Suicide is referred to as the act of self-murdering or killing of oneself. It is an intentional act whereby the person ends his/her life to escape tragedies they face. While there can be many reasons which push someone to end their life, the underlying cause traces to stress. As per the reports of the World Health Organisation, nearly 8 million die due to suicide which is one person every 40 seconds. According to the Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India report made by the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 130,000 suicides in India in 2015 and in 2012 the state of Tamil Nadu reported 12.5% suicides, the highest per cent followed by Maharashtra. This Article will focus on the legal facets of Suicide in India answering hypothetical issues that arise from decriminalization of attempted suicide.
Right to Die
Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code declares that attempting suicide is a crime and the survivor is punished accordingly. The provision reads as,
Attempt to commit suicide:
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. The constitutional validity of this Section was very much challenged on the ground that it violated the Right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India which according to many included the Right of individuals to end their lives. Article 21 of the Constitution reads as, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.
Right to Life means the right to lead a meaningful, complete and dignified life. It does not have restricted meaning. It is something more than surviving or animal existence. The meaning of the word life cannot be narrowed down. As far as Personal Liberty is concerned, it means freedom from physical restraint of the person by personal incarceration or otherwise and it includes all the varieties of rights other than those provided under Article 19 of the Constitution. Procedure established by Law means the law enacted by the State. Deprived has also a wide range of meaning under the Constitution. These ingredients are the soul of this provision. The fundamental right under Article 21 is one of the most important rights provided under the Constitution which has been described as the heart of fundamental rights by the Apex Court.
The scope of Article 21 was a bit narrow till 50s as it was held by the Apex Court in A.K.Gopalan v. State of Madras that the contents and subject matter of Article 21 and 19 (1) (d) are not identical and they proceed on total principles. In this case the word deprivation was construed in a narrow sense and it was held that the deprivation does not restrict upon the right to move freely which came under Article 19 (1) (d). At that time Gopalan’s case was the leading case in respect of Article 21 along with some other Articles of the Constitution, but post Gopalan case the scenario in respect of scope of Article 21 has been expanded or modified gradually through different decisions of the Apex Court and it was held that interference with the freedom of a person at home or restriction imposed on a person while in jail would require authority of law.
Constitutional Validity of Section 309 I.P.C.
The state’s power under Section 309, I.P.C. is questioned not only on grounds of morality but also on the constitutionality of the provision.
Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra
This is the case in which the first time it came for the consideration before the court was whether a person has a right to die. The petitioner, a police constable, who became mentally ill after a road accident attempted to commit suicide by dousing himself with kerosene and then trying to light a match was prevented and prosecuted under Section 309 of I.P.C. In 1987, the Division Bench of Bombay High Court struck down Section 309, I.P.C., as ultra vires vide Article 14 and 21 of the constitution which guarantees ‘right to life and personal liberty’. The court said the ‘right to life’ includes ‘right to live’ as well as ‘right to end one’s life’ if one so desires. It was pointed out that Fundamental Rights have positive as well as negative aspects. For example: Freedom of Speech and Expression also includes freedom not to speak and to remain silent. If this is so, logically it must follow that the right to live as recognized by Article 21 of the constitution also includes a right not to live or not to be forced to live.
Is it Morally Right to Punish an Attempt to Commit Suicide
Right to life means right to live peacefully as an ordinary human being. One can appreciate the theory that an individual may not be permitted to die with a view to avoiding his social obligations. He should perform all duties towards fellow citizens. At the same time, however, if he is unable to take normal care of his body or has lost all the senses and if his real desire is to quit the world, he cannot be compelled to continue with torture and painful life. In such cases, it will indeed be cruel not to permit him to die. There are people who though see suicide as morally wrong, still create obligatory grounds to commit suicide and advanced some arguments with moral backups in favour of suicide. Thus giving us the chance of raising the question whether man has the moral right to die or take his or her life.
Decriminalization of Suicide
India has retained and preserved many laws enacted during the British Raj even after independence in 1947. Section 309 is one such which was retained despite the fact that the British parliament itself decriminalized attempted suicide in 1961 through the Suicide Act. The Law Commission of India undertook to revise IPC along with other central acts and as a result of which it recommended repealing of Section 309. It rather suggested a new Section which reads as 309. Whoever, by persistent acts of cruelty, drives a member of his family living with him to commit suicide shall be punished with imprisonment of either description of the term which may extend to three years, and may also be liable to fine.The Bill to repeal this was introduced in Rajya Sabha in 1972 but it failed to pass through Lok Sabha as the house was dissolved then, lapsing the bill. Later, the Law Commission in its 210th report recommended that Section 309 needs to be effaced from the statute book because the provision is inhuman, irrespective of whether it is constitutional or unconstitutional. The offence of attempt to commit suicide under Section 309 needs to be omitted from the Indian Penal Code. It saidSection 309 of the Indian Penal Code provides double punishment for a person who has already got fed up with his own life and desires to end it.
As per the Constitution, the state is entrusted with the duty to promote and protect the lives of its people. In this accord, Section 309 provided authority to the state to punish a person if he/she attempted to commit suicide. Life is a gift bestowed by nature and it shall not be taken away by man unnaturally. The state has a duty to prevent persons from terminating their lives. This argument does not hold good, as the Constitution and courts in various cases have stated that the state shall not interfere into the personal lives of individuals. Their rights and freedoms, however, are not absolute. They are subjected to reasonable restrictions which are provided by the Constitution and its scope being elaborated by the courts. Retaining Section 309 allows the state to intrude into an individual’s life and curtails their freedoms.
Is Abetment of suicide an offence
Attempt to suicide is no more a criminal offence and the survivor is kept out of punishment. Thus the scope of Section 309 is limited to Section 115 of the Mental Health Care Act. Now, the immediate question which arises is whether abetment of suicide is an offence or not?
Attempting suicide is the result of severe mental stress and it is not the same in the case of abetment of suicide. The person who abets another person to commit suicide actually has an ill-intention and that cannot go unreported and unpunished. It is this ill-intention that creates intense stress or fear if the intention is materialised through threat. Abetment need not necessarily involve forcing someone to commit suicide but also aiding that person in that process.
The desirability of deletion of Section 309 from I.P.C. is the view supported by majority of states in India. Twenty five Indian states except Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Sikkim have favoured striking down I.P.C. Section 309 that criminalise attempt to suicide by making it punishable with death. It can be said that to resolve the conflict between the principle of sancity of the life and the rights of self-determination and dignity of an individual is to be resolved first and the right to die should not be generalized should be exercised as an exception in the “RAREST OF RARE CASES” like death penalty in India.
- C.A Thomas Master v. Union of India. (2000, CriLJ 3729)
- Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (AIR 1996, SC 1257)
- P. Rathinam v. Union of India. (AIR 1994, SC(3) 394)
- Chenna Jagadeeshwar v. State of A.P.(AIR 1987)
- State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia.(AIR 1985)
- . Government of India. Humanization and decriminalization of attempt to suicide (Report No. 210) 2008. [Last accessedon 2014 Sep 18]. Available from: http://www.jeywin.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Report210-Humanization-and-decriminalization-of-Attempt-to-commit-Suicide.pdf .