Report No. 154
Punishment of Imprisonment for Life, Sentencing and Set-off
1. Section 53 of Indian Penal Code, 1860 as in stood prior to amendment in 1955 sets out six different punishments, the second one being "transportation". Under section 55, I.P.C. in every case in which sentence "transportation" was passed, the Provincial Government could commute the punishment to imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding fourteen years.
In section 53, the punishment, namely, "transportation for life" was substituted by the words "imprisonment for life" by Act 26 of 1955. Section 53A which has been added by Act 26 of 1955 states that in every case in which a sentence of transportation for a term has been passed the offender shall be dealt with in the same manner as if sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for the same term. Questions often arose before the courts whether the punishment of "imprisonment for life" means "rigorous imprisonment for life".
In Gopal Vinayak Godse v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1961 SC 600 the Constitution Bench held that a sentence for "imprisonment for life" prima facie means imprisonment for whole of remaining period of the convicted person's natural life unless the said sentence is commuted or remitted by the appropriate authority under the provisions of I.P.C. or Cr. P.C.
The Law Commission of India in its 39th Report noted that there is no clear provision as to how the person sentenced imprisonment for life should be dealt with under the law as it now stands, namely, whether it should be treated same as sentence of rigorous imprisonment for life or simple imprisonment for life and whether it is a punishment different in quality despite being different in duration from the sentence of imprisonment of either description or for a specified term and whether it is legally permissible for a court passing a sentence to lay down that the imprisonment for life shall be rigorous or simple.
In Godse's case (supra) the Supreme Court, while referring to the section 53A, observed that under that section a person transported for life or any other term before the enactment of that section would be treated as a person sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for life or for a said term. The question again came up in Naib Singh case, 1983 (2) SCC 454.
The Bench after referring to the earlier cases affirmed the view by adding that by necessary implication the sentence for transportation for life which is now substituted by "imprisonment for life" by section 53 awarded for serious offences must mean rigorous imprisonment for life. The Supreme Court also overruled the decision of the Kerala High Court in Mathammal Saraswathi v. State of Kerala, AIR 1957 Ker 102.
The Bench also referred to the Law Commission's 39th Report in which the amendment was suggested, namely, that a new section 56 be inserted to the effect "imprisonment for life shall be rigorous", with a view to resolve the doubts regarding the nature of punishment of imprisonment for life. Accordingly we recommend insertion of new section 56 in the Indian Penal Code to that effect.
2. A perusal of several sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, as well as the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 shows that both the Codes appear to make a distinction between "imprisonment for life" and "imprisonment for a term". Section 53 of the Indian Penal Code mentions the nature of punishments which can be awarded. "Imprisonment for life" and "imprisonment of either description, namely, rigorous or simple" are two types of punishments prescribed therein.
So far as sentence of imprisonment for life is concerned, its nature, namely, whether it should be rigorous or simple, is not specified therein. Section 55 provides for commutation of sentence of imprisonment for life which could be imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding fourteen years. Section 57 lays down that in calculating fractions of terms of punishment, imprisonment for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for twenty years.
A combined reading of these sections would go to show the imprisonment for life could be for a term, namely, for twenty years or, if commuted, for a term of fourteen years. Chapter XXXII of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 deals with execution, suspension, remission and commutation of sentences. Sections 432 to 435 specifically deal with suspension, remission and commutation of sentences. Section 433(b) provides that a sentence of imprisonment for life can be commuted by the appropriate government for imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years or for line.
However, section 433A which was introduced in 1978 by Act No. 45 of 1978, section 32 places a restriction on powers of remission or commutation in certain cases and lays down that notwithstanding anything contained in section 432, where a sentence of imprisonment for life is imposed on conviction of a person for an offence for which death is one of the punishments provided by law, or where a sentence of death imposed on a person has been commuted under section 433 into one of imprisonment for life, such person shall not be released from prison unless he has served at least fourteen years of imprisonment.
Even though this provision has a nexus with section 55 of the Indian Penal Code but imposes a restriction that a convicted person who is sentenced to imprisonment for life, shall not be released unless he has served for at least fourteen years of imprisonment.
A question arose whether the benefit of the set-off contemplated by section 428 of the Code of Criminal Procedure should be available to life convicts and whether the sentence of imprisonment for life can be equated as a sentence for a term. In Kartar Singh v. State of Haryana, AIR 1982 SC 1439 a Bench of three judges held that a clear distinction between imprisonment for life and an imprisonment for a term is maintained in both the Codes and that section 428 would apply only to cases where the sentence of imprisonment is for a term and not in cases where the sentence imposed is imprisonment for life.
In arriving at this conclusion, the Bench referred to Godse's, AIR 1961 SC 600 case and Maru Ram's case, AIR 1980 SC 2147 wherein it was held that imprisonment for life means imprisonment for the whole of the regaining period of the convicted person's natural life. However, the same question came up for consideration again before a Constitution Bench in Bhagirath's case, AIR 1985 SC 1050.
The Constitution Bench, having noted that the expressions "imprisonment for life" and "imprisonment for a term" are used in the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, however, ruled that a person sentenced to imprisonment for life should be held to have been sentenced to a term, namely, the term of his life.
The Constitution Bench also observed that the assumption that the word "term" used in section 428 implies a concept of ascertainability runs contrary to the letter of the law as found in that section which is a benevolent provision. In that view of the matter, the Constitution Bench overruled Kartar Singh's case (supra). It is clear from the aforesaid decision that the Constitution Bench based its finding more on equity, justice and fair play.
We feel that in order to make the provision explicit so as to give benefit of set-off to the life convicts section 428 can be amended by adding the words "or imprisonment for life" after the words "sentenced to imprisonment for a term".