Laws against Mental Cruelty in India

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We all might be familiar with the #Metoo movement which revealed several incidents of mental abuse or sexual harassment since 2017 and still continuing. Now one must be pondering about it’s legal side as to whether mental cruelty is a punishable offence in India or not. This article analyses the various laws that penalizes mental cruelty and judiciary’s response in its various judgments.

Mental cruelty as the name itself suggests is the harassment/ torture of a person mentally but not physically. According to Cambridge dictionary, mental cruelty is the behavior of a person that makes another person to suffer emotionally though not physically. It is a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code, Prevention of domestic violence Act, Dowry Prohibition Act, Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act and under Mental Healthcare Act. Generally, we associate mental cruelty with harassment of wife by husband or his relatives. However, it can be done by any person. Even bullying is a form of mental cruelty.

Provisions under Indian Penal Code, 1860-
Section 498A covers mental cruelty done to a wife by husband and relatives in relation to demand of dowry, child procreation or for any other purpose. Such an offence can attract punishment up to 3 years with heavy fines and it is non- bailable.

In Onkar Nath Mishra v. State (NCT of Delhi),1 it was observed that section 498A was introduced with the main objective to combat the harassment and torture of married women at the hands of husband and relatives. However the provision should not be misused.

Section 294 punishes any person for publishing obscene material or uttering or reciting obscene content in the public up to 3 years or fine or both.

According to Section 304B, if a married woman dies within 7 years of marriage life and there was a demand of dowry by the husband or relatives, then, it will be presumed that she committed suicide due to the mental torture by husband and/ or relatives.

Section 509, punishes any person who intentionally does any act or utter/ recite any word to intentionally outrage the modesty of a woman.

Other provisions-
Mental cruelty is a valid ground for divorce under section 13(1) of Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Redressal, Prohibition) Act, 2013 prohibits any sort of torture or harassment of women at workplace. The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 strictly prohibits dowry and the harassment of woman and her relatives in connection therewith.

In the case of Naveen Kohli v. Neetu Kohli,2 it was observed that mental cruelty does not necessarily mean physical violence. A consistent course of conduct on the part of respondent to cause agony on the petitioner also amounts to mental cruelty.

In Suman Kapur v. Sudhir Kapur,3 it was observed that aborting without the woman’s knowledge and consent amounts to cruelty and thereby a valid ground for divorce.

In Siraj Mohamed khan v. Haizunnisa Yasin khan & Anr,4 it was observed that the meaning of legal cruelty changes with the changes in the society and the advancement of social concepts and living standards.

Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 was passed on 7th April, 2017. It deals with the mental healthcare of persons in need. Bullying being closely related to mental health is also covered under its ambit. It can be considered as an Act which provides healthcare services and for establishment of mental health care institutes. Under section 115(1), the Act tries to decriminalize the attempt to suicide as persons try to suicide due to severe mental stress, notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of IPC.

Mental cruelty is one of the hotly debated topics in India. Recently, the pandemic induced lockdown had a drastic affect on people’s mental well- being. There are many who are silenced and asked not to speak about such issues with others. Mental well-being of a person is greatly undermined in Indian context. Also, gender based stereotypes such as only women can be emotional and not men further derrogates the issues. The fear of humiliation and loss of reputation are two main factors preventing people from opening up. It is not implied that people have to share all their mental issues with others but whenever they do instead of criticizing them, we can lend them support and raise awareness about such issues and take legal actions against it.

  1. (2008) 2 SCC 561.
  2. (AIR 2004 All 1).
  3. (2009) 1 SCC 422.
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  4. (1975), 2SCC 326.
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