Black’s law dictionary defines the term “penal” with regards to a penalty or a punishment.” Chapter III of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 comprises exclusively of punishments. Section 53 of the Code illustrate four major forms of punishment, namely, capital punishment or death sentence, life imprisonment, term imprisonment, forfeiture of property and fine. Imprisonment, further, can further be disintegrated into either constituting simple imprisonment, where freedom and liberty to travel around is withheld from the offender, or may constitute a rigorous imprisonment, which is often accompanied by hard labour that is forced upon the prisoner.
Black’s Law dictionary further defines the term “imprisonment” as “an act of confining a person, especially in a prison. It is the discipline that must be exercised over human beings in close confinement which can never be wholly agreeable to those subject to it”
Life imprisonment is awarded to a convict that has been proved guilty of committing grave crimes prescribed under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Grave offences such as murder (punishable under section 302), criminal conspiracy (punishable under section 120B), any act done with an intent to wage war against Government of India or any Asiatic power in alliance with Government of India (punishable under section 121, 122, 125), sedition (punishable under section 124A), act by a public servant by allowing, aiding prisoner of state or prisoner of war to escape, rescuing or harbouring such prisoner (punishable under section128,130) abetting mutiny (punishable under section131, 132), counterfeiting or importing counterfeit Indian coins (punishable under section 232, 238), rape (punishable under section 376), and other such offences are usually punishable with life imprisonment.
Earlier, a popular notion was already set up among the masses that period of life imprisonment is fourteen years or twenty years from the bare reading of the Code. This was due to inappropriate interpretation of Section 55 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which states that, “In every case in which sentence of imprisonment for life shall have been passed, the appropriate Government may, without the consent of the offender, commute the punishment for imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding fourteen years.” This implies that it is solely upon the decision of the government to convert the period of life imprisonment to fourteen years.
Further, according to section 57 of the Code which describes fractions of the terms of punishment and states that, “In calculating fractions of terms of punishment, imprisonment for life shall be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for twenty years.” However, on the basis of a catena of decisions that the punishment of imprisonment for life handed down by the Court means a sentence of imprisonment for the convict for the rest of his life.
This thought was again reconfirmed in the Court of K.S. Radhakrishnan and Madan B. Lokur where the two-judge bench of Supreme Court opined that, “A convict undergoing life imprisonment is expected to remain in custody till the end of his life, subject to any remission granted by the appropriate government.” And in the seminal case of Birbal Choudhary v. State of Bihar (2017), the Supreme Court held that conversion of life imprisonment to a period of 20-year Rigorous imprisonment was a reduction in itself. Further, as per the bar created by Section 433 – A of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 which mandates that the period of life imprisonment cannot be less than fourteen years. Hence, it can be implied that the period of fourteen years is the minimum possible period that can be served under life imprisonment.
Imprisonment is one of the serious punishments that has not yet been revised. It must be kept in mind that the nature of a civilized society towards a wrongdoer should always be of correction and rectification rather than torture.
The system of law is established in order to deliver justice and not vengeance. Cruel and inhuman punishments are a trait of uncivilized society. A free man can never understand the trauma of long periods of confinement. Although positive and concrete steps have been taken by Government of India for restricted interaction of prison inmates punished under life imprisonment with the outside world, the nature of punishments still needs to undergo serious revision for the betterment of the society as a whole. The punishment should be justified but it must also serve as an example for the society and fear in the minds of potential wrongdoers that no offence would go unnoticed and the guilty shall be punished. In the end, it must act as a deterrence to any potential offences that might occur in future.