Widening the defense of Insanity in Indian Penal Code

Section-84 of the Indian Penal Code deals with the act of a person of unsound mind wherein it states that “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 law.” To constitute a criminal liability, three elements must be proved: –

  1. Actus Reus
  2. Mens Rea
  3. Commission of a crime without a legal defense

As the fundamental maxim of criminal law states “Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea” which means that an act does not constitute guilt unless it is done with a guilty intention. Therefore, a person with unsound mind is not punished for his crime because of his inability to form Mens Rea and his lack of free will, intelligence and knowledge of the act. 

In spite of the fact that section-84 of the Indian Penal Code attempts to deal fairly with mentally ill wrongdoers, sometimes there are possibilities of false acquittals or convictions. And so, along these lines, there is a need for incorporating wider concepts within the section like the broadening of the concept of legal insanity with the incorporation of more aspects of medical insanity, irresistible impulse, automatism and diminished responsibility because the motive is to remove the crime and not the criminal. 

Legal Insanity v. Medical Insanity

The rationale of the law of insanity under section-84 has its source under Mc Naughten’s rules of 1843 in England. 

In January 1843, at the parish of Saint Martin, Daniel MC Naughten while laboring under insane delusion shot and killed Edward Drummond, the Prime Minister’s Secretary, believing him to be the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. Defence put forth the plea of insanity attesting that he was not in a sound state of mind at the time of commission of the act. Because of the adverse public reaction, the House of Lords decided to probe into the subject and so, a series of hypothetical questions on the topic of insanity were put before a bench of 14 judges in the House of Lords. In response to the answers, a legal definition of insanity was framed determining the criminal responsibility of the insane and were called as the M’Naghten Rules (1843). It states that “every man is to be presumed to be sane, and that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong”. To claim the defence of legal insanity under this test, one of the two distinct criteria must be met. Lord M’Cardie in well-known Ronald True’s trial also substantiated the M’ Naghten rules and says:- 

“The law assumes that a man is prima facie sane, he must satisfy you otherwise if he desires to escape the consequences of a serious crime.”

The courts however make a distinction between legal insanity and medical insanity. Not every person who is mentally ill ispo facto is exempted from criminal liability. As per section-84, unsoundness of mind is used to describe the conditions that affect cognitive capacity of an individual. A person is said to be medically insane if he suffers from any disease or disorder of mind. Medical insanity thus means the person’s consciousness in relation to himself. It also includes elements like fear, jealously, hatred, uncontrollable impulse driving a man to kill or wound, abnormality of mind or partial delusion, irresistible impulse or compulsive behaviour of a psychopath, recurring fits at short interval, epileptic fits etc, but these aspects are not taken into consideration in the eyes of the law as law only recognises those conditions as insanity which impairs the cognitive faculties of the mind. 

There are many cases that have been witnessed where the test of insanity from the legal point of view does not coincide with the medical one, which implies that a person who is considered as insane in the opinion of a medical expert cannot earn immunity from the criminal liability under section-84, IPC. 

One such case is of the Queen-Empress v Kader Nasyer Shah, where the accused was charged of murder for causing the death of eight years old boy, it was acknowledged that the accused had been in an unsound state of mind for some months preceding the incident. If the case was to be decided by medical test, then the accused would have to be acquitted. But as per M’Naghten rules, the test was that since the accused was conscious of the nature of his act, he must be presumed to have been conscious of its criminality. The conviction was then upheld. When prominence is attached to medical opinion, this distinction is perhaps sometime lost sight of the question in criminal trials is not insanity but irresponsibility. 

Irresistible Impulse

Insanity not only affects the cognitive faculties of the mind that guide the behaviour of a particular person, it also affects the emotions which prompt the actions and the will by which such actions are performed. “The compulsion arising from a diseased state of mind affecting the ‘emotions’ and ‘will’ of offender is known as irresistible impulse or uncontrollable impulse and is treated as a part of the law of insanity. The act of homicide is perpetrated without interest, without motive and often on person who are most fondly loved by the perpetrator. This has been called impulsive insanity”. It has been witnessed that on certain specific events, a person is seized with irresistible impulse to kill, to burn or to steal and driven by such impulses they often perpetrate acts which would otherwise be most abominable violations. Some eminent legal authorities and medicinal scholars believe that despite of the fact that an individual may know the nature of his act and that the act is morally wrong and contrary to law, yet he may be incapable of restraining himself from doing it because he might have lost the power to choose between right and wrong and his freedom of will is completely destroyed by the mental disease. He, therefore, should not be held liable for his acts. “The Indian law like the law of England limits non-liability only to those cases in which insanity affects the cognitive faculties, because it is thought that these are the cases in which exemption rightly applies, and those cases in which insanity affects only the emotions and the will, subjecting the offender to impulses, whilst it leaves the cognitive faculties unimpaired, have been left outside the exception because it is thought that the object of criminal law is to make people control their insane as well as sane impulses”.

