Life Imprisonment Must Be Abolished



“Supreme Court has said that life imprisonment meant behind bars for life. It is worse than death to keep a person confined for his entire life in jail rather than taking his life.”



- Justice VR Krishna Iyer in The Economic Times dated 11 February 2013

Most tragic that why no one barring a few exceptions like the eminent jurist and former Supreme Court Justice late VR Krishna Iyer ever demands the permanent abolition of life imprisonment from our lapidated legal system while we keep hearing every now and then repeated demands for abolition of death penalty? Why should life imprisonment not be abolished permanently now itself? Why should the life term punishment exist at all in our penal laws when it is worse than death penalty about which there can be no two opinions as Justice VR Krishna Iyer has very rightly pointed out? It is high time and now Centre and our law makers must seriously deliberate on this to arrive at the right conclusion.

Let me state this most upfront that India is no longer a slave of Britain that the laws made by them in 1860 cannot be adequately amended in 2021 to meet the present circumstances 161 years later. Laws should be retired precisely as they are made – routinely and continuously as our PM Narendra Modi keeps reiterating also! What I find most disturbing is that now the life imprisonment has been made most worst and we have left even the punishment given during British rule behind! During British rule, life imprisonment meant 14 years and after independence even though in some cases they approved it but of late it has been meant to mean whole life without any remission as the Supreme Court recently held also unless the Governments prefers to do so under the relevant provisions of the CrPC. This is most concerning to note! I am sure that in coming time Supreme Court too will realize this when a Judge of the wisdom of Justice VR Krishna Iyer will sit there. To be brutally honest, I see in Justice Dr DY Chandrachud that wisdom and I am sure that my unflinching faith in him shall stand vindicated in the years to come!

Let me ask few soul searching questions: Why can’t criminals be reformed? Why can’t they be rehabilitated? Why can’t they be taught in jail the values of humanity, tolerance and pardon? Why can’t they contribute to the betterment of society? Why can’t we shed off our age-old mental block and false prejudice that, “Once a criminal is always a criminal”? Why do we forget that one of the killers of late Rajiv Gandhi, our former PM scored more than 95% in an exam which he gave while in jail which most of us never have been able to score despite getting best facilities? Why can’t he be rehabilitated? Why do we forget that even many terrorists who are brainwashed on how best to destroy India in foreign hostile nations like Pakistan have been reformed and rehabilitated after they realize their utter folliness and after they are admonished by their own parents and relatives and have even later joined forces and sacrificed their lives fighting terrorists themselves? 

Needless to say: Life imprisonment is the worst crime that can ever be committed by anyone and even State cannot be given the licence to commit the most heinous crime on earth! But what we see on ground is completely astounding and life imprisonment keeps getting conferred at the drop of a hat which is most unfortunate, to say the least! Our law makers must pay some attention to this punishment of life imprisonment being vested in so many Sections of IPC more than 40 and being conferred so liberally and so also must human right activists and others raise this issue forcefully in each and every forum!

Yet, alas, we never hear even a whimper of protest from any human right or social activist or any eminent legal luminary barring certain notable exceptions and that too not very vociferously which is most regrettable, to say the least! I am yet to read a single article in my life on life imprisonment even though I have read endless number of articles on death penalty! I have myself written many times on death penalty but this is the first time that I am attempting to write on life imprisonment! This itself proves that this burning topic which is the worst form of human rights violations has never received any attention of any kind from anywhere in the world and even our Law Commission has never given it a food of thought even though it keeps on reviewing death penalty from time to time!

It goes without saying that the Sections in IPC or any other penal law which mandate death penalty can be counted in finger tips in one hand alone but life imprisonment is inundated in so many Sections and in so many penal laws that a lot of unremitting hard work has to be done to count the exact number of Sections which prescribe life imprisonment! Yet all the time we hear all the brouhaha over death penalty by not only human rights activists and eminent legal luminaries but also by our Central government, Law Commission, academicians etc! Isn’t it a supreme irony over which no one not even our Law Commission bothers to even brood over? You tell me if I am wrong on this score!

Let me be very direct in saying this from the innermost core or bottom of my heart – As a great civilization who has always followed the non-violent, love and tolerant ideas of Buddha, Nanak and Mahatma Gandhi, India must put the punishment of life imprisonment to where it truly belongs – in the museum and in the past pages of history. It is rightly said that, “Two wrongs cannot make a right”. The earlier we realize this, the better it shall be in the interest of humanity and justice!

