A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court clarified a very important question in a reference made to it in the batch of appeals led by Muthuramalingam v. State [Crl. Appeal No. 231-33/2009 decided on 19.07.2016]. The question was whether courts order life sentences to run consecutively or must such terms always run concurrently? The unanimous answer is that two life terms must run concurrently. The issue arose because of contradictory decisions having been passed by benches of lesser strength in the Supreme Court. The clarification was necessary and welcome. Such sentences are obviously contrary to the idea of reformation through sentencing and must not be part of a system like India's which professes to support those values.
The reasoning and analysis do not hit the mark, though, and it appears too simplistic especially when the same logic is repeated in the decision itself. For the Constitution Bench, the simple reason behind this conclusion is that it is absurd for a convict to be serving a sentence after he has already died, for life terms in India mean prison terms that run for the natural life of a convict. The Court relies on Section 427(2) of the Cr.P.C. to point out how the code mandates that those serving life sentences, if sentenced to another life term, shall serve the two sentences concurrently.
Last time I checked, the United States, Canada, and South Africa (to name prominent commonwealth jurisdictions) allow for a back-to-back life sentence. So there may be some reason behind the decision to allow such judicial discretion. Could the five judges, perhaps, have delved deeper into issues of sentencing theory and the symbolic value of multiple life terms? In an era where the role of the victim has been heightened in the criminal process the Court could have considered the symbolic importance of the convict serving different sentences for the injury suffered by the different victims. A perusal of the decisions mentioned in Muthuramalingam where sentences post life terms were given earlier show how courts were sensitive to the nature of the crime - acknowledging the communicative aspect of the sentence. It is an argument that does carry weight. But, the decision never gets past beyond the absurdity of a convict being sentenced to a sentence after his life is over.
In India we don't have a conventional parole system as might be seen in the west. Convicts may seek a remission, but they don't become entitled to an early release after a certain period of time. They can seek a release in the middle of their prison term for a limited period, and this process is called 'furlough' and 'parole'. Furlough is a potentially longer release for it allows convicts a limited time out of prison each year. So, given that we have these rules, what about furlough then? A convict serving concurrent life terms in Delhi needs to have served three years to be entitled to some release on furlough [the Delhi rules are accessible here]. This calculation would double if sentences were imposed consecutively, making it at least six years for a double life term. Isn't that an interest that the court ought to have considered? This argument is also often used in the United States, and the Court could have benefitted sentencing theory in India by engaging with the argument.
Unfortunately, then, while the decision is excellent in the end-result achieved, the means leave much to desire. Sentencing theory in India is possibly the least critically examined branch of the criminal law at every level. This decision only serves to reinforce that observation.