According to the WHO, an estimate of 800,000 people die committing suicide every year throughout the world, of these according to the Government of India, 135,000 (17%) are residents of India. Has suicide always been existing as an epidemic and we’ve been ignorant all this time in terms of coming up with coping mechanisms to counter it?
Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (referred to as IPC) remains to be one of the most disputed provisions in the IPC due to its ironic nature and the absurdity it poses due to its obseleteness. It says that whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both. Even after multiple attempts made via various Law Commission reports and judgements of Hon’ble Supreme Court and various other High Court to decriminalize attempt to suicide, it still very much exists in the statute book under the ambit of 309 of the IPC.
In P. Rathinam v. Union of India, AIR 1994 SC 1844, (1994) 3 SCC 394 the constitutional validity of 309 of the IPC was challenged on the grounds that it is violative of Article 21. The Supreme Court held that Right not to live a forced life is a part of Right to Life. Suicide is a psychiatric problem and not a manifestation of criminal instinct. What is needed to take care of suicide-prone persons are soft words and wise counseling (of a psychiatrist), and not stony dealing by a jailor following harsh treatment meted out by a heartless prosecutor.
However, this judgement was overruled by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, AIR 1996 SC 946, (1996) 2 SCC 648, the court upheld constitutional validity of Section 309 of the IPC. According to the view taken by the court, Right to Life could not be stretched to the extent of including Right to die under the ambit of article 21.
The 42nd report of Law Commission laid emphasis on punishing those who incite suicide rather than those who attempt. 210th Law Commission report had a more accepting take and emphasis was laid on understanding the psyche behind suicide. The importance of understanding that it will be rather preposterous to punish the victim itself and it has absolutely no legal or moral standpoint. Therefore, with this law commission report came ‘decriminalization’ of attempt to suicide. As a result, The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 (referred to as MHCA) came into force and under the ambit of section 115 of the act the government was duty bound to provide rehabilitation and proper care to those who attempted to commit suicide and further, they cannot be tried or punished under this code.
But that being said, we can’t entirely forget that there are two sides to a coin. Even though suicide is a matter of concern and striking down of 309 of the IPC seems like the only solution, there are other things that need consideration too. There have been instances of public blackmailing government officials with taking away their lives if things don’t go their way or instances of voluntary fasting to death, how can such not so genuine issues be dealt with in the absence of 309 of the IPC.
The need of the hour is to recognise the attempts made by the 210th Law Commission report and understand suicide as a socio- legal issue and stop treating the person attempting to commit suicide as the perpetrator and worsening the situation by imprisoning them with criminals, where their mental health is bound to futher detoriate. But also at the same time deciding each case on its merits and punish where it’s due.
To quote the 210th law commission report, which gave humanity hope, “The criminal law must not act with misplaced overzeal and it is only where it can prove to be apt and effective machinery to cure the intended evil that it should come into the picture.“