This article by Rana Banu deals with the Law Regarding Mental Cruelty in India comprehensively with the help of relevant primary sources and case laws.
The institution of marriage has brought within itself a set of matrimonial offences often hindering the marital bonds between husband and wife. Under Hindu, law marriage is considered to be a sacrament while under Muslim law it is a contract. The atrocities faced by women under the shield of marriage and their plight have led to the birth of many women-centred legislations. Earlier ‘cruelty’ was not considered to be a matrimonial offence, but now due to the evolution of society and the recognition of human rights, cruelty has been considered as one of the major grounds for divorce in almost all personal laws. This article is an attempt to shed light on the law regarding mental cruelty in India.
Meaning of Mental Cruelty
There is no exhaustive definition as to what constitutes mental cruelty. Black’s Law Dictionary states that ‘mental cruelty’ is a course of conduct on the part of one spouse towards the other spouse which can endanger the mental and physical health and efficiency of the other spouse to such an extent as to render the continuance of the marital relation intolerable. There is no clear jacket formula to define mental cruelty. Each case has to be judged according to the particular facts and circumstances as the extent, intensity and degree of mental torture inflicted on different individuals is unique due to a plethora of social, economic, political and other factors.
The Supreme Court in V. Bhagat v. D. Bhagat held that mental cruelty can broadly be defined as that conduct which inflicts upon the other party such mental pain and suffering as would make it not possible for that party to live with the other.
It was opined in Vishwanath Agarwal v. Sarla Vishwanath Agarwal that cruelty has an inseparable nexus with human conduct or human behaviour.
According to D. Tolstoy, ‘cruelty’ means willful and unjustifiable conduct of such a character as to cause danger to life, limb or health, bodily or mental or as to give rise to a reasonable apprehension of such a danger.
Comparative Study of Section 498-A and 304-B of Indian Penal Code, 1860
In order to meet the increasing cases of dowry death, Section 498-A was introduced in the Indian Penal Code in 1983. This was to protect the women from cruelty by husband or relatives of the husband. According to this Section cruelty means
- Willful conduct likely to persuade women to commit suicide or cause grave injury to life, limb or health including physical and mental, or
- Harassment with the objective to meet dowry demand
The element of cruelty in this section makes it different from Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act,1961 because the latter deals with only punishment for dowry demand and cruelty is not an ingredient. The offence under Section 498-A is cognizable and non-compoundable. It is pertinent to note here that this section is gender-biased and does not include husbands who are subjected to cruelty.
The ingredients of Section 304-B (dowry death) can be summed up as follows –
- Death must be due to bodily burns or injury
- Death must have occurred within seven years of marriage
- Soon before her death, woman should have been subjected to cruelty or harassment (in connection with dowry demand) by her husband or his relative
The meaning of cruelty under Section 498-A applies to Section 304-B as well and they define distinct offences.
Mental Cruelty under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005
The definition of ‘Domestic violence’ under Section 3 of the Act, includes physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic abuse. It is significant to note that injury caused to the aggrieved person may be physical or mental. Under this Act, the ambit of ‘aggrieved person’ is wide and includes not just husband but also others with whom women share household.
The Act has been criticized by many stating that this legislation is a weapon in the hands of cunning women to trap men into the vicious circle of false accusations, as already there exists Section 498-A to serve the purpose. But the misuse of the provision cannot be the sole ground for declaring the Act as unconstitutional.
Cruelty as a Ground for Divorce
The evolving society and the empowerment of women rights has forced lawmakers to amend laws regarding divorce. In almost all the personal laws cruelty, both mental and physical is considered to be one of the major grounds for severing marital tie. For example-
- Section 27 (d), The Special Marriage Act,1954
- Section 10, The Indian Divorce Act,1869
- Section 32(dd), The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act,1936
- Section 2(vii), The Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act,1939
- Section 13(1) (ia), The Hindu Marriage Act,1955
What amounts to Mental Cruelty?
What comes within the purview of mental cruelty and what not, depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. Therefore, it becomes significant to analyze the judgement given by the Hon’ble court in various matrimonial cases to decide the ingredients of mental cruelty.
