A case to decriminalize suicide

Context: Should we stop penalizing suicides and seek for a more permanent solution like repeal of section 309 Indian Penal Code (IPC)? 

High suicide rate in India 

India has the highest suicide rate in the Southeast Asian region, according to the World Health Organization.  

  • A total of 1,34,516 cases of suicide were reported in 2018 in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. While the rate of suicide was 9.9 in 2017, it increased to 10.2 in 2018. 
Reasons for suicide 

Depression, chronic ill health, guilt, trauma, substance abuse, failure in exams, and loss of loved ones are some of the reasons which influence a person’s decision to take his or her life. 

What is section 309 IPC? 

Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code provides for the penal provision for attempting suicide.  

  • If a person is suffering from any mental trauma or illness, he or she should be given reformative treatment rather than a deterrent punishment which is “simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year [or with fine, or with both]”. 
  • British Parliament decriminalized attempts to suicide in 1961 through the Suicide Act. In India, a Bill to repeal Section 309 was first introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 1972 but it failed to pass in the Lok Sabha because the House was dissolved. 
Judgements favoring decriminalization of suicide. 

Those who favor the penal provision generally quote the following judgments. 

  • Gian Kaur V. State of Punjab (1996): In this judgment court held that 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, therefore, incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of right to life”. 
  • Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India (2011): In this case, the Supreme Court endorsed the Gian Kaur judgment. 
Judgments against decriminalization of suicide 

Those who argue that the act of attempting suicide should not be criminalized quote following judgments: 

  • Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra (1986): In this judgment, the Bombay High Court declared Section 309 unconstitutional. It said: “For example, the freedom of speech and expression includes freedom not to speak and to remain silent. The freedom of association and movement likewise includes the freedom not to join any association or to move anywhere… If this is so, logically it must follow that right to live… will include also a right not to live or not to be forced to live.” 
  • Chenna Jagadeeswar v. State of Andhra Pradesh and P. Rathinam v. Union of India (1994): In these judgments court held that Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code is a violation of Articles 14 and 21 and is void and unconstitutional. 

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Does mental healthcare act offer a solution? 

To some degree but not fully.  

  • In 2017, Parliament passed the Mental Healthcare Act. Section 115 (1) of the Act provides, that any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code. 
  • However, this law applies only to those suffering from mental illness. There is presumption of severe stress in case of an attempt to die by suicide. 
  • But what if severe stress is not proved? 
Way forward 

We have to shift from penalizing attempts to suicide or making such cases medico-legal ones. Instead, we should provide psychological or mental treatment and support to the persons affected. As the issue demands a reformative stance, we need a permanent solution like repealing Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code or striking it down. 

Terms to know 

  • Mental healthcare Act 

SourceThe Hindu 

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