The extent of the effect of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) is not commonly discussed or known to many. The fact that a woman undergoing PMS is faced with irritability, tension, depression, breast tenderness, bloating and mood swings are things PMS is associated with. But can it actually cause a woman to commit a crime?
In what is a first in Indian jurisprudence, the defence of unsound mind caused due to symptoms of PMS was upheld by the Rajasthan High Court. New questions have emerged in light of the judgment — is there any proximate connection between PMS and insanity? If such a connection could be established by the accused, can it be upheld as a general defence under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC)?
In popular discourse, the stigma associated with menstruation ensures that the issue is not discussed freely, even among women. The understanding of menstruation and associated symptoms in the general populace is also lacking. The issue remains a closeted topic for discussion, almost exclusively between women. As a consequence, academic and legal research in India suffers from a lack of extensive literature on the topic.
Facts of the case
The prosecution's case was that the accused, while escorting three children back from their school on the pretext of showing them a temple, pushed them into a nearby well. Out of the three, one boy ended up drowning in the well.
The trial court convicted her for murder (Section 302 IPC), attempt to murder (Section 307 IPC) and unlawful compulsory labour (Section 374 IPC). On appeal before the high court, the defence lawyer set up the defence under Section 84 IPC — referring to PMS as a ‘mental disease’, and that this was the underlying the cause of the “unsoundness of mind”.
The appreciation of evidence
While looking into the defence of the accused, the high court accepted the arguments of the accused, relying on the testimonies of various “expert” witnesses. One of the witnesses, Dr Mahesh Chandra Aggarwal, referred to her condition as "psycho-neurotic disease" resulting out of the premenstrual stage which causes acts of violence and suicide.
Another witness, Dr GB Advani, professor and head of the department of psychiatry at SP Medical College, Bikaner, stated that there are two symptoms of PMS: bodily symptoms and psychological symptoms. He stated that in 5 percent of the cases, women were capable of being psychotic and dangerous to themselves and others.
Curiously, the high court was not inclined to look into the testimony of the children as they felt that there could have been a possibility that they were tutored by the prosecution.
The high court acquitted her and stated that the accused was “suffering from unsoundness of mind and was labouring under a defect of reason triggered by premenstrual syndrome”.
Literature on the subject
Several authorities were relied on by the high court to understand the nature of PMS in women which stated that behavioural changes induced by PMS can affect females to such an extent that they can commit crimes or engage in unlawful behaviour.
The report further stated that criminal behaviour associated with symptoms of PMS could even be admissible as evidence in trial and might form a plea of insanity for some female offenders.
International stance on PMS and the link to insanity
In Europe, England and France have accepted the concept of PMS syndrome as a form of insanity by reducing the sentence in such cases.
A similar issue regarding the appreciation of evidence in cases involving women undergoing ‘Battered Wife Syndrome’ (BWS) had previously arisen in foreign jurisdictions. BWS is a scenario where a woman is so traumatised by her partner's abuse that she may believe she is in danger even when she's safe.
Courts in foreign jurisdictions have expressed disagreement on whether the study on such subjects like BWS has been sufficiently developed to permit an expert opinion. The US courts have held in cases such as Ohio vs Thomas, that BWS has to be tested on the touchstone of common accepted scientific knowledge and that it had not attained a sufficient degree of acceptance in the scientific community.
The fallout of the judgment
The high court has now established the phenomenon of PMS triggering violence in women through this judgment, in effect recognising that it is “common accepted scientific knowledge”. The high court’s view is supported by published materials of many researchers who have concluded that PMS may, along with other factors, produce striking personality changes in patients. Research and literature on PMS studies state that release of endocrine during PMS can cause disturbed or even psychotic states in women.
On a positive note, the approach used by the Rajasthan High Court — using expert witness testimonies and placing heavy reliance on academic and research literature, is a welcome step. Lest we forget, a retired judge of the same high court made some rather memorable statements on the reproductive processes of peacocks.
Doubts still remain as to whether PMS will be an accepted form of defence and how the Supreme Court would interpret this issue over time. The accused merely has to establish her defence on the standard of preponderance of probabilities. This means that the accused just needs to prove enough evidence, so as to tip the balance.
Is this a good enough standard of proof for such specific cases like PMS, where establishing a proximate connection with insanity is dubious at this point of time? Whether this opens a can of worms or ushers in a new chapter in criminal jurisprudence is what will intrigue criminal lawyers and jurists alike.
Malavika Rajkumar is a Research Fellow at Nyaaya which is a free, non-profit resource explaining Indian laws. It is one of the verticals of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
Updated Date: Aug 12, 2018 07:51 AM