The nature, meaning and relevance of mental cruelty has been laid down in a plethora of leading judgements by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has given certain illustrative examples (not an exhaustive list) in Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghosh from which inference can be drawn as to what amounts to mental cruelty and they are as follows-
- On consideration of complete matrimonial life of the parties, acute mental pain, agony and suffering as would not make possible for the parties to live with each other
- On appraisal of the entire matrimonial life of the parties it becomes abundantly clear that the wronged party cannot reasonably be asked to put up with such conduct and continue to live with the other party
- Mental cruelty is a state of mind. The feeling of deep anguish, disappointment, frustration in one spouse caused by the conduct of the other for a long time
- Sustained reprehensible conduct, studied neglect, indifference or total departure from the normal standard of conjugal kindness, causing injury to mental health or deriving sadistic pleasure, also amount to mental cruelty
- Long period of continuous separation whereby marital tie becomes a fiction, and refusal for severing the legal tie may also lead to mental cruelty
In Suman Kapur v. Sudhir Kapur the Supreme Court held that abortion by a woman without the knowledge and consent of the husband would amount to mental cruelty and a ground for granting divorce.
In the recent case, Laxmi Meenakshi v. Chetty Mahadevappa the Telangana High Court held that infidelity in marriage amounts to mental cruelty to the other spouse.
In Joy deep Majumdar v. Bharti Jaiswal Majumdar the Supreme Court held that false allegations and defamation against one spouse amounts to mental cruelty.
In Siraj Mohamed khan v. Haizunnisa Yasin khan & Anr. the Supreme Court stated that the concept of legal cruelty changes according to the changes and advancement of social concept and standards of living. It was further stated that to establish legal cruelty, it is not necessary that physical violence should be used. Continuous cessation of marital intercourse or total indifference on the part of the husband towards marital obligations would also lead to legal cruelty.
In Rita Nijhawan v Balkishan Nijhawan it has been held by the Hon’ble Court that sexual weakness and refusal for sexual intercourse without any reasonable cause amounts to mental cruelty.
Defence against the accusation of Mental Cruelty
- Condonation (Forgiveness)
Condonation has been taken into account by the Supreme Court in the leading case, Dr. Narayan Ganesh Dastane v. Sucheta Narayan Dastanewherein a series of cruel acts have been established by the husband against the wife and it was proved before the Hon’ble Court that the husband has suffered mental cruelty. But the divorce decree was not granted as the husband each time condoned the acts of the wife by engaging in sexual intercourse with her.
- Recrimination (Contributory Fault)
This is a defence taken by most of the parties to justify the accusation of mental cruelty by playing the victim game so as to nullify the degree of mental agony caused to the other party.
Article 21 of the Constitution reflects the right of individuals to live with dignity. Husband and wife in a marital bond must be considered as two separate individuals and they must treat each other with loyalty and respect. Cruelty inflicted upon the spouse whether intentionally or unintentionally cannot be accepted. Mental cruelty is something which is very difficult to prove in a matrimonial case and hence the various acts, circumstances and scenarios have to be considered while deciding a case on the ground of mental cruelty.
 HENRY CAMPBELL BLACK, BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY,1137 (4th ed. 1971).
 V. Bhagat v. D. Bhagat, (1994) 1 SCC 337.
 Vishwanath Agarwal v. Sarla Vishwanath Agarwal, (2012) 7 SCC 288.
 D. TOLSTOY, THE LAW AND PRACTISE OF DIVORCE AND MATRIMONIAL CAUSES,61 (6th ed.).
 The Indian Penal Code,1860, §498-A.
 The Indian Penal Code,1860, §304-B.
 The Protection Of Women From Domestic Violence Act,2005, §3.
 The Protection Of Women From Domestic Violence Act,2005, §2, cl.a.
 The Protection Of Women From Domestic Violence Act,2005, §2, cl.s.
 Shobha Rani v. Madukar Reddi, (1988) 1 SCC 105; Parveen Mehta v. Inderjit Mehta (2002) 5 SCC; A. Jayachandra v. Aneel Kaur, (2005) 2 SCC 22; Vinita Saxena v. Pankaj Pandit, (2006) 3 SCC 778.
Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghosh, (2007) 4 SCC 511.
Suman Kapur v Sudhir Kapur, (2009) 1 SCC 422.
 Laxmi Meenakshi v. Chetty Mahadevappa, CMA 319 of 2020.
 Joy deep Majumdar v. Bharti Jaiswal Majumdar, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 146.
 Siraj Mohamed khan v. Haizunnisa Yasin Khan & Anr, (1975) 2 SCC 326
 Rita Nijhawan v. Balkishan Nijhawan, AIR 1973 Del 200
 Dr. Narayan Ganesh Dastane v. Sucheta Narayan Dastane, AIR 1975 SC 1534