Why Madras HC Released a Woman Held for Killing Her Daughters on Probation
At the outset, it must be pointed out that an order such as this one is rare. But there is an explanation for it.
“It is a matter of great pain that the appellant, being the mother, should feel ashamed for giving birth to female children and even would attempt to commit suicide and to kill the children,” the Madras High Court said on 20 July, as they released a mother convicted for killing her two daughters on probation of good conduct (under section 4 of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958).
At the very outset, it must be pointed out that an order such as this one is rare. Normally, there is no possibility of probation for a person held responsible by a court for someone's death (parole is a different matter). But there is an explanation to this one.
The woman, who had given birth to three girl children had, the court found, gone on to administer poison to two of her daughters, along with consuming it herself (but she survived), because she could no longer bear taunts that came her way for producing only female children.
The court, thus, found this to be a case of “Nalla Thangal syndrome”. The Nalla Thangal syndrome is often recognised as an Indian version of the Battered Women Syndrome — a legal defence used in several courts across the world in cases where the accused are women who have suffered physical and psychological abuse.
It gets its name from the a ballad where a woman dies by suicide because she is unable to bear the misery and agony caused due to poverty.
It may also be pertinent to note that, in this case, probation was possible as the accused had been convicted under Section 304(ii) (punishment for an act committed with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death but without any intention to cause death), instead of Section 302 (punishment for murder) of the Indian Penal Code. Here’s why:
Probation on Good Conduct
Under Section 4 of the The Probation of Offenders Act, a court of law has the power to release certain offenders on probation of good conduct when the court (which found the person guilty) opines that, having regard to the circumstances of the case including the nature of the offence and the character of the offender, it is expedient to release them.
But the specification of “certain offenders” is of consequence, because this provision is applicable only for a person who has been found guilty of having committed an offence which not punishable with death or imprisonment for life.
While Section 302 IPC says that a murder convict shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine; 304(ii) IPC says the person shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of ten years or a fine or with both. Thus while Section 4 of the Act is not applicable to Section 302 of the IPC, it still is applicable to 304(ii) — because there’s no punishment with death or life imprisonment under the latter.
This is why the Supreme Court had to invoke their special powers under Article 142 of the Constitution (and not merely section 4 of this Act) when releasing AG Perarivalan, one of the life convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.
Perarivalan, and co-accused Nalini Sriharan, however were given parole earlier, which is different from probation, mainly in the sense that it requires that some time has to be served before the convict gets parole. There are other differences, as well, such as the fact that state governments are authorised to issue their own parole guidelines, and even though it is recognised under the Prisons Act and Prisoners Act, there are no uniform set of rules and regulations for parole. Besides, the nature of parole is usually more temporary than probation.
Other Such Cases of Probation
Probation can be granted in a wide array of cases by a judgment of a court.
On 18 July, the Odisha High Court released a convict on probation, while upholding his conviction in a 30-year-old attempt to murder case (punishable by a maximum of ten years and fine).
Pointing out that the occurrence “undoubtedly took place more than 30 years back”, the court said:
“The Petitioner was a young man at that point of time, but is now aged nearly 60 years. No criminal antecedents are reported against him. Therefore, in the considered view of this Court, ends of justice would be best served if the Petitioner is released as per the provision of Section 4 of the P.O. Act instead of serving the remaining part of the sentence in jail."
In 2020, the Allahabad High Court had granted probation to a convict in a 28-year-old attempt to homicide case and said:
“These statutory provisions very emphatically lay down the reformatory and correctional object of sentencing and obligates the trial court as well as appellate courts to give benefit of probation in fit cases as provided under law. Unfortunately, this branch of law has not been much utilized by the courts.”
The ‘Nalla Thangal Syndrome’
It may be also pertinent to take a look at the origins of the legal discourse of ‘Nalla Thangal Syndrome’ in India.
While granting probation to the accused, the court had said:
“The Trial Court, thereafter, on a wholesome appreciation of the evidence, found that this is also a case of 'Nalla Thangal syndrome' that unable to bear taunt of the society and the relatives, the state of mind in which the mother attempts to commit suicide and during that time kills her children also, upon considering that nobody else will be there to take care of the children.”
We have, however, not spotted a direct equivalent of the ‘Nalla Thangal syndrome’ in other high courts of the country or even the Supreme Court so far. Some other Indian court might from time to time nod at the ‘Battered Women Syndrome’ (as it is employed in other US, UK and other courts abroad) or even refer to the Suyambukani judgment (such as the Gauhati High Court in Manju Lakra v State of Assam). A constitutional court might also look at the mitigating circumstances and reduce and alter the charges against an accused. But, there has been no applicable concept as clearly propounded as that by the Madras High Court.
Meanwhile, in their judgment in the more recent case, the Madras High Court noted, in an apparent reference to the society's treatment of women who then go on to take such steps:
“Suyambukani's case was in the year 1989. Unfortunately, this occurrence happened in the year 2016 and we, as a society, have not corrected ourselves, inspite of such long period.”
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