Sunil Batra v Delhi Administration

Author: Manan Agrawal, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.


1980 AIR 1579, 1980 SCR (2) 557

Bench: Krishnaiyer, V.R.



DATE OF JUDGMENT- 20/12/1979


Mr. Batra was found guilty by the sessions court of the offence of murder and was awarded capital sentence in January 1977. Till then he was a ‘B’ Class prisoner eligible for certain amenities. After the death penalty was pronounced, the superintendent of prison took away from him the ‘B’ Class facilities and locked him up in a single cell with a small walled yard attached beyond the view of other human beings except for the jail guards and formal visitors who visited in the discharge of their official duties and few callers on rare occasions. He filed an appeal against his conviction and sentence to the High Court which dismissed the appeal. He also challenged in the High Court his quasi-solitary confinement but without success. [1] [2] 

The petitioner Sunil Batra is a convict under the death sentence lodged at Tihar central jail in Delhi. He wrote a letter to a Judge of the Supreme court regarding a complaint of a brutal assault by a Head Warden of the Tihar Central jail on another prisoner, Prem Chand. This letter was treated as Public Interest Litigation under article 32 of the constitution by the Supreme court. In this letter,  Mr.Sunil mentioned a crime of torture practiced upon another prisoner, Prem Chand, allegedly by a jail warder Maggar Singh as a means to extract money from the victim through his visiting relatives.

The court issued notice to the state and the concerned officials and Dr.Y.S. Chitale and Sri Mukul Mudgal were appointed as amicus. They were authorized to visit the prison, meet the prisoner, and see all relevant documents and interview witnesses so as to enable them to inform themselves about the surrounding circumstances and the cruel scenario of events.

The prisoner Prem Chand was kept in a punishment cell which according to Dr. Chitale was similar to the type of insulated confinement condemned by this court in Sunil Barta’s case (AIR 1978 SC 1675). Prem Chand sustained serious and anal injuries on or about August 26, 1979, because a rod was driven into that sore aperture to inflict inhuman torture.

It was entered by Dr. V.K.Kapoor on 2-10-1979 in the Jail hospital register that one prisoner Prem Chand had developed a tear in the anus due to force insertion of the stick by someone. He requires surgical repair and his bleeding has not stopped. He is to go to Irwin hospital casualty ward immediately.  After the prisoner was subjected to brutal hurt he was removed to the jail hospital and later to the Irwin hospital. But after he was discharged from the hospital he was not taken due care by the jail authorities.

Issues framed:-

  1. Has the court jurisdiction to consider prisoner’s grievance, not demanding release but, within the incarcerator circumstances, complaining of ill-treatment and curtailment short of Illegal detention?
  2. What are the broad contours of the Fundamental Rights, especially Article 14,19 and 21 which belong to a detainee sentenced by Court?
  3. What judicial remedies can be granted to prevent and punish their breach and to provide access to prison justice?
  4. What practicable prescriptions bearing on prison practices can be drawn up by the Court consistently with the existing provisions of the Prisons Act and Rules bent to shape to conform to Part III?
  5. What prison reform perspectives and strategies should be adopted to strengthen, in the long run, the constitutional mandates and human rights imperatives?


The Supreme Court explained the powers of the High court under article 226 and Supreme court under article 32 of the Constitution and observed that the courts have wide powers under these articles including powers to issue any of the writs. In this respect, the court referred its judgment and statutory law of other states also.

This court observed that the court has the power and responsibility to intervene and protect the prisoner against mayhem crude or subtle and may use Habeas Corpus for enforcing in-prison humanism and forbiddance of harsher restraints and heavier severities than the sentence carries.

Court by referring to Prisons act and rules and Punjab prison manual observed that the court understands these provisions to cover the ground of reception of grievance from prisoners and issuance of orders thereon after prompt inquiry. The district magistrate said that in this capacity he is a judicial officer and not an executive head and must function independently of the prison executive. To make prisoner’s right in correctional institutions viable this Court directed the district magistrate concerned to inspect the jails in his district once every week, receive complaints from individual prisoners, and enquire into them immediately.

Court, in conclusion, held that Prem Chand has been tortured illegally and the Superintendent cannot absolve himself from responsibility even though he may not directly be a party. The supreme court directed the Superintendent to ensure that no corporal punishment or personal violence on Prem Chand shall be inflicted. No irons shall be forced on the person of Prem Chand in vindictive spirit. Some directions were also given to the state such as to prepare a Hindi prison’s handbook etc.

Thus, the petition was allowed and directed a writ to issue, including all mandates and further order that a copy of the judgment be sent for suitable action to the Ministry of Home Affairs and to all the state governments since prison justice has pervasive relevance.


Judiciary has an important watchdog role to play in ensuring that fundamental rights are not denied even to a group as politically powerless as prisoners. The decision of the Supreme Court is a revolutionary judgment given by a constitutional bench preserving the Fundamental Rights of the prisoners by invoking Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution for guarding against the wretched environment of the jail. The Court reiterated the constitutional mandate that no prison law can deny any fundamental rights of the prisoner. Disciplinary autonomy in the hands of the jail staff violates human rights and prevents prisoners from grievances from reaching the judiciary. The disciplinary need of keeping apart a prisoner must not involve the inclusion of harsh elements of punishment. The liberal paroles, open jails, frequency of family meetings, location of convicts in jails nearest to their homes tend to release stress, relieve distress, and ensure security better than flagellation and fetters.

The domestic laws govern the establishment of and administration of prisons as well as the rights of the inmates. Although prisoners do not have full Constitutional rights, they are protected by the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This protection requires that the prisoners be afforded a minimum standard of living. Prisoners retain some other Constitutional rights including due process in their rights to administrative appeals. Prisoners are therefore protected against unequal treatment on the basis of race, sex, and creed. Prisoners have also limited rights to speech and religion. The difficulty in dealing with abuses in police detention and in the prisons is exacerbated by the decentralization of authority in India. A determination to correct these abuses at the central government level would not suffice. The governments of the various states would have to decide to end torture by the police and to end the mistreatment of people who make up the bulk of the prison population, and enforce those decisions.