AuthorKareena Bakhtyarpuri

What is ‘Rarest of rare case’?

The phrase ‘rarest of rare case’ originated from Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab [1]in the year 1980 and which was reiterated by the Apex Court in Machhi Singh[2]. In India, the doctrine ‘rarest of rare’ is used as a measuring yardstick for granting capital punishment for heinous crimes. There is no clear cut definition of ‘rarest of rare.’ Generally, the nature of the offence and the gravity with which the offence is committed is taken into consideration while determining the punishment for an offence.

The Hon’ble court has laid emphasis on the principle that for persons who are convicted for murder, life imprisonment shall be the rule and awarding death sentence an exception.[3] Law should not be used as an instrument for taking life with due concern to the dignity of human life. Human life should not be taken away save in the rarest of the rare case when the alternate option is inarguably foreclosed.

In Machhi Singh Case, the Supreme Court followed the ‘rarest of rare’ doctrine laid down in the case of Bachan Singh[4] where the courts upheld the constitutional validity of awarding capital punishment but with the warning that the same should be awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases. The state shall take resort to this doctrine only when there exists such extraordinary grounds that the Courts are left with no other option and doing so is necessary for the survival of the society as well as the State.

When does a case fall under ‘Rarest of Rare‘ category?

The doctrine was of rarest of rare traces its evolution many years ago. However, in the case of Machhi Singh, the Hon’ble Court laid down certain assessment criteria to determine whether a case falls under the category of ‘rarest of rare’ which can be seen as follows[5]:

  1. Manner of commission of murder – When murder is committed in an extremely brutal, ridiculous, diabolical, revolting or reprehensible manner so as to awaken intense and extreme indignation of the community; for instance
    • When the victim’s house is set on fire with the intention to burn him alive.
    • When the victim is tortured to inhuman acts in order to bring about his/her death.
    • When the body of the victim is mutilated or cut into pieces in a brutal manner.
  2. Motive for the commission of murder – When total depravity and cruelty are motives behind a murder; for instance
    • A hired killer committing murder merely for the sake of monetary rewards,
    • A cold-blooded murder incorporating a thoughtful design in order to get control to inherit property or for any other selfish gains
  3. Socially abhorrent nature of the crime – When murder of the person belonging to one of the backward classes is committed. Cases of bride burning or dowry deaths are also covered under this head. For instance when such a crime is committed in order to terrorize such persons and frighten them into fleeing from a place or in order to deprive them of, or make them with a view to reverse past injustices and in order to restore the social balance.
  1. Magnitude of the crime- When the proportion of the crime is massive, for instance, in cases of commission of multiple murders.
  2. Personality of victim of murder – When the murder victim is
    • an innocent child who could not have not provided even an excuse, much less a provocation, for murder;
    • a helpless woman or a person condensed helpless by old age or infirmity;
    • when the victim is a person vis-a vis whom the murderer is in a position of domination or trust;
    • when the victim is a public figure generally loved and respected by the community for the services rendered by him and the murder is committed for political or similar reasons other than personal reasons.

In order to apply these guidelines inter-alia the following questions may be asked and answered:

  1. Is there something unusual about the crime which renders sentence of imprisonment for life insufficient and calls for a sentence of death?
  2. Are the conditions of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose sentence of death even after the maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offender?

The principle of ‘rarest of rare’ can be divided into parts:-

  1. Aggravating circumstances
  2. Mitigating circumstances

Some of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances indicated in Bachan Singh[6] are: –

Aggravating circumstances:

Circumstances or facts that shed additional light on the heinous or shocking nature of the defendant’s actions are called “aggravating circumstances,” and may be used to increase the severity of the sentence or amount of the award.

  1. if the murder has been committed after previous planning and involves extreme brutality;
  2. if the murder involves exceptional depravity; or
  3. if the murder is of a member of any of the armed forces of the Union or of a member of any police force or of any public servant and was committed—
    1. while such member or public servant was on duty; or
    2. in consequence of anything done or 6 attempted to be done by such member or public servant in the lawful discharge of his duty as such member or public servant whether at the time of murder he was such member or public servant, as the case may be, or had ceased to be such member or public servant; or
  4. if the murder is of a person who had acted in the lawful discharge of his duty under Section 43 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, or who had rendered assistance to a Magistrate or a police officer demanding his aid or requiring his assistance under Section 37 and Section 129 of the said Code.”

Mitigating circumstances:

Circumstances which lighten the blame or culpability are called “mitigating circumstances,” and may be considered by the judge or jury in determining the sentence or award of damages after a judgment has been rendered.

  1. That the offence was committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.
  2. The age of the accused. If the accused is young or old, he shall not be sentenced to death.
  3.  The probability that the accused would not commit criminal acts of violence as would constitute a continuing threat to society.
  4. The probability that the accused can be reformed and rehabilitated. The State shall by evidence prove that the accused does not satisfy the conditions (3) and (4) above.
  5. That in the facts and circumstances of the case the accused believed that he was morally justified in committing the offence.
  6. That the accused acted under the duress or domination of another person.
  7. That the condition of the accused showed that he was mentally defective and that the said defect impaired his capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.

The Court also clarified that while determining the punishment, due regard must be given to the crime as well as the criminal. The aggravating and mitigating circumstances would have to be viewed from the perspective of both the crime and the criminal.


The doctrine has been criticised for various reasons like ambiguity in the application of the doctrine, the application is uncertain as it depends from judge to judge for example, where a case may fall under ‘rarest of rare’ category while for the other judge it may not. As, In the horrifying case of Santosh Kumar Singh v Union Territory of Delhi[7], though Santosh Kumar Singh was convicted of raping the victim and breaking every bone in her body his behaviour was still not considered brutal enough to label as a ‘rarest of rare’ case. It can be concluded that it’s time to re-assess the ‘rarest of rare’ doctrine.

[1] Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) 2 SCC 684.

[2] Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab (1983) 3 SCC 470.

[3] Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) 2 SCC 684.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab (1983) 3 SCC 470.

[6] Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) 2 SCC 684.

[7] Santosh Kumar Singh v Union Territory of Delhi AIR 2010 SC 2357.

About the Author: Kareena is 2017-22 Batch B.A.LL.B(Hons) student at the Institute of Law, Nirma University.

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