Jargon of Killing Oneself: Injustice in law?

The concept of suicide has been developed since ages long. Historically, Suicide was considered as a serious offense. But modern society has changed the perspective of many westernized country. But many Asian countries like India still criminalize even attempt to suicide. People are penalize and imprison after their failed attempt. Tragedy doesn’t ends there their family who are already grief stricken after the death are made to follow legal consequences. In India section 309 of the IPC criminalizes attempt to suicide. Suicidal tendency is an unhealthy condition arising of an abnormality.   Circumstances leading   them behind   the legal bar  will surely worsen the condition. If the law enforcement bodies are shifting their focus from legal sanctions to medical sanctions it will create positive frequency around to get more vocal for this cause. There are three different kinds of attempt to suicide depending on the way people attempt it and the manner in which it gets legal sanctions.  Sometimes people   are deliberately reporting the matter to the police as accidental so as not to get into penal actions and even hospital are frequently denying to admit suicide attempters in case not to get into trauma or stigma. So at last   patients lacks the even only emotional support they can get. Recent cases of   suicide during the last few years has revealed that there has been significant increase in attempt   to suicide.  So the government has decided to repeal the section 309 of the IPC by   passing Medical health care bill 2013 which can be stepping stone towards decriminalization of attempt to suicide.


Suicide has been crime since ages long. Historically law against suicide and mercy killing has been developed from religious doctrine –“One(god) who gave should only take”. And external manifestation of the act done by the person by ending life was so against the natural law of the land. History shows the followed consequences of suicide as well as associated matters of assisting suicide and attempting suicide. There were strict jurisdictions with regard to the same and moreover, after the death, legal consequences were suffered by their family members and they were left to face the miseries of exorbitant legal procedure involuntarily. Subsequently, family members of the attempters were debarred from property rights. The corpses received more of a debilitating treatment. Body had been all the way scratch throughout the city and then thrown on the waste excreta and thus, the body was denied the honor of pious cremation or  burial.

Secularization of the society question religious attitude towards suicide and brought a more modern perspective to the issue. Even though with changing time decriminalization of suicides have occurred so far in western society. After the French revolution and after the social cultural change in Europe the attitude towards suicide and attempt to suicide has gradually change. And after 19th and 20th centuries many developed countries have decriminalize this attempt. But some countries still criminalize even the failed attempt and India is one among them. Under section 309 of the IPC the attempt to commit suicide is punishable. It says -“whoever attempt to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offense shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or both”. The above section has been put to lot of controversies since last two decade. While there is no punishment for completed act law makes sure that there is punishment for every unsuccessful attempt. As aptly defined by Clift v. Schwabe the term- ‘to commit suicide’ is voluntarily doing an act for the purpose of destroying his own life, being conscious of that probable consequence and having of that time, sufficient mind and will for destruction of life. Emphasis here are the words ‘voluntary act’ and ‘being conscious’ of that consequence.      What matters is the intention behind it. Most interestingly, there is no definition for suicide as described in the Indian penal code. First of all appropriateness of the term to describe suicide has to be made clear. As the terms ‘completed suicide’ and ‘committed suicide’ are diametrically opposite to each other. The use of the term to ‘commit’ indicates that suicide is crime, sinful and morally wrong act whereas use of the term ‘completed suicide’ gives implications that person has not done any crime in fact he had just simply put an end to his sufferings by ending life. The pressing problem lies in declaring attempt to suicide as a crime. Crime is committed by criminals and suicide is not a crime. In western countries like USA and Canada the words like ‘died by suicide’ is gradually developing, from rather saying ‘committed suicide’. Therefore the ‘committed suicide’ and ‘attempt to commit suicide’ are distinctively different and are inappropriate in modern times.

It certainly invokes sympathy for the survivor, such persons needs proper counselling and help. They need emotional support. Being psychologically ill they need psychiatric treatment. And if in such a condition failure in attempt give way to legal consequences then it can be so harsh and inhuman to send them behind bars in such deteriorated condition. Through research came to know that there are non-fatal of suicidal behavior also. Non-fatal kind of suicidal behavior is due to psychiatric illness. It is mainly due to depression and other mental disorder. There are some other factors which are caused due to childhood adversities like abuse of   alcohol,   abuse of drug, sexual or physical abuse , or may due to bankruptcy, loss of job or relation, death of beloved ones or even criminal prosecution can lead due to mental illness. The law which is usually so vibrant on suicide keeps unusually calm on state of mind of the survivor. Its keeps itself restricted towards understanding the mens rea of the survivor. And moreover nothing is clear about the healing of the mind of the survivor. Once the irresistible thought of suicide steps in their mind its hard to find its way out. So many institution and organizations came forward towards giving their invaluable service to this noble work. Its high time even for the court to understand the crying need of decriminalizing attempt to suicide. Instead of punishment the issue must be   solved delicately. As for instance central board of secondary education in India has started up helplines before announcing the results for board exams. And this urge was felt when number of suicides rates increased as soon as the announcement for result were made in the past. Similarly number of the helplines has been launched for council purposes . punishment cannot be a permanent solution. But counseling works in a long way run.

