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Centre’s Decision To Decriminalize Attempt To Suicide Must Be Highly Applauded

Coming straight to the point, let me first of all extend my unqualified and unstinted support for Centre’s decision to decriminalize attempt to suicide. It must be highly applauded by one and all as it will certainly serve the basic purpose of humanity by not throwing a person who fails in bid to commit suicide to jail and further face punishment and suffer utmost mental torture and what not! I have for long been a strong votary of decriminalizing attempt to commit suicide since a long time especially after going through the 210th report of the Law Commission pertaining to it way back in 2009! Under no circumstances can punishing attempt to suicide be ever justified. I do admit that to commit suicide is certainly wrong but to punish it is more wrong and two wrongs whether bigger or smaller can never make a right! A wrong has to be corrected by doing the right thing and not further wronged by doing a bigger wrong!
Let us not forget that Section 309 of IPC tantamounts to brazenly punishing hapless people who are already suffering endlessly by not only sending them to prison for one year but also imposing fine on them which only serves to make their life more miserable by further compounding their endless problems. How can this grave injustice be ever justified? I am really ashamed as a citizen of India that Section 309 of IPC is still in full operation even after 68 years of independence!
It is under most compelling and trying circumstances that a person decides to commit suicide and in case that person survives, he/she requires love, emotional and mental support and care of not just doctors but more than anything else of his/her friends, relatives and all near and dear ones instead of locking him/her in jail which only further breaks him/her mentally from which it is next to impossible to recover and therefore this can never be justified under any circumstances! It is felt widely that attempt to suicide must be regarded more as a manifestation of a diseased condition of mind deserving treatment, love and care rather than an offence to be visited with punishment or fine or with both. It is most unfortunate that Section 309 of IPC stipulates punishment of simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both to those who attempt to commit suicide and do any act towards the commission of such offence.
Can an ordinary person like you and me ever even dream to commit suicide? It is under very compelling adverse circumstances that a person resorts to taking the extreme step of attempting to commit suicide which must be fully taken into account. Such people suffering from severe depression need the company of good friends, relatives, doctors etc and not jailors who will further mock at them and compound their endless woes even more further! This we all must now realize and appreciate as this Modi led NDA government has now done. Sending them to jail or imposing fine on them can never be justified under any circumstances and does not solve any valuable purpose rather compounds further their endless woes and pushes them against the wall whereby they feel compelled to leave no stone unturned to end their lives to save themselves from further ignominy and humiliation harped on them by society.
We must always ask ourselves a very simple and straightforward question that, “Do we like to go more to a hospital or a police station if we face some mental trauma?” The answer is obvious which our lawmakers also now realize and have decided to reform our law to make it more people friendly.
I have just no words to explain how happy I feel to note that Centre has finally decided to dump in the garbage this most reviled Section 309 of IPC which should have been deleted from our penal laws a long time back when India got independence from the Britishers in 1947 but better to be late than never! Under no circumstances can punishing suicide be ever justified and it warms the cockles of my innermost vein of my heart to note that Centre too now feels the same way! It was most intriguing and frustrating to observe that our penal laws which are actually nothing but more or less the handiwork of Britishers have by and large remained untouched even after more than 68 years of independence. What a pity that Britishers themselves had amended their penal laws and decriminalized attempt to commit suicide way back in 1961 after the Wolfenden Committee report which had submitted its recommendations in 1957 had strongly recommended so  but we till recently had been enforcing it on already hapless and tormented person thereby subjecting them to further punishment and ignominy!
While replying to a question in Rajya Sabha on December 10, 2014, Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibai Chaudhary said : “The Law Commission of India, in its 210th report, had recommended that Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) of IPC needs to be effaced from the statute book. As law and order is a state subject, views of states/UTs were requested on the recommendations of the Law Commission. Eighteen states and 4 UT administrations have supported that Section 309 of the IPC may be deleted. Keeping in view the responses from the states/UTs, it has been decided to delete Section 309 of IPC from the statute book.”