The defence of irresistible impulse in the Indian courts was not taken into consideration in the case of Queen Empress v. Lakshman Dagrus, where ever since the house and property of accused were destroyed by fire, he neglected his house and field work and often complained of frequent headaches and spoke to nobody when the pain was severe. He was exceptionally attached to one boy in particular and one day, without any motive, he killed the boy. He court held him guilty for murder by saying that at the time of commission of the crime, the behaviour of the accused failed to prove that by the reason of unsoundness of mind, he was incapable of knowing the nature of his act. The court also recommended to the government for indulgent consideration as, in its view, the accused was suffering from some kind mental derangement.

The matter of not accepting irresistible impulse as a ground of exemption from liability was considered by the Royal Commission on capital punishment and many criticism were given by them for not accepting such as- We cannot differentiate between resistible and irresistible impulse, even insane persons are to a certain extent amenable to correction by strict rules and restraint etc. 

However, in the case of Brij Kishore Pandey v. State of UP, Supreme court observed, “although under our present law the plea of irresistible impulse is not yet accepted as a defence to a charge of murder, it may be considered as mitigant factor at the time the sentence is awarded. Persons may become violent on slight provocations, such persons cannot obviously escape from culpability of their acts on the ground that they were not aware of what they had done or about its consequences.”

Therefore, according to Russell on crime, “most crimes are committed under an impulse and the object of the law is to compel persons to control resist such impulse, rather than to make them an excuse for escaping the consequences of criminal acts”. 


The courts generally provide defense in the cases of absence of Mens Rea, that means the acts and omissions which are committed involuntarily by a person. Automatism is a form of involuntary acts. “Whenever a defensive insanity has been pleaded by the accused and is being rejected due to insufficiency of evidence regarding the mental stage of the accused then in such a situation the accused can raise an alternative defence of automatism.” To claim the defence of automatism, the accused is expected to show some evidence regarding his state of mind proving that at the time of the commission of the act, he was influenced by automatism. The accused is then sent to state interventions in the form of medical care. 

The defence of automatism exists only under the English law, IPC has not yet recognised this concept. Thus, the researchers recommend that the Parliament must amend the existing legislative laws under the insanity defence with an objective of incorporating the basic principle of criminal law, that is to not punish the person of a crime that was done by him involuntarily. “Based on this the legislation would need to define an ‘act’ as meaning willed conduct and shall amend the section 33 of the Indian Penal Code. It would also need to add volitional incapacity to the cognitive ones presently mentioned in the defence of unsoundness of mind under Section 84”.

The need to adopt an attitude that is progressive in its application of section-84 of the IPC is something that is stressed by the Indian courts. The principle that this section states is used to determine criminal responsibility of a person, who is suffering from some sort of mental disorders (studied in the light of latest advances in medical science). The ongoing developments in medical science relating to psychiatry questions the existing law and demands for its revision in the matters pertaining to unsoundness of mind which is a part of section-84 of the IPC.

Diminished Responsibility

Diminished responsibility takes into consideration the mental state of the convicted. It is only applied to the offence of murder. This defence has been highlighted by the English criminal law particularly under the Homicide Act, 1957. According to this defence, it established, the accused is held guilty of culpable homicide (manslaughter) instead of murder.

In the case of R v. Dietschman, the accused under heavy intoxication and mental abnormality killed a man in a savage attack and was charged with murder. The House of Lords held that “in referring to substantial impairment of mental responsibility, the sub-section did not require the killing. Even if the defendant would not have killed if he had not taken drink, the causative effect of the drink did not necessarily prevent an abnormality of mind suffered by the defendant from substantially impairing his mental responsibility for his acts”. He was then given the benefit of the defence of diminished responsibility due to his mental abnormality. 

The Indian criminal law, unlike English law does not include the defence of diminished responsibility under its ambit. Thus, there is a need to widen or amend the law in India also. “The liability, should be reduced from murder to culpable homicide not amounting murder under a new Exception VII to Section 300, IPC as said- Culpable homicide is not murder if the offender was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in causing the death or being a part to causing the death”. 


The age old M’Naghten rule should be re-shaped in sync with the modern day scientific study of human mind and it’s functioning. Most of the criminals are emotionally unstable and undeterred by punishments, in that case care ought to be taken to improve the criminals and not just to punish them. Though, they should not be let free taking into consideration the larger interests of the society but they may be detained in psychiatric hospitals with proper assessment of their mind to be made from time-to-time in order to prevent false convictions. Along with the judge, the opinion of a doctor should also be taken into account. Proper analysis and amendment needs to be made. In the foreign countries, many cases are decided after incorporating the idea of irresistible impulse, automatism and the doctrine of diminished responsibility, the courts of India also, in order to achieve a free and fair trial should review and update the newer provisions and advancements from time to time. Furthermore, the scope of insanity under section-84 of the Indian Penal Code must be widened by establishing a well-defined definition of the term “unsoundness of mind” to avoid complex controversies keeping in view the idea of medical insanity. 

Work Cited

KD Gaur, Textbook on Indian Penal Code, 6th e.d, Universal Law Publishing, 2016

 Ajay B. Sonawane and Adv. Radhika Bhonsle, “Defence of insanity in India and England” Vol 3 issue 1

 Sheldon Glueck. “Ethics psychology and criminal responsibility of insane Cr. L.J. 208 

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