Inspecting the offence of attempt to suicide, an English writer has duly said that -“Its monstrous to inflict on them the pain of suffering behind bars when they are already bars when they are already in unhealthy state of mind.” A single person who has already found his life so unbearable and painful where his chances of happiness are so slender and they are unwilling to face pain and willing to face death the law makes it  imperative for them to go for further degradation and bitterness. It seems absolutely to be perverse against the legislation.

It is a well-known fact that under article 21 of the constitution ‘Right to life’ has been guaranteed. It ensures citizens to live life with full dignity. The conflict begins here, if article 21 gives right to life then the same must give right to end life with his own will. This was a subject in cases of –R.Rathinam v Union of India and Smt.Gian Kaur v State of Punjab. In the mentioned R.Rathinam case it was held by the Supreme court that the right to die form an aspect of article 21. Supreme court agreed with the reasoning put forth by High court that the section 309 of the IPC violates   the article 21 of the constitution. If article 21 gives right to life the same derives right to die as an important aspect of it. No one can be forced to live miserable life if they are unwilling to suffer. Each and every single person deserves to put full stop to his/her unwanted life. The freedom of speech and expression includes freedom not to speak and remain silent. The freedom of association and movement guarantees even not to join any association and movement. The freedom of business and occupation also includes freedom not to do any business or even close down any business. So logically reasoning article 21 of the constitution which gives ‘Right to life’ also gives right  to end forced life. Precisely, article 21 would also include ‘Right to die’ or terminate one’s own life. The High court has observed that there is nothing unnatural in desire to die. If the person wants to end his life then he cannot be restricted as article 21 of constitution which gives right to life also gives right to end forced life. High court has observed that right to die or end’s one’s life is not unknown to human civilization. If any single doesn’t want to continue with his unhappy life he should be able to end it no matter what whether it is through strangulation or starvation. It his own sweet choice to end in the way he feels right. In earlier times some Hindu’s and Jain have approved of the practice of ending one’s life by their own act. Even Buddhism has encouraged suicide in some or other way whether it is in the service of religion or country. In actual neither new nor old school of thoughts has condemned suicide so harshly. But in contrast, the Christianity has condemned suicide as a form of murder. Quran has declared it as a crime worse than homicide. But society has come a long way through this forest of negativity.

The modern perspective says the desire of suicide comes out of extraordinary situation arising out of an abnormal personality. Due to which they are unable to adjust to the common society. They are in the dungeon of suicidal thoughts where they are unable to find any ray of hope. The suicidal behavior is psychiatric illness or may be called psychological distress which indicates that the person needs support in his distressed life. They are so weak to take the burden of fine or imprisonment upon them. It was surveyed that 93% of the deceased are psychiatrically ill at the time of the commission of the act and only 33% out of them had psychiatric contact. So many of them were unknown of the guidance and if in such condition they are put to legal sanctions it will only increase the risk for depression, anxiety and repetitive suicidal behavior. In such case only proper counseling will give right support and guidance. Suicidal behavior is the results of host of events. They may be due to socio economic, biological, political, unemployment, failure, loss of beloved each factor leading to suicidal tendency. In fact indirectly state can be held responsible for the plight of the victim. Instead of helping him if state is charging him with a crime then it is said to be unjust and unfair on the part of the government. For example in Maharashtra farmers are committing suicide to get over their loan payment. They think committing suicide will exempt them from loan burden  if government will be taking proper and exact efforts to curb it then suicide attempt in such cases can be avoided to large extent.

Moreover, another difficulty faced by criminalizing attempt to suicide is surfacing. Often suicide attempters are not being admitted to the hospital by the hospital authorities as they are likely to face trauma and stigma that comes along with the legal procedures so followed. In democratic country like India the cases of attempted suicide should have medico-legal stamp on it. And the superintendent of the hospital is require to inform police about the said matter. Afterwards police comes for inspection and collects information through family or the person itself. Hospital usually deny or ignore which leads to unnecessary delay. This may lead to delay and ultimately the death of the patient. And even if in case he is saved he has to undergo the trauma of penal sanctions. Most importantly kith and the kin of the deceased reports the matter to the authorities as an accident as they don’t wish to go through any legal burden. So the emotional as well as mental support also lacks in such circumstances. A study of 200 attempted suicides in general hospitality emergency facility has revealed that 46.2% males whereas 26.2% females were aware of the penal sanctions before making an attempt. So this reveals that that legal boundaries doesn’t restrict suicide attempters from making attempt. If the attempt to suicide is decriminalize then the deceased as well as their family will be in better position to seek aid when needed. Decriminalizing attempt to commit suicide will not actually result in increasing number of suicides but it will only encourage survivors to seek help. If attempt to suicide is not punishable people facing this dire   issue will be freely and frankly coming forward to seek help. And this will lead to get accurate data on statistics of suicidal tendency. So the state in return can uproot the cause for consequences.