It must be brought out here that Bihar which expressed its reservations alongside Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab and Sikkim, wanted a clear distinction drawn between persons driven to suicide due to medical illnesses and suicide bombers who fail to blow themselves up or terrorists who consume cyanide pills. Bihar has expressed its strong reservations on the critical issue of deleting Section 309 of IPC and has said that the Section should not be omitted as these days there are suicide bombers who fail in their attempt to blow themselves up and other terrorists who consume cyanide pills with the clear intention to wipe out all evidence. Bihar instead wants that the Section should be modified and there should be a separate legislation in case of people who are suffering from such type of disease which makes them attempt to take their life. Bihar certainly have a point and I am sure that Centre will deliberate on this aspect also. I must point out here that home ministry officials have clarified as widely reported in media that a terrorist would still face charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, whether or not he succeeds in his mission. Punjab wants the law to require the state to extend material aid to failed suicides.
May I also mention here that Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Sikkim argued that decriminalizing attempt to commit suicide would handicap law enforcement agencies in dealing with persons who resort to fast-unto-death or self-immolation to press the government or authorities to accept their demands. Such people, they argued, can no longer be booked or force-fed. A home ministry official pointed out the case of anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila of Manipur, who has been on indefinite fast for the past 14 years and is kept alive by being charged with attempt to suicide and forcibly administering intravenous fluids. While certainly I fully support forcibly administering intravenous fluids to activists like Sharmila to keep her alive but I strongly feel that she too should not be punished as she is not a terrorist and she is fighting for a cause which does not advocate violence on innocents or even on security forces! I certainly differ with her on AFSPA but I don’t favour at all punishment to be inflicted on her!
Madhya Pradesh and Delhi have argued vehemently that deleting Section 309 of IPC would dilute Section 306 dealing with abetment of suicide as an abettor cannot be proceeded against for a failed suicide attempt. The state of Madhya Pradesh voiced its strong opposition to deleting Section 309 IPC as various anti-social elements threaten the government by either sitting on fast-unto-death or committing self-immolation! It strongly feels that if this Section is deleted, there would be no provision for police to book these persons. I am sure Centre will take all such concerns into account.
While craving for my esteemed readers exclusive indulgence, let me also point out here and bring to their immediate notice that Punjab while not opposing the move to decriminalize attempt to commit suicide insisted that the state come forward to rehabilitate people who attempt suicide by providing medical/psychiatric care and public assistance in case of unemployment, old age, sickness, rape victims and distressed farmers. Delhi agrees with the recommendations of law commission to decriminalize suicide but has made a major suggestion : It should be compulsory to report attempt to commit suicide to authorized officer or authorized hospital. Sikkim feels that decriminalizing attempt to commit suicide may create problems for the state government where suicide is being attempted by a person in pursuance of a professed public cause.
It is commendable to note that the Centre is examining these views of different states as the home ministry sources themselves disclosed before taking the draft IPC (Amendment) Bill to the Cabinet. The Bill will then be brought to Parliament. There is no harm in incorporating all such suggestions advanced by different states which are practical and make sense.
The Law Commission of India in its 42nd report made in 1971 strongly recommended repeal of Section  309 being of the view that this penal provision is “harsh and unjustifiable”. Light must also be shed here on the fact that the IPC (Amendment) Bill, 1973 was passed by the Rajya Sabha, but before it could be passed by the Lok Sabha, the Lower House was dissolved and the Bill therefore lapsed. Had it been passed by Lok Sabha also, this move by Centre to amend IPC would have been realised a long time back!
