Should Maru Ram be revisited?
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Published by Advocate John S. Ralph
The interesting article rendered by my friend Mr.B.Vinod in “ Ram Ram Maru Ram” ( 2013 (1) KHC Journal 63 opines that the classical decision rendered by the Constitutional Bench in Maru Ram ( 1980 SC 2147) need to be revisited. The reason stated is that the judgment did not consider section 55 of IPC. I prefer to respectfully disagree with my friend for the simple reason that even if section 55 was referred / considered, the Supreme Court would have come to the same conclusion.
Section 55 of IPC is only directory which enables the government to commute a life imprisonment to a term up to 14 years. Or in other words once the government decides to commute the sentence it shall do it with a maximum term of 14 years. Suppose, the case of a prisoner comes for consideration for commutation only after a term of 14 years, will the government say that it has no power to do it since 14 years have already elapsed? The answer should be in the negative. So even after a term of 14 years, the power under sec.55 IPC is not taken away. At the same time, the government is not at all duty bound to commute a life sentence to a period of 14 years in any case. There are prisoners in all the prisons who have completed this term but not released for various reasons including that of their refusal to go out. Hence sec.55 IPC is only directory and not mandatory.
My learned friend was on a mistaken impression that section 433 A of Cr.P.C which was under consideration in Maru Ram was considering the commutation of life convicts. A close reading of sec.433 A would show that it refers to cases of life convicts who have been sentenced for offences in which DEATH SENTENCE is an ALTERNATIVE PUNISHMENT. For example Murder and its variants coming under sections 302, 303, 307 (II) Waging war and its variants ( 121, 124 A, 132 )and Giving false evidence on which an innocent person is executed (194 (II)) etc.
Sec.433 A says that in such cases the prisoner has to be in prison for a minimum term of 14 years. It does not violate sec.55 of IPC as the author lamented. The classification among persons convicted for major and minor offences is reasonable.
More appropriate section for anxiety in this context is section 54 of IPC which deals with the case of death sentences related offences as in sec.433 A of Cr.P.C. Under that section the Government can even commute a sentence of death to that of fine. So in a way it can over ride section 433 A of IPC. But since the Supreme Court has said that Sec.5 Cr.P.C saves Section 433 A as a special law, Sec.54 IPC cannot over ride Section 433 A. The reason why the Supreme Court did not discuss section 54 IPC is unknown. Whether it was because of their interpretation of section 5 Cr.p.c which need not in clear terms say that it will override section 54 IPC, or because of the fact that they have will fully reserved the operation of section 54 IPC is uncertain. The view that it has willfully avoided considering section 54 is also possible.
For instance, take the case in which the governor refuses to exercise his powers under Article 161 of the Constitution to release a political prisoner whose political colour is adverse to that of the ruling Union Ministry. ( the governor is sitting at the pleasure of the centre and is not under the pressure of the advice of the council of ministers of his state). Then the state government can exercise its power u/s 54 IPC and commute the death sentence to that of fine and thus release the prisoner !
Once we accept the interpretation of section 5 Cr.P.C as correct in Maru Ram, the judgment does not require a further consideration.
But if we say that the Supreme Court did not consider the substantive law in the Penal code, what was omitted by the Apex Courts consideration in Maru Ram was Section 54 and not Section 55 of IPC.
I thank my friend for igniting these humble thoughts.