Truth be told, there are many including me who also feel that terrorist too can be brainwashed not in the manner Pakistan or our other hostile nation does but in a real positive sense and they too once reformed should be allowed to come back to the mainstream and live a normal life like others. My best friend Sageer Khan once said to me way back in 1994 that, “Defend a rapist or a dacoit or a robber or a murderer or any other criminal but never ever in life defend a terrorist. I say so because a rapist or a dacoit or a robber or a murderer never goes to Pakistan or any other foreign nation to get training on how best to destroy India. Moreover, a rapist or a dacoit or any other criminal adversely affects one or a few individuals but terrorists are a potent threat not to just one or few individuals to the very existence of our whole nation.” I immediately asked him : “Does a country which has rapists or dacoits or corrupt or murderers or any other criminals really need Pakistan’s ISI or Pakistan’s Army trained terrorist to destroy India? Who trains our politicians to hold talks and dialogues with terrorists and swindle away unlimited money for their own pocket and allow millions of poor to die hungry?” Sageer Khan then endorsed my stand and admitted that, “Yes, you are right that criminals are criminals.” We have seen for ourselves how so many terrorists after being reformed have got absorbed in the mainstream. I do, however, agree that terrorists should be allowed to join the mainstream after it is thoroughly confirmed that he/she has reformed and shown genuine interest in leading a normal life again and still it should be made ensured that he/she again does not go back to the same old dirty path of terrorism which is the biggest threat to the very existence of our nation. 

It merits no reiteration that life term under no circumstances can ever be justified. No matter how heinous any crime any criminal may have committed, there is always a possibility of reforming but life term forever closes that option which I strongly disapprove. We need to change our mental level of thinking and learn to be more tolerant even towards those who have gone on the wrong track! Of course, I don’t say that they should not be punished but simultaneously we must make sure that they too are given an opportunity of returning to the mainstream so that their whole family benefits especially those who are totally dependent on them like aged parents, wife, children etc!

Let me be direct in asking: What sense does it make to lock a person inside jail for whole life? Why should instead such person not be made to do service which can benefit the society at large without paying him/her anything in return and yes, if someone is dependent on him/her for survival then directly giving to the concerned dependent some money? Will this not benefit the whole society as also his/her family who were not partner in the crime while punishing him/her at the same time? Our lawmakers and Centre must seriously dwell on this!

Why should life imprisonment exist at all even for the most heinous crimes? Why can’t the criminals be punished and then allowed to contribute their bit to society by releasing them after few years? Why can’t we come out of our medieval slavish mindset which firmly believes in “Once a criminal always a criminal”? Why can’t such criminals who are guilty of committing the most heinous crimes be reformed and compulsorily made to contribute their service to the disabled, orphans, street dogs, other uncared animals and poorest of poor instead of just latching them behind bars for their whole life? Why don’t we realize that society gains nothing by just botching them inside Tihar jail or any other jail for the rest of their lives? It is high time that we at least now change our primitive mindset for the betterment of the whole society at large! The earlier we do this, the more better it shall be in the supreme interest of humanity!

What a supreme irony that according to the government itself, only 54 persons have been executed since independence as reported in ‘The Times Of India’ newspaper dated August 25, 2014 but yet so much of brouhaha is made of death penalty! On the contrary, endless number of persons have been sentenced to life imprisonment since independence and yet we hardly hear any voice of human rights activists to repeal it forever in the supreme interest of protection of humanity, life and personal liberty of not just common citizens but also criminals! Criminals too are like us, it is only that due to some circumstances and wrong company that they get involved in some wrong doing for which they certainly must be punished but condemning them to prison for life can in no way be the ideal solution!

It is high time and now not just Centre but even our Law Commission too must do a thorough introspection and deep research on it to get to the bottom of the matter. I am sure that they too will ultimately come to the logical conclusion that in a modern, civilised society, life imprisonment simply serves no relevant purpose other than satisfying few sadistic egos and must therefore be stamped off all our statutes and penal laws. Only then can we call ourselves tolerant, civilised and modern in the true sense! At least I feel in this manner. You or for that matter anyone else including Centre is fully entitled to differ with me on this count.

At least to the best of my knowledge, I have never heard even once of the Law Commission of India reviewing the abolition of life imprisonment even though it has reviewed death penalty in the past and now too has decided to embark on the same exercise with a fresh look and it needs no rocket science to conclude that it is only due to unremitting pressure of human rights activists, lawyers and other intellectuals! The Supreme Court earlier while rejecting the challenge to the death penalty had quoted the 1967 report of the Law Commission ( which was 35th Report ) which had said that, “Having regard, however, to the conditions in India, to the variety of social upbringing of its inhabitants to the disparity in the level of morality and education in the country, to the vastness of its area, to the diversity of its population and to the paramount need for maintaining law and order in the country at the present juncture, India cannot risk the experiment of abolition of capital punishment.”

The Law Commission of India in its 262nd report also rightly favoured abolition of death penalty for all offences except terror related offences and waging war against the state. But what about life imprisonment? Not a single word I have ever heard as the Law Commission has never reviewed its practical utility. But it is high time and now at least the Law Commission must review it and submit its enlightening recommendations in this regard so that this most inhuman form of punishment is very rightly thrown to the dustbin for the ultimate purpose of being consigned to the flames!

It is a no-brainer that the easiest way to die is by hanging. Don’t we know this simple basic fact which is a matter of common knowledge that how many people commit suicide every year by hanging alone? What to say about committing suicide by other means! Why did one of the accused in the Delhi Nirbhaya gang rape commit suicide? Even eminent lawyers, judges, senior army officers, police officers, doctors etc keep on committing suicide time and again because it is most difficult to stay alive and lead a frustrated life! We had seen how the ex DGP of Assam Shankar Baru committed suicide after his name figured in a scam! Such people cannot serve life term by staying alive even in open and opt for committing suicide! There are many more such instances!