While I don’t deny that the Law Commission which submitted its 156th report in 1997 shortly after the pronouncement of the landmark judgment in Gian Kaur v State of Punjab, AIR 1996 SC 946 had recommended the retention of Section 309 of the IPC but we must not be oblivious of the clinching fact that the Law Commission in its 210th report had very strongly favoured decriminalizing attempt to suicide. Let me add here that in Gian Kaur case, a five member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held that Article 21 cannot be construed to include within it the ‘right to die’ as a part of the fundamental right guaranteed therein, and, therefore, it cannot be said that Section 309 of the IPC is violative of Article 21 of the Constitution. It also merits our attention here that in Gian Kaur case, the Supreme Court focused on constitutionality of Section 309 of IPC but did not go into the wisdom of retaining or continuing the same in the statute which we usually ignore.
the Law Commission in its 210th report emphasized emphatically that attempt to commit suicide warranted medical and psychiatric care and not punishment. “In view of the views expressed by the WHO, the International Association for Suicide Prevention, France, decriminalization of attempted suicide by all countries in Europe and North America, the opinion of the Indian Psychiatric Society, and the representations received by the Commission from various persons, the Commission has resolved to recommend to the government to initiate steps for repeal of the anachronistic law contained in Section 309, IPC,” the panel said while mentioning how only a handful of nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and India have “persisted with this undesirable law”.
For my readers benefit, let me now briefly elaborate on the legal position on the moot provision of legality of attempt to commit suicide as prevalent in different countries. Internationally, France was the first country to decriminalize attempt to suicide after the French Revolution. All European and North American countries followed suit. In Switzerland, assisted suicide is considered legal but there are specific rules that must be followed in doing it. If a person encourages someone to commit suicide for “selfish reasons” or assists them in doing so, the person could be imprisoned for up to 5 years. Suicide or even attempt to commit suicide is not illegal in Norway. In Singapore, anyone who even attempts to commit suicide can be sent to prison for up to one year. In Romania, suicide by itself is not illegal but certainly abetting or facilitating the suicide of another person is a criminal offence which is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years depending on the facts and circumstances of each particular case. In America, there is presently no law against the act of committing suicide and infact, physician assisted suicide for terminally ill is legal in Oregon and Washington. In China, any form of assisted suicide which includes euthanasia is illegal. In Japan, it is considered illegal to commit suicide but it is not punishable which is certainly humane because to punish an already depressed person can never be justified under any circumstances. In Canada, it is not a crime to commit suicide. The provision of punishment for committing suicide was removed from the Criminal Code of Canada in 1972 by the Parliament of Canada. Let me also bring out here that in Canada, to aid suicide is an indictable offence and the person is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years. In the Australian state of Victoria, suicide is no longer considered a crime but a survivor of a suicide pact can be charged with manslaughter. Also, it is a crime to counsel, incite, or aid and abet another in attempting to commit suicide is a crime. In Russia, inciting someone to suicide by threats, cruel treatment, or systematic humiliation is punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Even websites that contain suicide jokes are strictly censored in Russia. In South Africa, attempting or committing suicide is not considered a crime. Let me point out here that from 1886 to 1968, it was considered illegal to commit or attempt to commit suicide but this legislation no longer exists. Assisted suicide is still considered illegal. In Scotland, suicide directly involving only the deceased person is not by itself a criminal offence but attempting suicide might be a breach of the peace if it is not done as a private act. Back home, many Indian religions like Jainism and Hinduism have had the old tradition of voluntarily ending of one’s own life after one feels that one has done all duties to attain salvation!
It is a matter of utmost concern that the World Health Organisation has listed India as one of the countries with the highest suicide rates at 21.1 per 100000 people in 2012. Suicide rate is the highest in India with 134,799 lakh persons committing suicide in 2013, a rise of 11.9 percent over the previous year. More than 800,000 people each year worldwide commit suicide – around one person every 40 seconds as was disclosed by WHO in September. Maharashtra tops the state list in India with most suicides at 16,622 and amounts to 12.3% of national figure followed by Tamil Nadu at 16,601 and amounts to 12.3% of national figure. Andhra Pradesh is at third position with figure of 14,607 and this amounts to 10.8% of national figure.
