• Lex Specialis

Insanity defense in India

- Sumeet Singh*


The concept of responsibility connects with our fundamental convictions about human nature and dignity and everyday experience of guilt including blame and punishments lying within us. The recognition of ‘actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea’, which basically is that the physical act alone does not conclude a person to be guilty has been actively practiced in India. In modern law, the intention is always taken into account that is the ‘mens rea’ whenever any act of offence is committed. The Indian Penal Code has aligned numerous punishments and penalties for any misconduct or wrong that may be civil or criminal in nature. To every such action of the provisions, the guilty is equally privileged under a set of defenses lined up for him. One such defense prevailing in the Indian judicial system is the defense of insanity. Breathing life under section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, the defense describes provision available to the person of unsound mind. This is not only a general exception but one of the most used defence at least in India. This defense is based on the premise, where a person who commits the offense, cannot be held liable. Although the person has to be proved to be of unsound mind. According to law, the person who is not in the right state of mind, is vulnerable in nature. They are unaware about the nature of the actions they commit and are also ignorant of the consequences followed up by the act. The term insanity is a much more versatile concept than it seems. The imperative term has a distinguished meaning legally altogether. The insanity law has proven to be of practical importance in understanding the flawed nature of the defenses the IPC upholds. The excusable act is the reason for major acquittals in the country. With high acquittal level under the provision, the law definitely seems to have loopholes in the procedure.


The insanity law has a historical revolution with acquittal of an individual who attempted to kill the Prime Minister of Britain. This defense has been in existence for many centuries; however, it took a legal position since the last few centuries. The very famous McNaghten rule is the foundation of the codified insanity laws in the world. Under the law, it must be clearly demonstrated that the accused was clearly in an insane state of mind during commission of the offence, while being unaware about the nature of the act committed. The English criminal law validates the law of insanity as a legible defense under the general exceptions. In 1843, Daniel McNaughten, a wood turner in Glasgow, shot Edward Drummond, the chief secretary of the British Prime Minister Robert Peel under the influence that his target was Robert Peel. The House of Lords held up that Mcnaghten was persecuted by the Tories, and evidence was brought stated that Mcnaghten was completely delusional for some time during the action committed. The acquittal set a major precedent henceforth. This made the McNaughten rule come up as the basic set of principles or general rules whereby any individual could plead not on account of his insanity. The legendary precedent was well taken by different countries as well. Section 84 of IPC is based on the same rule. It deals with the act of a person of unsound mind; “Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to the law”. Although the defence is a neutral concept, yet the versatile nature drew more and more mayhem in the past for the British law. A large number of people pleaded not guilty under this law. It resulted in a huge number of genuine criminals being released on the same grounds. Therefore, the House of Lords and the senior judges presided over codifying the law. The judges came up with the concept of legal insanity. The provision constituted two halves which distinguished medical and legal insanity respectively. According to the learned councilmen under the plea of insanity defense, the individual was to be proven legally unsound, i.e. the individual was unaware about the consequence of the action that he was committing and the grievousness of the same. Only such a person could be said to be legally insane. The British law, provides specific provision for the application of the law;

  1. All are assumed to be of sane mind and to have enough reason, until proved contrary, to be responsible for their crimes.

  2. It must be clearly demonstrated in order to establish the defense of insanity that at the time of the act, the accused was working under such a defect of reason, from mental illness, as

  3. He did not know the nature and the qualities of the act he was doing or,

  4. He did not know what actions he was doing and their follow up consequences.

The accused must therefore prove himself not guilty beyond reasonable doubt, the burden of proof lies on him for acquittal. Hence, he must prove on the basis of the facts that he was suffering from a defect caused by mental illness in an effort to argue for insanity defense.


Unsoundness of mind is described as the basic incapacity of the human mind to be aware of the condition he is in’. Though every person who is mentally ill is not relieved from his responsibilities. This is what led to the distinction between medical insanity and legal insanity. It is held by the supreme court that mentally ill people are not exempted from punishments unless they prove the state of mind during the actions of offence. It is their responsibility to demonstrate their incapacity. Where he has always been affected and in a delusional state of mind. While legal insanity is the state of mind during the commission of the crime. The distinction was first underlined in the case of Sindhi Alias Raman vs State of Maharashtra. The court seeks that the insanity defense can only be exercised if the accused encounters unsoundness that exists during the time of the act. Even though a person has been insane for a long time, it should exist during the commission of the offence. This was encompassed in the case of Shrikant Anandrao Bhosale vs State of Maharashtra whereby the burden of proof lies on the accused and not the prosecution and the court shall presume the absence of such circumstances. The accused has to prove the incapacity during the commission of the offence and delusional state of mind.


In India, the defence of insanity is like a free pass. The term ‘insanity’ does not have a proper definition. It may be used to describe various degrees of mental illness due to its versatility per se. Hence, every mentally ill person is not ipso facto exempted from criminal responsibility. However, the degree of unsoundness is uncertain,

Indian law has laid down codified procedures. But how do you determine the mental state of a person during the offence who is completely sane and yet pleads for defense of insanity? It is difficult to issue the right degree of punishment under the insanity law. Due to the acceptance of only legal insanity, it is quite difficult in proving the nature. Well, the question is, are all medically insane person be called legally insane? Even though the doctor verifies an individual to be medically unsound, on what basis has the accused to be proved of being legally insane? Unless the contradicting factor of culpable homicide prevails. Whether a person is or isn’t incapable enough to gather the knowledge of being instigated by person to commit any such action. The accused can be defined under the law of insanity, and then acquitted. The misleading nature of the action is not proved. Adding to the argument, a person with intervals of insanity may be very well acknowledged as legally insane if he claims to be unaware or vulnerable during the time of the offence. The uncertainty cannot be questioned. It is always assumed every person is sane and has to prove his vulnerability beyond the reasonable doubt. Therefore such a person with intervals of insanity claims to be insane during the commission as of no doctor’s statement can be verified due to prevailing nature of legal insanity over medical insanity.

The word ‘incapacity’ is another terminology with a broad meaning. It can be that of the nature of act and the consequence followed up while pleading for insanity. The IPC states the accused should be unable to appreciate the effects of his conduct. Another part is knowing the distinction right and wrong. However, as a practical matter, there would be there would probably be very few instances where defense is pleaded in which the distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘moral’ error would be necessary. The same is quite unclear while announcing the verdict. The major reason why the rural and suburban cases have a high rate of acquittals in the murder cases with the defense of insanity.

Towards the positive, it is always the confessing of crime by the individual, even not in the right state of mind during the act. Yet this is always superseded by the complete flawed concept of giving quite an easy no offence situation. Even though the acquittals are always confronted with minor penalties. The act needs to come up with stricter and abiding policies to sustain the defense. In a similar case of Etwa Oran vs State of UP, the SC stated that a mere possibility that the accused may have been insane was insufficient to establish the kind of insanity defense in section 84 of IPC.


The defense of insanity has turned into a loophole for conviction under the law. As it is not just concerned with the mental status but with legal insanity, which does not have a fixed definition or proper way of knowing it. Mere arguments are not enough to decide the degree of punishment the accused will be handed. A complete well-defined terminology should accompany the ‘legal insanity’. Section 84 should be amended to incorporate the partial defense of diminished responsibility for offences committed by an insane person. The scope of the section should be expanded to incorporate the defense of automatism. The insanity plea in India should be scrutinized to utmost level. This should ensure that no false pleas can be brought in. High success rate of this defence is a failure of the Structured Indian policy.

*Sumeet Singh is a student at KIIT School of Law, KIIT University.


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