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The ‘Rarest of Rare Case’ doctrine has been implemented in the Indian Legal System by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab[1]following the judicial precedent as laid down in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab[2], where the Death Penalty is regarded as a correctional retribution that is awardedin cases accounting for extreme culpableness. This doctrine has not been mentioned anywhere in the statute or any other Act. There is no such legal formula by which the application of this doctrine can be determined. Rather it is a result of the Judicial precedents. While deciding cases of Capital Punishment (or simply the Death Penalty), the Court usually applies its mindset to determine the gravity and cruelty of the crime committed. Capital Punishment is only awarded in those cases where the crime is extremely flabbergasting, psychedelic, and the commission of such a crime is a unique event in the society, which can no ordinary person of prudent nature even think of. Indian Judiciary, however usually refrains from awarding Capital Punishment, rather the maximum it pronounces is Life-Imprisonment. In Independent India, ‘Rarest of Rare Case’ doctrine is used by the judiciary as a measuring tool to award the Death Penalty to the accused criminals if proven guilty of committing the heinous crime. Indian Laws neither upheld the principle of the Death Penalty from a consistent point of view, nor it is completely deferred. Although being limited to a certain extent, Death Penalties can still be awarded in some of the rarest of rare cases like as in Section 121, Section 302, Section 364A and any other section of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) of 1860 recommendingDeath Penalty.

The ‘Rarest of Rare Cases’ doctrine is further sub-divided into two categories, namely –

  • Aggravating Circumstances – The legal term ‘aggravating’ in the case of ‘Rarest of Rare’ Doctrine accounts for the facts of the victim party, who presents to the judge the heinousness and extreme cruelty of the crime and pleads for the justice of the victim while praying for the Capital Punishment against the accused, convicted for that offence. On the basis of this circumstances the Judge applies his judicial mindset to order the Capital Punishment as a mode of justice towards the victim.[3]
  • Mitigating Circumstances – The legal term ‘mitigating’, applies to the defence council, who presents the scenario of the case in favour of the accused, and pleads for not giving the judgement of Capital Punishment. Here the council tries to reduce the heinousness of the crime, and also uses the humanity factor in praying for the life of the accused, convicted for the offence. The judge after considering all the factors, and by applying his judicial mindset tries to not Death Penalty to the accused.[4]


In Independent India, in the years of 1960s and 1970s, Death Penalties were awarded a lot more, making Capital Punishment a norm, whereas the Life-Imprisonment was gradually becoming rare. The first Capital Punishment in Independent India was given to Nathuram Godse in the case of Nathuram Godse v. The Crown[5]for the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Thus, owing to all these circumstances the ‘Rarest of Rare Case’ doctrine was needed to be implemented in India. By, this doctrine, Capital Punishment was made rare, and Life-Imprisonment was made a more favorable punishment. According to Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights[6], by the General Assembly Resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16th December 1966, every living being has an inalienable right to life and must not be awarded a death penalty. But certain countries, that have not yet abolished the culture of Death Penalty can only pronounce such a judgment “for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide[7].


In the landmark judgment of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[8], the Hon’ble Supreme Court gave a new aspect to the interrelationship between Article 14, 19 & 21 of the Indian Constitution. It stated that punishing a person for an offence committed by him must pass the test of all the three Articles from procedural and substantive angles. Later in A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras[9], it was held by the six-judge bench that if any punitive detention or imprisonment is awarded to an accused after being convicted, then it will be out of the scope of Article 19.[10]

In Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab[11], the accused was convicted for committing the crime of murder of 3 persons. The case was decided before the Sessions Court, which awarded Death Penalty to the accused. Later, it was appealed before the High Court, which rejected it and upheld the decision of the Sessions Court. Finally, the appeal was made to Supreme Court regarding the issue that whether the Capital Punishment awarded to the convicted u/s 302 of IPC is constitutional or not? As well as the scope of Section 354(3) of CrPC was also challenged for constitutional validity. The Apex Court dismissed the appeal on a 4:1 majority, stating that the above-mentioned sections are not ultra vires with the Constitution.[12]

In Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab[13], the term ‘Rarest of Rare Case’ was first coined. The Apex Court, tried to lay out certain specific grounds on the basis of which it can be determined that if such a case is falling under the umbrella of ‘Rarest of Rare Case’ or not.