For God sake, at least now think about those who have to spend their entire life in prison? It is the worst form of torture and I personally consider it the worst form of crime on earth, worse than even murder, rape, dacoity or even terrorism! It is the worst form of crime perpetrated by State! Terrorists are trained in Pakistan and other foreign countries but who trains State itself to inflict this worst punishment which is termed as “life term”?

Why do most of us fail to appreciate the basic fact that rigorous life imprisonment is much more than painful than capital punishment where a criminal is killed in just one fell stroke only? It should not be lost on us that even Mohammad Afzal Guru who has been hanged in Parliament attack case had rued when alive that,“I don’t think the UPA government can ever reach a decision. Congress has two mouths and is playing a double game. I really wish LK Advani becomes next PM as he is the only one who can take a decision and hang me. At least my pain and daily sufferings would ease then. Cumbersome legal procedures and prolonged periods of solitary confinement are inhuman and cruel. Life has become hell in jail. I don’t wish to be a part of the living dead.” This itself is adequate testimony to prove my basic point that life term is worse than capital punishment which under no circumstances can ever be justified!

Even a criminal can be reformed and absorbed in the mainstream! Moreover let us not forget that it is our society which prepares the crime itself and the criminals only commit it falling prey for which they alone cannot be blamed. Definitely their crime cannot be condoned at all but just awarding life imprisonment is no solution rather is worse than the disease or problem itself. We must think from a more broader angle of devising more ways and means to curb the increasing crime by striking at the very root of the problem due to which more and more persons are becoming criminals and this again is possible if their basic mindset is changed and they are made to believe that their best interest lies in reforming themselves!

Before winding up, let me clarify to my esteemed readers: I am not a spokesperson of criminals nor do I justify in any manner the heinous crimes committed by them! All that I am trying to say is: They too must be given a chance to reform, rehabilitate and resurrect as good citizens after cooling their heels for some years in prison! Why can’t they be given a chance to live a normal life? Let us not forget: Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees protection of right to life and personal liberty of all citizens which certainly includes criminals also! To be sure, when such an eminent jurist like Justice VR Krishna Iyer who is a former Judge of the Supreme Court can belive in “Operation Valmiki” then why can’t we and our society as a whole believe in the same? Justice Krishna Iyer had hit the nail on the head when he had said a long time back that,“I believe in Operation Valmiki because every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” Most unfortunately, this is what our lawmakers and successive governments in the Centre have always ignored! Rules made by our former colonial rulers – Britishers who treated Indians like servants are still continuing more or less intact and hardly few changes have been made which is the real tragedy! Just mourning won’t do. Such outmoded and archaic colonial laws needs to be thrown out or at least amended to meet the present circumstances! 

When Centre can be so large hearted to a Pakistani army invader like Gen Musharraf who even threatened to nuke India and heaped Kargil war on us which he masterminded in which we lost more than five hundred soldiers as per official figures even though the unofficial figure is quite high yet Centre welcomed him within three months in 1999 to accord him a grand reception and many big media houses welcomed him and honoured him grandly then why can’t we demonstrate an iota of kindness for our very own people who are Indians and give them an opportunity to reform, rehabilitate and return to the national mainstream by which not only they but their entire family especially those who are wholly dependent will benefit immensely? Centre must really ponder in right earnest!

It is my humble request to our law makers, law commission, government and policy makers to please dwell over it and take a decision appropriately as per their own wisdom after weighing in all the factors! The earlier this is done, the better it shall be for not only those languishing in jails but also their families as a whole! These days all newspapers are flooded with reports that the Law Commission is seriously reviewing the growing demand of abolition of death penalty in India permanently! If death penalty can be abolished then why can’t life imprisonment be also abolished? How I wish there were more of Justice Krishna Iyer who could raise emphatically their voice against life imprisonment which is the worst punishment!

To put things in perspective, Centre must learn something from Punjab government who worked out the premature release of Gurmeet Singh Pinky, a Babbar Khalsa militant-turned-inspector convicted of murder where life term was done in 7 years and seven and a half months and will spend the rest of his life as a free citizen as was reported in ‘The Indian Express’ newspaper dated August 21, 2014! There are many such unreported cases but what is most unfortunate is that only a few offenders having some push and pull have been able to avail of such exclusive benefit and majority still are compelled to languish in jail for the rest of their life!

It is in the supreme interest of humanity that life imprisonment must be abolished once and for all. The earlier this is done, the better it shall be in the interest of humanity! There is not even an iota of doubt about it. This alone explains why such a legendary jurist and former Supreme Court Judge – Justice Krishna Iyer was unequivocal in advocating for abolishing of life imprisonment as it is the worst form of crime! That’s all I have to say on this! I hope students, law researchers, human rights activists and lawyers and also Judges do more introspection on this and seriously analyse what I have said most humbly!



Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,

s/o Col BPS Sirohi,

A 82, Defence Enclave,

Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,

Meerut -250001, Uttar Pradesh

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