Row. This case dealt with an action of the State of Madras (as it then was) whereby it declared a political organisation to be an unlawful association. In its opinion, the Court reaffirmed the reasoning of previous cases such as Dr. N. B. Khare v. State of Delhi, that article 19 restrictions must be substantially and procedurally reasonable, and that such reasonableness may be indicated by factors such as “the extent of the evil sought to be remedied”, “prevailing conditions”, and “disproportion of imposition”. Granted, Row only envisages this to be applicable to impediments imposed upon article 19 rights. However, Maneka Gandhi clearly expects a harmonious and combined reading of these standards which can help inform the contours of what may be reasonable for the purposes of article 21. Therefore, I contend that proportionality is a relevant consideration when reviewing law that deprives life or personal liberty.
In a similar tenor, I must now address article 14, which prohibits the state from denying to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of laws within India. Most famously, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court held in E. P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu that article 14 entails a prohibition on arbitrariness in state action. Drawing upon this precedent and Maneka Gandhi, the case of Mithu v. State of Punjab sought to apply the principle to a penal provision in a criminal statute. Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which provided for a mandatory minimum sentence of death for those who commit murder while serving a term of life imprisonment, was assailed against the combined significance of articles 14, 19, and 21. The Court struck section 303 down as unconstitutional, for such a sentence, which on no valid basis of classification discriminates between convicts and non-convicts, would be arbitrary – further, the automatic imposition of a sentence of death, which is expected to used sparingly per the judgment in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, would be disproportionately oppressive; for these reasons, the impugned section was held to be in violation of article 21. Chandrachud J illustrates the importance of a proportionality test for the purposes of sentencing – he notes that a savage sentence, such as amputation for theft, would run afoul of article 21; he actively adverts to the reliance upon article 19 standards of reasonableness to assess challenges under article 21. This further reinforces the importance of proportionality, which as we have noted, has been incorporated through Row.
It is true that a substantial bulk of Mithu dealt with the disproportionality parameter, in as much as a criminal statute took away sentencing discretion from courts during trial. However, perhaps the most forceful articulation of the need for proportionate punishment is seen in Vikram Singh v. Union of India. In this case, the appellants sought to challenge the constitutional validity of section 364A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 on the grounds that it prescribed a sentence of death, thereby in violation of article 21, as clarified in Mithu. At the earliest, the Court sought to dissuade the notion of the appellants that section 364A amounted to a mandatory death sentence. As the provision itself reads, death is only one option before the trail court – it may also choose to impose a sentence of imprisonment for life. Therefore, this case is clearly distinguishable from Mithu as the mere option of death as a possible punishment for a crime does not violate article 21. Despite dismissing the instant appeal on this ground, Chief Justice Thakur addresses the general issue of proportionality. He opines that merely because courts are deferential to legislatures on matters of punishment, generally, does not mean that penalties that are “shockingly disproportionate” to the gravity of the underlying offence are immune from constitutional intervention.
The Court then proceeds to categorically import the principle of proportionality in punishment from foreign (particularly, North American) jurisprudence. In Weems v. United States, the Supreme Court of that country affirmed the proposition in favour of ‘graduated’ and ‘proportionate’ punishment, by finding grounding in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Similarly, cases like Enmund v. Florida, Coker v. Georgia, and Solem v. Helm have all held penal statutes to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment on account of being disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying offence. Chief Justice Thakur specifically cites the cases of Harmelin v. Michigan and Ewing v. California to be indicative of a prospective American standard, as culled from past jurisprudence – as far as there is a “reasonable basis for believing” the prescribed punishment “advances the goals” of criminal justice and was arrived at through a “rational legislative judgment”, such statutes may be deemed to be proportionate.
While affirmative reiterations of these principles exist throughout Vikram Singh, the most utility for our purposes in evaluating the Indian constitutional scheme may be derived from the enumeration of guiding considerations at paragraph 49 – first, the general principle is that punishment must be proportionate; second, that there exists a presumption that the legislature (unlike the courts) is best positioned to propose punishment; and third, that the courts must defer to its wisdom in this regard unless the prescription is outrageously disproportionate to the offence or so inhuman or brutal that it would be unacceptable by any standard of decency. This standard if further raised in cases where the prescription is one of death – the Court defers to the high standard of judicial care that is applied to the death penalty, in line with evolving jurisprudence on the issue, while also asserting that the likelihood of this punishment being deemed disproportionate is particularly high. I must reiterate however, that my quest here is to not comment on whether the death penalty is disproportionate in certain cases. Rather, it is whether any punishing statute (including, but not limited to the death penalty) is open for constitutional review on the grounds of proportionality.
It is altogether another matter that the Court in Vikram Singh chose to dismiss the appeal on the grounds that the impugned provision did not offend the aforementioned standard. Nonetheless, these principles undoubtedly constitute the ratio decidendi of this case. Being the leading Supreme Court judgment on this point, it shall be binding on courts throughout India. Hence, any criminal statute that prescribes punishment can be held against this test of proportionality; and if it is found to run afoul of this, that punishment may be declared by our constitutional courts to be ineffective on account of it being in violation of article 21. Whether the recent spate of amendments and legislative proposals merit such consideration is a question for another day.