It is imperative to mention here that Rajeev Dhawan who is an eminent and senior advocate of Supreme Court and a noted expert on criminal, constitutional and many other laws rightly points out in his enlightening editorial titled “309 reasons why” in ‘The Indian Express’ dated December 15, 2014 that, “Incidents of suicide increased from 73,911 in 1990 to 1,68,593 in 2000. But these reported cases are the tip of the iceberg. Newspapers reported more incidents, each more troubling than the last. After Gian Kaur, the judiciary failed to address the issue. The Law Commission’s 210th report wanted the provision struck down and now, the Modi government has stepped in to cover the judiciary’s inadequacy in this area. The proposed amendment  was supported by 18 states and four Union Territories. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi continued to resist decriminalization with no coherent argument of principle. But the most interesting aspect of the proposal is that it was linked to Section 124(1) of the mental health bill, which laid down that “the person who attempts to commit suicide shall ordinarily be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have a mental illness and not to be subject to any investigation or prosecution.” The wording of this section is clumsy. It cannot be that if the person is shown to not have a mental illness, he gets neither medical help nor immunity from prosecution. Not all individuals attempting suicide are mentally ill in the narrow sense of the word. They may suffer from frustration, despair about living, health, debt, poverty, romance or shame, failure, depression. The instances I have culled from newspapers show that all are “sane” human beings who feel that they cannot continue living. This is not to suggest that people attempting suicide do not require medical or psychiatric help. They need support to regain their self-esteem. It is precisely because such people are not ill in the conventional sense that we omit to include them within the purview of welfare or medical care. Alas, the strains of everyday life mean that humanity has gone missing in India’s increasingly competitive and cruel society. How is the law to be changed? No fancy footwork is required on this through mental health legislation. What is needed is a simple clause replacing Section 309. An amendment to the IPC should simply state Section 309 of the IPC is repealed. The inhuman provisions criminalising suicide should have been replaced decades ago. On this, the Modi government has stolen a march over its predecessors. But we must withhold comment till the decriminalisation of suicide is actually enacted.” Rightly said!
The apprehension that the repeal of the law criminalizing attempted suicide would result in increase in suicide is betrayed by the fact that Sri Lanka repealed the law nine years ago and the suicide rate is showing a trend in reduction. On the contrary, in Singapore suicide rates have been increasing in recent years despite their having suicide as a punishable offence. The NGO titled Sneha is of the opinion that the continuance of the archaic law in India like Section 309, IPC is proving to be counterproductive to the cause of suicide prevention and the persistence of this law leads to following difficulties : –
1.   Emergency treatment for those who have attempted suicide is not readily accessible as they are referred by local hospitals and doctors to tertiary centres as it is termed as Medico Legal case. The time lost in the golden hour will save many lives.
2.   Those who attempt suicide are already distressed and in psychological pain and for them to face the ignominy of police interrogation causes increased distress, shame, guilt and further suicide attempt.
3.   At the time of family turmoil dealing with police procedure adds to the woes of the family.
4.   It also leads to a gross under-reporting of attempted suicide and the magnitude of the problem is not unknown. Unless one is aware of the nature of extent of the problem effective intervention is not possible.
5.   As many attempted suicides are categorized in the guise of accidental poisoning etc emotional and mental health support is not available to those who have attempted as they are unable to access their services.
All said and done, Centre’s landmark decision to decriminalize suicide is most laudable and must be applauded by one and all! Various High Courts and even Supreme Court have time and again laid emphasis on the dire need to decriminalize suicide as I have already pointed above. Even Law Commission in its latest 210th report favoured decriminalization of suicide even though in its earlier 156th report it had favoured retention. I have no doubt that Centre has taken note of all these factors before arriving at the landmark decision of decriminalizing suicide which we all must applaud unanimously. I only hope that the decriminalization of suicide provision is enacted soon so that lakhs and lakhs of persons who attempt to commit suicide in just one year alone don’t have to suffer the ignominy of being sent to jail, face intense police cross examination and hear all types of jibes from not just police and family members but also from other jail inmates which only serves to further mentally destroy the concerned person thus compelling him/her to once again take the extreme step with more determination and more caution so that there is no chance of survival and facing further ignominy! How can this worst form of injustice ever be justified by anyone?
Sanjeev Sirohi

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