There are three different kinds of suicide depending on the way people attempt it or the manner in which it gets legal sanctions. First is  unfortunately in democratic and secular country like India even the law enforcement bodies officials   usually do not interfere where religiously or publicly social sentiments are hurt. They take utmost care that people at large remains cool and calm. Recently a famous social activist Anna Hazare sat for fast unto death only after doctor’s recommendation and interruptions from police that he ended up his fast soon later. Secondly in some recent cases following observations were made – Mr. Jain, an unemployed and bankrupt by heart ailment cause was raising his five unmarried daughters. Unable to handle the plight he took extreme step (overdoses of sedatives). Even in such helplessness court sentenced him for imprisonment for token of time. There is no justification in imposing severe punishment on such persons. It may lead to total breakdown for such attempters. It may happen that such harsh condition may dampen his total spirits and he may go into depression. But in case of political and social mass the scenario is totally different. Mass leader go for fast unto death for their only interest to be served by the running government. But these cases go unpunished and the case is dismissed as accidental. Whereas charges against individual persons are severe. Thirdly in Jainism   through religious practices like Santhara,   people give up their soul to achieve salvation. Practically state doesn’t interfere in religious practices of the citizens under article 25 of the constitution but recently PIL has filed in the High court of Rajasthan insisting Santhara to be included under section 309 of the IPC as an attempt to murder. Actually a dying man who is terminally ill or in a very deteriorated or vegetative state should be permitted to terminate it by premature extinction of his life. It’s  not the case of extinguishing life but  a process put forth of accelerating the process of the natural death which is already beckoning. In fact, in such cases, causing of death would result in end of his sufferings. It also protrude- welcoming of the death or embracing death more gracefully instead of suffering for so long.

Delhi High court has in a landmark judgment has commented that- “The continuance of the section 309 IPC (criminalizing suicide) is an anachronism unworthy of a human society like ours” The Indian penal code was formulated during the British raj regime in 1860 and it was governed by the British of that time. But this archaic law is still in continuance in India even though Britishers have themselves decriminalize the same act way back in 1961. Steps have been taken by the Government in decriminalizing attempt to suicide as recently suicide cases have increased considerably. Section 309 of the IPC has been concluded as an undesirable law. Lately 210th report of law commission have recommended to efface section 309 from the statue book due to increasing ratio of suicide. And the same recommendation has also got backing from 18 states and 4 union territories in India. Law commission have regarded section 309 of IPC to be anachronistic and moreover it has also noted   that attempt to suicide may be considered as manifestation of diseased state of mind which deserves treatment not punishment. Some states in India has rightly pointed out that the difference should be drawn between the persons who are mentally ill and who are trying to escape criminal liabilities. Delhi has made it compulsory reporting of the attempt to suicide to any authorized officer or hospital.

Decriminalizing attempt to suicide brings country on the horns of dilemma. The major question of debate is whether attempt to suicide if left punishable will even exempt offenders from their criminal liabilities. But this question got the solution after introduction of the Mental health care bill 2013 by the members of the parliament. Some sections of the proposed Mental health care bill which are relevant to the in decriminalizing attempt to the suicide include-

  • Section 124 of the bill describes about the decriminalization of the attempt to commit suicide.
  • Section 124 (1) recognizes person who has attempted to commit suicide is exempted from punishment under the IPC as presumed to be suffering from mental illness unless proved otherwise.
  • Section 124 (2) recognizes the suffering being undergone by a person who attempt suicide and seeks to provide them with care and consideration ,instead of subjecting them to criminal prosecution.

Debate over this issue is lengthy, unending and unsatisfactory to common conscience, therefore, the deductions has to inferred from its pros and cons. In India as legal enforcement bodies have shifted their gaze from legal to medical sanctions. It is need of a hour to establish proper mental care units all throughout the country. There is a heavy risk included in it and burden lies on the state. Conclusively the attempt to suicide should not be punishable after all state is for the welfare and wellbeing of the society. A diseased mind should be treated not punished. Decriminalization is the most appreciated step in human manner towards it. Subsequently it will surely lead to decrease in suicidal attempts and people will become more vocal for this cause. They will be willing to come forth without getting scared this in fact will help the government in improving their statistics on the suicide ratio. In this way Government will be able to derive right data and come to right conclusion which will help them in taking appropriate measures for this cause. Its already a high time to a give serious thought to the same.

– Shweta Kambe

The Author is a student of Government Law College, Mumbai.

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