As Irom Sharmila breaks fast, criminalisation of attempt to suicide nears end

  • Satya Prakash, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 10, 2016 08:45 IST
Irom Sharmila licks honey from her hand to break her fast during a press conference in Imphal. (PTI Photo)

As activist Irom Sharmila breaks her 16-year-fast , attempt to commit suicide for which she was prosecuted is all set to be de-criminalised in India.

Eight years after the Law Commission recommended de-criminalisation of attempt to suicide in 2008; the Rajya Sabha passed The Mental Health Care Bill, 2013 on Monday. It’s likely to be passed by the Lok Sabha during the current session of Parliament, paving the way for de-criminalising attempt to suicide.

Under the Bill, there is a presumption of mental illness in favour of a person attempting to commit suicide. It provides that unless proven otherwise, any person attempting to commit suicide will be presumed to be suffering from a mental illness at that time and will not be punished under the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

At present, attempt to suicide is an offence under Section 309 of the IPC attracting a simple imprisonment for a year or fine or both.

According to government data, 134,799 people committed suicide in 2013 compared to 135,445 in the previous year. There is no official data on the number of attempted suicides.

Terming the provision as “inhuman”, the Law Commission had recommended scrapping of the law saying, “repeal of the anachronistic law would save many lives and relieve the distressed of his sufferings.”

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However, the UPA had rejected the report of the Law Commission that advises the government on legal issues.

“It would not be just and fair to inflict additional legal punishment on a person who has already suffered agony and ignominy in his failure to commit suicide… When a troubled individual tries to end his life, it would be cruel to visit him with punishment on his failure to die,” the commission had said in its 210th report on “Humanisation and Decriminalisation of Attempt to Suicide”.

It made a similar recommendation in its 42nd report in 1971.

The panel took note of the fact that countries in Europe and North America had repealed such provisions and the World Health Organisation, International Association for Suicide Prevention and Indian Psychiatric Society were in favour of doing away with Section 309.

The report, however, stressed that assisting or encouraging another person to (attempt to) commit suicide must not go unpunished. Describing Section 309 as a “double punishment” for a person fed up with life, the panel said it was also “a stumbling block in prevention of suicides and improving the access of medical care”.

The report had said: “It is unreasonable to inflict punishment upon a person who on account of family discord, destitution, loss of a dear relation or other cause of a like nature…decides to take his own life. In such a case, the unfortunate person deserves sympathy, counselling and appropriate treatment, and certainly not the prison.”

The Supreme Court too had in 2011 recommended to Parliament to consider decriminalising attempt to suicide, saying the provision had become anachronistic. “A person attempts suicide in a depression, and hence he needs help, rather than punishment,” it had said.

A bench headed by justice Markandey Katju, which legalised passive euthanasia in India, said: “Although Section 309 has been held to be constitutionally valid in Gian Kaur’s case, the time has come when it should be deleted by Parliament as it has become anachronistic.”

The NDA government had told the Rajya Sabha in December 2014 that it was considering repeal of Section 309 IPC.

Then Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary had said since law and order was a state subject, views of all states and union territories had been sought on the law panel’s recommendations.

The government decided to go ahead with de-criminalising attempt to suicide after it got the backing of 22 states and union territories. Four states - Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Sikkim; and union territory of Delhi did not fully support the move to repeal Section 309 IPC.

However, a parliamentary standing committee – which examined the Bill -- noted that persons may attempt suicide due to a number of reasons which may not be related to their mental health. But the provision regarding presumption of mental illness will subject every person who has attempted suicide to mental health treatment. It recommended that such a person should be presumed to be under severe stress instead of suffering from a mental illness.

Once the Bill is passed by both the Houses and notified in the official gazette after President’s assent, lakhs of attempt to suicide cases would vanish overnight, bringing relief to the over-burdened judiciary.

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