The Supreme Court, in a majority judgment delivered on April 7, 1983, struck down as unconstitutional S. 303, I.P.C. and ruled that there shall be no mandatory sentence of death for the offence of murder. A five-judge constitution bench, presided over by Chief Justice Y. V. Chandrachud observed that all murder cases would now fall under S. 302, which deals with punishment for murder.
Mithu and several other life convicts had, in three writ petitions, two criminal appeals and one special leave petition challenged the constitutional validity of S. 303 on the ground that it violated Art. 14 (equality before law) and Art. 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Constitution.
The Chief Justice delivered the judgment on behalf of Mr. Justice Murtaza Fazal Ali. Mr. Justice V.D. Tulzapurkar, Mr. Justice A. Varadarajan and himself, Mr. Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy delivered a separate but concurring judgment.
Mr. Justice Chandrachud held that S. 303 violated the guarantee of equality contained in Art. 14 as also the right conferred by Art. 21 of the Constitution that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. Section 303, the judges observed, had originally been conceived to discourage assaults by life-convicts on the prison staff but the legislature had chosen a language which far exceeded its intention.
The section also assumed that life-convicts were dangerous breed of humanity as a class but that was not supported by any scientific date. Since death sentence had been made mandatory by S. 303 in regard to a particular class of persons it had deprived them of an opportunity under S. 235(2), Cr. P.C. to show because why they should not be sentenced to death. Similarly the Court was relieved of its obligation under S. 354(3), Cr. P.C. to state the special reasons for imposing the death sentence.
The Supreme Court described the provision of S. 303 as an anachronism since the lifer had no opportunity of defending himself and the court did not have any other opinion but to impose the death sentence. The learned judges observed that here were 51 Sections of the Indian Penal Code which provided for the sentence of life imprisonment.
It defied all logic why such a provision was made and what social purpose could be served by sentencing a forger (citing an example) to a compulsory punishment of death for mere reason that he was undergoing life imprisonment for forgery when he committed the offence of murder.
There was no valid rational justification for classifying persons who commit murders whilst they were undergoing life imprisonment distinguishing them from those who commit murders while not being a lifer. Death sentence was mandatory in the case of the former and optional in the case of the latter class.
Mr. Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy observed that S. 303 was an anachronism and out of tune with the march of the times. Such a law must be stigmatized as arbitrary and oppressive.
The Bench accordingly held that all cases of murder will now fall under S. 302, I.P.C., and there shall be no mandatory sentence of death for the offence of murder.