During a ruling in August this year, the Supreme Court gave a very clear indication of when a person can be accused of abetting suicide, as defined in Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code. This 'definition' is important because many of the recent high-profile cases (Ruchika Girhotra, Rizwanur Rehman and Rouvanjit Rawla) have negotiated this difficult trough of law that carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. In its ruling, the apex court had said that an individual can't be accused of abetting a suicide unless there's a "positive act on the part of the accused to instigate or aid (another) in committing suicide" and that abetment involves a mental process of instigating a person or intentionally aiding a person in committing suicide. "Credible evidence or material on record", the court said, would be the two requirements for any ruling against the accused.
However, more often than not, this clear-cut guidance hasn't proved enough. A case in point is the Rouvanjit Rawla case. Rawla, a Class 8 student of a Kolkata school, was found hanging in his home on February 12, the day he was 'hauled up' (but, according to the school authorities, not physically punished) by his teachers for indiscipline. After the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights revealed in June that corporal punishment is rampant in the school, and that Rawla had been a victim of caning many times, the police
took up the 'abetment to suicide' issue. But on Monday, the principal and three other teachers of the school were released on bail. Many believe that the police 'diluted' the charges by downgrading them from 'abetment to suicide' to 'physical assault'. Such a reaction could be driven more by emotion than by logic.
While the death of a youngster under duress can only be condemned, jumping the gun will not serve any purpose. The link between the suicide and the pressure 'build-up' — if there is any — must be explored meticulously. It is understandable that Rawla's family has every right to feel that the school had put pressure on the child in different ways instead of trying to deal with his aberrant behaviour holistically. But 'feelings' don't stand the scrutiny of the court. In fact, child rights activists say that in many similar cases, the police don't even bother to link abuse to suicide. But here, this has happened because of the high-profile nature of the case. While the crime of corporal punishment must be roundly criticised, the profile of the case — the school and its authorities — and other intangibles cannot be the basis for a ruling. Or, for that matter, on other cases in which people tragically kill themselves.