Some time back, a 24-year-old resident of Delhi committed suicide by hanging herself. She had been married for barely a year and had a month-old baby Her inlaws were arrested for harassing her for dowry But had the victim survived, along with her in-laws, she too would have faced a prison term and perhaps, even a fine. In the eyes of the law, she would have been a criminal for attempting suicide. That's what Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) says.
Soon, such victims of circumstances may no longer have to deal with the police along with their trauma. A central government committee, set up to draft the National Policy on Criminal Justice, is recommending decriminalisation of attempt to suicide in its report to be submitted to the Union Home Ministry.
Committee chairman Prof NR Madhava Menon says they are recommending re-classification of marginal offences into four categories: social welfare offences, which will include attempt to suicide, civil offences, correctional offences and economic offences. However, the final decision will rest with the government, Prof Menon adds.
Victims or criminals?
Every year, one lakh Indians commit suicide; 10 times that number make an attempt to end their lives, but survive. A majority of these people suffer from psychiatric or psychological disorders, says Dr Nimesh G Desai, head of psychiatry and medical superintendent at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, Delhi. Others are pushed to the brink in the face of extreme social, economic, emotional and even political circumstances, he says. In the eyes of the law, they are all criminals, fit to be punished under Section 309 of the IPC.
In the early 70s, there was a countrywide debate over this issue following which the Law Commission recommended that Section 309 be repealed. It wasn't. Thirty years later: India figures anume tlw only five nations in the world where attempt to suickle is still a criminal offence. The others are Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore and Bangladesh.
Four years ago, Sri Lanka also repealed the law that bracketed suicide with other crimes. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has also strongly recommended decriminalisation of attempt to suicide.
"Nine out of ten suicideseekers suffer from a diagnosed psychiatric disorder and thereby need more sensitive handling," says Dr P Sithole, professor and head of psychiatry, King George's Medical College, Lucknow.
Suicide law: a deterrent?
The argument in favour of the law against suicide is that it is a deterrent. But like many others, Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumal member of WHO's International Network for Suicide Research and Prevention, doesn't buy this argument.
"If the purpose of the law was to prevent suicides by legal methods, it has been counter-productive," says Chennai-based Dr Vijayakumar - the first Indian to be invited to the Collegiums of International Academy of Suicide Research.
"Besides underreporting of the cases, emergency care to those who have attempted suicide is denied because many hospitals and practitioners hesitate to provide the necessary treatment due to legal hassles," adds Dr Vijayakumar.
She recalls the case of a woman who was brought to a hospital after she consumed poison and was given a stomach wash. The hospital decided to keep her under observation for a day Because it was a medico-legal case, the police soon arrived on the scene. The family panicked and left with the woman, who later died at home.
Missing pillars of support
"Penalising people who are desperate enough to attempt suicide is like punishing someone who has been abused," says Dr Achal Bhagat, consulting psychiatrist at Apollo Hospital, Delhi.
While not completely ruling out the law against suicide, Seema Prakash, director of Sanjeevani, an NGO which counsels people with suicidal thoughts, says criminal charges in the absence of prevention will not help. "The government must focus on building support systems to enhance positive mental health," she says. But help should not be forced or compulsory, it should be persuasive, adds Dr Desai.
Now the question is: how many people who are booked under attempt to suicide are actually convicted? "The government should collect the data to ascertain the conviction rate under Sectkm 309," says Yusuf A Matcheswala, president of Bombay Psychiatric Society. "There are many loopholes in the system with doctors and police bailing out those who attempt suicide," he adds while emphasising the need to initiate more preventive steps. "Given the low conviction rate in our judiciary, a negligible number of attempted suicide cases reach the trial stage," adds Dr Bhagat, also the director of Saarthak, an NGO working on mental health.
IPS officer Prakash Singh, who was the former director general of Border Security Force, admits that there are fewer cases of attempt to suicide reported at police stations and even lesser convictions. According to him no one is interested in prosecuting someone who wants to embrace death.
To be or not to be
Section 309 is based on Article 21 of the Constitution, which is Protection of Life and Personal Liberty - in other words, the Right to Life. Legal experts have argued that the right to live also gives the person the 'right not to live'. Their arguments are based on three rulings.
The question on whether or not the right to die is included in Article 21 came up for consideration for the first time in the case of State of Maharashtra vs Maruti Sripati Dubal (1987) in the Bombay High Court. The court held that the right to life includes the right to die, and struck down Section 309 IPC.
In this case, a mentally deranged Bombay Police constable tried to set himself afire in the corporation's office on being refused permission to set up a shop. The court observed, "No deterrence is further going to hold back those who want to die for a special or political cause or to leave the world either because of the loss of interest in life or for self-deliverance."
In P Rathinam vs Union of India (1994), a division bench of the Supreme Court supported the HC ruling and struck down Section 309 as unconstitutional on the grounds that it amounted to punishing the victim twice over.
Both these rulings were overruled in 1996 in the Gian Kaur vs State of Punjab case. A fivemember Constitution bench held that the right to life does not include 'right to die' or 'right to be killed'. Death is the opposite of life. Likewise, the right to die is inconsistent with the right to life, it was stated. Delivering this verdict, the court observed, "The right to life is a natural right embodied in Article 21 of the Constitution but suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life .... and inconsistent with the concept of right to life."
Supreme Court lawyer RN Trivedi says the court overruled the orders on the ground that Section 309 confers a wide discretion in the matter of sentencing, without prescribing any minimum punishment and without making imprisonment compulsory However, Mumbai-based criminal lawyer Majid Memon says, "A person who commits suicide is himself a victim, rather than an offender We in a civil society must identify causes for his acts and ensure such circumstances do not recur."
When state is the abettor
While attempt to suicide may invite up to a year's imprisonment, its abetment is punishable under Section 306 with up to 10 years in jail. Hence, this oftasked question: what about cases in which the State is the abettor? "It is necessary to survey cases where no visible abettor has been identified, yet suicide has been committed," says Memon. "The Vidarbha suicides are an example of how indebtedness has driven farmers to suicide. This manifests the failure of the State." However: to date not a single official of the state has been convicted for abetment of suicide in cases such as these.
"Every suicide speaks of the pathology of the society and not of the vulnerability of the individual. Hence, the State or society must address this issue,"says Abdul Mabood, director of Snehi, which offers psycho-social support and mental health care, especially to adolescents and youths.
The Law Commission, meanwhile, does not recommended abrogation of Section 306. A senior official in the Law Commission also clarifies that the government does not plan to give any legal status to euthanasia - another issue which has been raised by social groups along with the demand for decriminalising attempt to suicide. For the latter, their common refrain is: there cannot be any legal remedy for a psychological or social malady.