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The legal shield of Periods: When Pre-menstrual Stress Syndrome became a valid criminal defence

Updated: Jun 22

Koninika Bhattacharjee, Content Writer, Nyayshastram

Earlier in 2018, the Rajasthan High Court’s two-judge bench acquitted a woman of murder on the grounds of insanity. PMS triggered her mental imbalance at the time of committing the crime. While one must congratulate the Court on addressing an issue that is generally spoken in hushed tones in India, that is about where the praises ought to end.


The Brief

In 1981, Kumari Chandra, a 21-year-old woman, was accused of murdering three children by pushing them into a well. While two of the victims were rescued, one boy drowned. It was submitted to the Court that at the time of the incident, Chandra was suffering from a “mental disease” known as pre-menstrual stress syndrome, commonly called PMS.[1]

Supported by the statements of multiple medical experts in the field, it was quantified that the condition of PMS can be seen in females before the onset of menstruation. It characterizes two types of symptoms – physical and psychological. Breast pain, abdominal swelling, loss of appetite, migration and sometimes epilepsy are part and parcel of this condition. During this stage, a woman can become so irritable and violent that they can likely cause injuries to themselves and others around – facilitating crimes such as assault and suicide.

Chandra was convicted of murder and attempting to murder by a trial court in 1982. However, the Rajasthan High Court bench of Justice Mohammad Rafiq and Goverdhan Bardhar allowed her the benefit of Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code that pardons any such offence committed by a person due to inability to comprehend a given circumstance because of ‘unsoundness of mind… [which makes her] incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that what he [she] is doing is either wrong or contrary to law.’[2]


The Defence

Law recognizes the concept of actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea , that is, the physical act alone does not consider a person guilty and amens ne sine mente, that is. the mental component in the form of evil intent – guilty mind, is equally important).[3] In short, without the intention and action of an act, a person cannot be held criminally liable for such an act.

A plea of unsoundness of mind or mental illness is usually brought forward as a defence to be saved from inflicting upon the accused of capital punishment. If meeting expectations was not high enough, the law presumes that when every individual reaches the age of discretion, which refers to being sane and owning sufficient reasoning capabilities to know the nature of their activities or actions, they are well - suited to take responsibility for their criminal acts. This stands applicable unless the contrary is proven to the satisfaction of the Court.[4]

In this context, a person of unsound mind is not punished for her crimes, as she is devoid of the free will, intelligence, and knowledge of the consequences of committing an act.[5] This leads us to the crux of Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code:

(1) The accused has to be in a state of unsoundness of mind at the time of committing the act. However, it is the behaviour precedent, consequent and subsequent to the event that may be relevant in determining the mental condition of the accused, but not those that are remote in time.[6]

(2) The accused has to be incapable of knowing or comprehending the nature of the act or do what was either wrong or contrary to law. Here, the interpretation of the term “wrong” is different from that of “contrary to law”.

If anything is wrong, it is not necessarily “contrary to law”. The legal conception of insanity differs significantly from the medical perspective of mental illness. In this regard, not every form or degree of insanity or madness is recognized as a reasonable and adequate excuse in the eyes of the law.


Legal Insanity v. Medical Insanity

According to the medical sciences, almost everyone who commits a crime, and does so for whatever underlying intention there may be, can be considered insane and thus, requires an exemption from any criminal responsibility. However, the legal side of the facts contend that a person must be held liable, despite being insane, as long as she is able to distinguish whether the nature of the act is right or wrong; as long as she has the ability to comprehend that the act carried out is contrary to the law. Thus, the legal test of criminal responsibility observes that an absence of will (intention) comprises of an absence of maturity for rationally defining an act and the prevalence of a morbid mental condition, unlike the perception adopted by medical theories. To this extent, the Supreme Court held that Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code lays this framework of legal test of reasonability in cases revolving around alleged medical insanity.[7] However, the Court has not laid a precise definition for the term ‘mental soundness’ or ‘insanity’. Since there exists mental disorders and unsoundness of mind in varied degrees and forms, not every person ipso facto is relieved of criminal responsibilities[8]. This makes it crucial for the authorities of law to model a clear distinction between legal insanity and medical insanity.

