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‘It’s sad to know that an innocent lady had to endure 13 years of custody because of general apathy towards mentally ill’

Last week, the Supreme Court of India, in a landmark judgement, directed the State of Chhattisgarh to release a lady convicted of killing her four-year-old daughter after 13 years in prison. In the landmark judgement, Justice A K Sikri and Justice A M Sapre found that the lady in question was suffering from a disorder which would suggest that she was plagued with insanity at the time the crime was committed.

Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

The Lordships appointed Mohammad Mannan, a counsel as Amicus Curiae. Mr Mannan along with another counsel Ms Sudha Gupta prepared a report which led them to infer that ‘she had to be force fed, given bath like a child and would not react in spite of being undressed completely. She even did not interact with anybody and was oblivious of her surroundings’.

The Lordships observed:

“We can arrive at this reasoning not solely relying on the aforesaid report of Ms Sudha Gupta, which contains her interaction with the four female inmates, but also by reflecting on the inconceivable nature of the crime of a mother, who seemingly without any reason took the life of her child. “The ordeal stirring in the mind of a mother that would compel her to kill her own child is beyond comprehension for most people. Such a crime has the capacity of shaking us to the core as for it is unfathomable to think that someone who gives life, shelter and protects is the same person who for no justification can end that same life thereby shattering a part of her soul. Some psychologists have accounted for extreme depression, a psychotic breakdown or even violence at home. A mother who finds herself in extreme social adversity incapable of providing for her children may also be driven by unknown circumstances thinking that such a drastic step is her only viable option. In this case, however, the reason that made a mother take such a course is overlaid with a thick blanket of mystery.”

Those who have followed my columns here and elsewhere would have noted that I, as a psychiatrist and a qualified barrister and a mental health advocate, have been deeply concerned at the non-observance of the insanity defence principle in India (and many other countries) at every stage of the criminal justice system. In this case while the lady has been released from the prison, the vindication has come at an unacceptably high cost. And I deem that as a matter of deep concern and utmost shame for the entire society at large — specially so for the medical community — for failing to prevent injustices of this nature occurring at regular intervals.

It is a non-negotiable principle of criminal jurisprudence that a person who by reason of defect of mind is unable to instruct his/her counsel cannot be subjected to a criminal trial. Perusing the records that have been made public now, it is inconceivable that the police, from her behaviour as noted could not have appreciated this fact. It did not prevent them from prosecuting her. The prosecutors in this case singularly failed to put up a credible defence before the courts. This may have been the result of improper curriculum during the legal education. It may not be known to many that the designated curriculum for the LLB course states that a course in mens rea, so central to determination of guilt and responsibility is only an optional subject and many of the lawyers who are practising in the courts today have had no grounding in mens rea in their law schools; they are just thrown in at the deep end when they start their legal practice. A large number of lawyers I have been speaking to were not even conversant with the concept of M’Naghten rule which would have saved this lady from the indignity of a criminal trial, conviction and incarceration for 13 years; the life sentence in most cases constitutes 14 years! An innocent lady had to endure 13 years of custody because of general apathy towards the mentally ill. And as of now, I do not hear or witness any outrage from any quarter. I do observe the news channels being supersaturated with real life family soap operas on the political arena. But has there been a single journalist who has considered this injustice worthy of reportage! We all stand demeaned!

From all available evidence, it would have been pointless to expect any sense of humanity or justice or even the wisdom to understand the travails of a mentally ill. But should not the lawyers have taken a more enlightened view! Has any lawyer as yet made a representation to the Bar Council of India to revise the curriculum of legal education to include mens rea as a compulsory subject! If it has happened, then I would stand corrected but I have no personal knowledge of it. And that is because as a society we feel that mentally ill are dispensable and not worthy of our enlightened attention! And from what I have been able to decipher, I would have expected the judicial officers during the trial stage to have observed that this lady was because of a defect of reason unable to grasp the nature of her actions. They seemingly did not and it was left to the apex court to order the redressal. I am not aware whether the apex court would consider imposing a penalty on the instruments of state in particular the police and the prosecution for heaping this injustice and laying down strict guidelines for judicial officers. In my view penalty is certainly merited and I would not even be averse to disciplinary actions against the police, in particular the investigating officer of this case.

I have already written extensively about the apathy my own profession has displayed in this regard. Perusing the documents I cannot help noting that during her travail of 13 years, she was examined by at least three physicians. They were certainly in a position to note her mental state and alert the authorities to the injustice. They did not! And again I tend to blame the medical curriculum during the medical training for this lapse. There is an appallingly insufficient lack of emphasis on the essentials of psychiatric illnesses. I have known some very successful physicians with brilliant academic records during their medical school struggle with psychiatric history taking let alone engaging in a display of competent appreciation of psychiatric syndromes. They cannot be expected to rule on M’Naghten’s with this curricular emphasis. And this again is a function of disdain towards mentally ill.

And this happens now when the United Nations Human Rights Council has formally recognized the rights of mentally ill in its resolution of July 1, 2016! India is yet to sign it but over 60 countries have. The resolution has come up after years of campaign launched by countless mental health advocates (including myself). Following this development, the only decent course for all of us is to make sure that every country signs it and adheres to it in letter and spirit.

And lest it be said that I am singling out India, let me go back over 30 years when Lindy Chamberlain and her husband were being tried for killing their child in Australia. I was approached by a journalist at a conference in Stockholm after their conviction. I recall expressing almost identical sentiments to the ones expressed by Their Lordships! As it turned out subsequently the couple were acquitted as new facts emerged but no one, even those who believed in Lindy’s guilt, could respond to the queries satisfactorily as to her motives for killing her own new born.

Let me conclude here by stating what Their Lordships have observed which carries a lot of resonance:

The crime was a result of a conflict between the motive of the mother and her character, with the motive triumphing. However, the 13 years she has spent in the prison, she has built her character moulding it by educating herself and learning the ways of life.

Her future would be made infinitely more bearable if we send out a message loud and clear that enough is enough! We would not allow mentally infirmed to be indignified any longer!

by Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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