  1. Method of commissioning of the murder – If the homicide or murder is committed in an unimaginable manner with extreme cruelty and heinousness, such that the crime becomes an exceptional crime in the society, creating an anger in the society.[14]
  2. The Crime deserving Hatred in the Society– If the crime is of that nature whose atrociousness and barbarity is of such a level which is socially reprehensible. Even if the homicide is committed with a socially deprived class, then also that crime will fall under the category of the rarest of rare case.[15]
  3. Intensity of the Crime – If the intensity of the crime is much bigger than it can be usually expected to be, then also it can will be included within the ambit of this doctrine. One such example of the intensity is, the commission of several homicides.[16]
  4. Character of the victim of such criminal activity – if the criminal activity (mainly including homicide or murder, in the case of the doctrine of ‘Rarest of Rare’) is committed against an innocent person, who cannot be blamed; or is against an unprotected and unguarded lady; or any other person of such nature – then it will be considered within the meaning of this doctrine.[17]


The first case under the ambit of the doctrine after being laid out in Independent India is the Kehar Singh v. Delhi Administration[18]. The Apex Court upheld the Capital Punishment awarded by the Trial Court as well as the High Court, to the accused after being convicted of the crime of murdering Smt. Indira Gandhi. The courtroom docket held that the murder is the rarest of uncommon instances wherein notable punishment is known as for an expert killer and his schemers.[19] In 2008, in Prajeet Kumar Singh v. State of Bihar[20], the Court observed that Capital Punishment can only be awarded “when a murder is committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of the community.[21] Later, in Santosh Kumar Bariyar v. State of Maharashtra[22], the Apex Court held that “The rarest of rare dictum serves as a guideline in enforcing Section 354(3) and establishes the policy that life imprisonment is the rule and death punishment is an exception.[23]


The belief of ‘Rarest of Rare Cases’ holds a really outstanding role within the Indian Judiciary. The Right to Life as enshrined within the Indian Constitution is given utmost importance. Although it does not mean that any person who has committed a heinous crime can be relieved from such punishment. The Judiciary must provide Justice legally to the victim, but that does not mean, the rights of the accused can be infringed. After the implementation of this doctrine, the Death Penalty has become a truly rare punishment in our legal system, rather Life-Imprisonment is much more preferred. While pronouncing the decision of a case in favor of Capital Punishment, it is a very crucial time for both the Court and the accused, as a human life is going to be terminated on the grounds of law. The term “special reasons” as mentioned u/s 354(3) of CrPC constitutes to this doctrine, as it bounds a Judge legally to cite the reasons for which the extreme punishment is awarded. Also, the abolishment of Section 303 of IPC by the Apex Court in Mithu v. State of Punjab[24], constitutes to the fact that Capital Punishment is truly being made rare legally in the Indian Judiciary System. This theory is invoked in extraordinarily exceptional circumstances, wherever such crime is completely new and un-imaginable before the Judiciary and causing a grievous harm to the plaintiff.[25]Thus, it is expressed that the ism of the Rarest of rare is part a story and part a reality, however in additional senses it is actually a rare event to see in the judicial system.

Author(s) Name: Snehadeep Dalui (Techno India University, West Bengal)


[1]Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab [1983] AIR SC 1957

[2]Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab[1980] AIR SC 898

[3]Pubali Chatterjee &Sayani Das, ‘Analysis of the Rarest of Rare Doctrine in rewarding Death Penalty’ (iPleaders, 9thAugust 2020) <> accessed 5th March 2022


[5]Nathuram Godse v. The Crown[1949]CriLJ 834

[6]International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966

[7]International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (16 December 1966), Part-III Article 6(2) <> accessed 5th March 2022

[8]Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[1978] AIR SC 597

[9]A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madra[1950] AIR 27

[10]Ria Verma, ‘Analysing the Judgement of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)’ (iPleaders, 11 January 2022) <>accessed 5th March 2022

[11]Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab [1980] AIR SC 898

[12]Ria Verma, ‘Analysing the Judgement of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)’ (iPleaders, 11 January 2022) <> accessed 5th March 2022

[13]Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab [1983] AIR SC 1957

[14]Pubali Chatterjee &Sayani Das, ‘Analysis of the Rarest of Rare Doctrine in rewarding Death Penalty’ (iPleaders, 9 August 2020) <> accessed 5th March 2022

[15]Pubali Chatterjee &Sayani Das, ‘Analysis of the Rarest of Rare Doctrine in rewarding Death Penalty’ (iPleaders, 9 August 2020) <> accessed 5th March 2022



[18]Kehar Singh v. Delhi Administration[1988] AIR 1883

[19]Pubali Chatterjee &Sayani Das, ‘Analysis of the Rarest of Rare Doctrine in rewarding Death Penalty’ (iPleaders, 9 August 2020) <> accessed 6th March 2022

[20]Prajeet Kumar Singh v. State of Bihar[2007] Appeal (Crl.) 1621 of 2007

[21]Rashi.Vaishya, ‘The Doctrine of Rarest of the Rare’ (Legal Service India e-Journal) <,highest%20punishment%20of%20the%20land> accessed 6th March 2022

[22]Santosh Kumar Bariyar v. State of Maharashtra[2009] 6 SCC 498

[23]Rashi.Vaishya, ‘The Doctrine of Rarest of the Rare’ (Legal Service India e-Journal) <,highest%20punishment%20of%20the%20land> accessed on 6th March 2022

[24]Mithu v. State of Punjab[1983] AIR SC 473

[25]YashrajBais, ‘Doctrine of Rarest of the Rare Case’ (AdjOnline, 10 August) <> accessed 7th March 2022