In the given case of Kumari Chandra, all the elements of a legal test of criminal responsibility under IPC Section 84 are being fulfilled. According to the judgement, Chandra’s counsel relied on this provision for her defence and argued that she was “labouring under a defect of reason triggered by pre-menstrual stress syndrome”.[9]


A Precedent Bleeding Red

In the High Court appeal, two contradictory arguments surfaced at the same time by V.R. Bajwa, the appellant’s counsel. First, he claimed that the charges of murder were fabricated against Chandra, deviating her innocence. However, just after a few rounds, he stated that she suffered from PMS, making her “aggressive” a few days before her menstrual cycle.

A large portion of this argument, and the entire judgement per se, is concerning whether severe PMS can be considered as a form of occasional insanity that can compel a woman to ‘lose her mind’ and commit a crime. To arrive at a possible answer, the Courts relied upon several sources – from medical experts to research papers. However, the research documents that the High Court recognizes have mere questionable material, along with the statement of a doctor claiming that he had visited Chandra on three circumstances to treat her “psycho-neurotic disease” that stimulates her to become “violent to the extent of reaching madness. The Court took into consideration an Indian study from 2004 that correlated behavioural tenets of menstruation and crimes so much so that it had a “substantial link between PMS and Behavioural alterations”[10]. What the Court failed to look into is that such a study was based on a landmark British research by Katherine Dalton which was done nearly 60 years ago (in 1959) and included only 96 women participants who were accused of “crimes” like alcoholism and prostitution.[11]

With all the sources cited by the Court that appeared too ‘credible’ to be accurate, why did the Rajasthan High Court easily accept the idea of PMS leading to insanity? Perhaps, this is the by-product of ancient believes. It is said that the uterus of a woman affects her health – physical, mental and spiritual well-being. The uterus was, and still is, usually targeted for all of women’s “tantrums” or “mood swings” – depression, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, physical pain – which eventually gave rise to the term “hysteria”. For centuries, hysteria became a go-to diagnosis by male doctors who could not understand what was going on with the female body. Today, medical technology and knowledge have made it possible to comprehend the workings of women’s health, thanks to evolution. However, a habit-breaking appliance is still the need of the hour. It needs to be understood that a woman bleeds because she creates. Therefore, de-stigmatizing the notion of women being hysteric due to their monthly loss of blood has to be put into effect. By acquitting Chandra on the grounds of insanity induced by PMS, the High Court seemed to have fallen prey to these ‘shenanigans of a hysteric uterus’. The fact that this judgement came from a High Court makes matters even worse.

[1] Kumari Chandra v. State of Rajasthan, D. B. Criminal Appeal No. 44 of 1987 (High Court of Rajasthan, 01/08/2018).

[2] S. 84, The Indian Penal Code, 1960.

[3] CAMPS FE et al., GRADWOHL’S LEGAL MEDICINE (4th ed., 1976).

[4] KNIGHT B et al, MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE AND TOXICOLOGY (6th ed., 1990).

[5] SUBRAHMANYAM B.V. Modi, MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE AND TOXICOLOGY (22nd ed., 1999).

[6] Rattan Lal v. State of Madhya Pradesh JT 2002 (7) SC 627

[7] Hari Singh Gond v. State of Madhya Pradesh (2008) 16 SCC 109.

[8] Surendra Mishra v. State of Jharkhand (2011) 11 SCC 495.

[9] Id. at 1.

[10] Dr. Harinder Singh, Dr. Rani Walia, Dr. R. K. Gorea & Dr. Annu Maheshwari, Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) The Malady And The Law, The Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine 129, 131 (2004), available at http://medind.nic.in/jal/t04/i4/jalt04i4p129.pdf, last seen on 29/05/2020.

[11] Katharina Dalton, Mestruation and Crime, British Medical Journal 1752, 1753 (1961), available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1970933/pdf/brmedj03030-0034.pdf, last seen on 29/05/2020.

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