Imagine the horror of a person who tries to commit suicide but fails and finds himself facing a prison sentence for the ‘crime’. It is a double blow really for the traumatised person. Now, the Union government has decided to repeal Section 309, which says attempt to suicide is a crime, from the Indian Penal Code.
This is a commendable move. The government has taken the lead on this rather than leave it for the courts to decide upon. It follows the recommendations of the Law Commission’s 210th report — Humanisation and Decriminalisation of Attempt to Suicide — which had said that the Section needed to be erased because it was inhuman, irrespective of whether it was constitutional or unconstitutional. This view was not new: Several court orders had earlier said the same.
In 1981, the Delhi High Court called the provision as “unworthy of human society” and in 1986, the Bombay High Court held it to be “ultra-vires’ on the grounds that it violated Articles 14 and 21. However, a big blow came in 1996, when a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held that attempted suicide was an offence.
The pro-Section 309 lobby argues that suicide is an act against religion; it is immoral; it produces adverse sociological effects, it is against public policy and that only the State has the right to take someone’s life. The opponents argue that Article 21, which enjoins that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law, also carries with it the negative right not to live. There are only few countries that are continuing with the law: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Singapore have persisted with this regressive law.
The decision to repeal the law will hopefully now bring into focus the fact that in India many people are pushed to commit suicide because there is very little help available when someone finds that they have reached the end of their emotional resources. State health services don’t offer counselling, either.
In fact, a 2012 World Health Organization report says India accounts for the highest estimated number of suicides in the world. Women have a far more difficult time in India if they have any mental illness. Most are either left to fend for themselves or dumped in our mental hospitals, most of which are in a terrible condition.
Building on the decision, the government will now have to look at another issue that has been debated till now: Euthanasia or assisted suicide.