The number of deaths due to suicide is rising every day and now around 800,000 people die from it every year, with the figure of 135,000 (17%) of such cases coming from India, a country that represents 17.5% of the global population.
If we go into the past, historically, the data shows that the suicide rate in India between 1987 and 2007 rose from 7.9% to 10.3%, with the south and eastern states being on high alert.
Despite established laws for crimes, the suicide mark is rising high. Hence, this article provides an in-depth analysis of established laws, recent decisions, and critical cases to determine whether suicide is a crime in India or not.
Suicide Laws in India
Through this section, we will discuss the established laws on suicide, discussing their historical growth, and how they circle with ongoing debates about the concern. It is crucial to grasp the wide knowledge of these laws to better understand their impact on individuals and society, so let’s get started…
Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)
This 1860s provision was intended to punish those who try to attempt suicide but may be unsuccessful. According to the clauses of the law, attempting suicide is considered a crime in India. The potential penalty for committing suicide includes a minimum of one year of imprisonment, a hefty fine, or in some cases, both.
However, in the 42nd report of provision in 1971, the law commission requested to repeal the law as it was quite harsh on people who already are weak to handle themselves.
Following the report's public release, the government agreed on the recommendations for changes and introduced the Indian Penal Code Amendment Bill 1972 in Rajya Sabha to abolish section 309.
The bill was examined by joint committees of both houses and with few specific changes, it was approved by the Rajya Sabha in November 1978. The bill was in waiting condition at the start of the 6th Lok Sabha in 1979 before it got disbanded and as a result, it finally expired.
Mental Healthcare Act (MHCA), 2017
The enactment of the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 made experts speculate that the criminal provisions once set in section 309 of the Indian penal code are now useless. Many even presume that due to the implementation of MHCA, section 309 has either been decriminalized or abolished, but this is not the case according to law.
The only change this new law brings is that it has limited the criminal punishment set within section 309. Section 115 of the act states that if a person attempts suicide, then they may have done it under a higher stress level; hence, such a person should not be prosecuted or punished as prescribed under section 309 of 1860.
Instead, such a person should be given proper treatment and support to pass this phase of his/her life easily. It is vital to understand that the act does not abolish the term of section 309, and its clauses apply to specific cases of suicide.
Section 115 act also recommends that the government take responsibility and arrange for treatment or rehabilitation of such individuals so they may not attempt such steps in the future.
In further concern, the act provides recommendations to the government for planning and designing mental healthcare programs to ensure handling and depleting the commitment of such acts in the country.
Abetment to Suicide (Section 306 of IPC)
If someone encourages, forces, or pressurizes another person to commit suicide, there is a clause to punish them under section 306 of the Indian penal code, 1860, for aiding suicide.
According to section 108 of the same code, someone who helps, tempts, or tries to force a crime on someone is called an abettor. But to be found guilty, it takes a lot of effort as there must be direct proof that the person intended the other to force or push beyond the commitment limit, leading to suicide.
Aiding and Abetting Suicide (Section 305 and 307 of IPC)
Section 305 of the IPC 1860 addresses suicide as a process for specific vulnerable individuals. It mentions that anyone who helps or assists the crime to force a person into suicide, a person who is an idiot, delirious, or of such sort, would have to face the punishment of life imprisonment, imprisonment of specific years, a huge fine, or a combination of both.
On the other hand, Section 307 of IPC handles the concern of attempted murder. It clearly states that if any person forces others with the intention or knowledge that the act may lead to death, it should be presumed to be an attempt to murder.
The punishment for this offense includes imprisonment for up to 10 years or a fine. However, if another person gets injured due to such intention, then the person would face life imprisonment or mentioned punishments.
Furthermore, section 307 also deals with life convicts who may try their hands on an attempt to murder. These convicts have already committed a crime and have been sentenced. If such a person is found to have caused harm or committed an offense, there is a chance for them to get a sentence due to the impact of a higher offense.
Landmark Judgment on Attempt to Commit Suicide
Numerous rulings have been made by the Indian courts concerning suicide in recent times. However, among these, the most significant is the judgment under the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, which now prohibits the use of electric shocks as a treatment for children suffering from mental health issues.
Now, under the new legislation, individuals with mental illness who live below the poverty line, even if they do not possess a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card, as well as those who are homeless, will be entitled to free treatment and rehabilitation. This provision applies to all mental health establishments that are run or funded by the Indian government.
To assess the constitutionality of the law, it is important to consider some key court rulings from across India, as outlined below:
Chenna Jagadeeswar and Anr. v. State of Andhra Pradesh (1987)
In this case, the Andhra Pradesh High Court judged that the right to die is not a fundamental right beneath Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Consequently, Section 309 of the IPC, which criminalizes attempted suicide, is not unconstitutional. The Court's observations are summarized below:
The Court argued that if Section 309 were declared unconstitutional, it would likely render Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which pertains to the abetment of suicide, invalid as well. Consequently, those who intentionally encourage or assist others in committing suicide could escape punishment.
While it is valid that a society that fails to improve the living conditions of distressed individuals cannot justify penalizing them for seeking self-help or self-deliverance, the question remains whether the government should endorse the idea that individuals who cannot lead a dignified life are free to end it.
In a country like India, where individuals face immense pressure, it is wise to exercise caution. Recognizing a right to self-destruction and excluding it from judicial scrutiny would be a regressive step in addressing human suffering and motivation. This could lead to numerous inconsistencies, which are undesirable. Consequently, the Court determined that Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code is legitimate and is not in breach of Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.
In this particular case, the appellant had killed his four children and attempted suicide for unclear reasons. Considering the seriousness of the events, the Hon'ble Court determined that the appellant's conviction under Section 309 was justified and thus upheld it.
P. Rathinam v. Union of India (1994)
In this case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Bombay High Court's ruling in State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripati Dubal (1986), acknowledging that individuals have the right to die and declaring Section 309 of the IPC unconstitutional. Below are the various opinions put forward by the Apex Court in this case:
The Court noted that suicide is a psychological problem, not an indication of criminal behavior. The Supreme Court concurred with Dr. (Mrs.) Dastoor argued that suicide is fundamentally a "cry for help" rather than a "cry for punishment."
The Court disagreed with the Andhra Pradesh High Court's decision in Chenna Jagadeeswar and Anr. vs State of Andhra Pradesh (1987), which asserted that if Section 309 is deemed unconstitutional, Section 306 may not survive.
The Apex Court emphasized that there is a fundamental difference between self-death and assisting others in taking their own lives. The two provisions stand in opposition to each other because, in one, a person takes their own life, while in the other, a third party is assisted in ending their life.
The Court argued for the repeal of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, in favor of more humane penal regulations. The Court regarded Section 309 as a cruel and irrational provision that may result in double punishment for a person who has failed to commit suicide.
An act of attempted suicide cannot be deemed contrary to religion, morality, or public policy, nor does it have any detrimental effect on society. Additionally, neither suicide nor attempted suicide causes harm to others, so the State's interference with an individual's liberty is unwarranted. The Apex Court concluded that Section 309 violates Article 21 of the Constitution and is, therefore, void.
India reflects a complex and evolving landscape in the context of the legal perspective on suicide in India.
Although mental health awareness and its related support systems have seen a gradual improvement in the country, still there is a lot of work that needs to be done.
Ultimately, the main focus is on creating a society where all people can feel valued. After all, suicide is not a crime; it is a sensitive issue that needs a compassionate and multifaceted response from the government, society, and individuals alike.