Suicides are reported almost daily in the local papers. The reasons for the most part are failure to do well in exams, cruelty and harassment by spouse and in-laws, insurmountable debt, love and marriage forbidden by caste-based rules and regulations, spurned offers of love, even a company’s failure to pay wages. It’s a terrible loss to lose a friend or family member to suicide. It’s even worse that those who fail a suicide attempt have to deal with the police and face imprisonment for failure to execute their exit plan.
Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) lays out a punishment of simple imprisonment for up to a year and/or a fine for attempted suicide. While the British have been gone since 1947, India is still slavishly saddled with many archaic laws safely preserved from what the former rulers left behind. The British Parliament decriminalized attempted suicide by enacting the Suicide Act in 1961 and has moved on with updating its own laws to keep up with the times while India continues to cling on to the obsolete past.
Even when there is a public demand for changes in laws that are long overdue, change is anything but swift in India. There has been some noise in recent times that suicide will be decriminalized soon and the matter is meant to come up in the winter session of Parliament. Judging by how little was accomplished in the monsoon session, it’s easy to be sceptical about any actual work getting done in the session to come. It is a pity that lawmakers engage in petty politicking and shirk their responsibilities for their own interest while citizens suffer due to lack of needed legislation.
The Law Commission of India is entrusted with the task of addressing issues of revising and updating laws to keep up with the times and needs of the country. However, all its work comes to naught if its recommendations are not implemented. It’s interesting to note that the Law Commission had first recommended repealing Section 309 way back in 1971 in its 42nd report citing among the usual reasons, the sheer callousness and injustice of throwing someone in jail because they can’t stand to live anymore and the mental health issues around many suicides. It also considered that suicide was regarded as acceptable and permissible in ancient India and is referenced in Manu’s Code. The Bill to repeal Section 309 was introduced in 1972 but got nowhere as the Lok Sabha was dissolved in 1979 when the matter should have been considered and dealt with.
The Supreme Court has flip-flopped on its stance in the matter over the years. On the one hand, it has recognized that suicide “is a psychiatric problem and not a manifestation of criminal intent” and has noted that it should be decriminalized. Then, it has subsequently and needlessly got tangled up on the question of whether the right to life as defined by Article 21 also includes a right to die. Decriminalizing suicide need not be mixed with a philosophical questions about whether the right to life also inherently constitutes a right to die. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that even if we were to have a right to die, more people would, in fact, just choose to commit suicide.
The Court has also more recently mixed it all up with issues surrounding drug trafficking and terrorism where perpetrators commit suicide either to escape the draconian narcotic laws when caught or to inflict terror via a suicide bomb attack. These are absurd reasons for preventing the decriminalization of suicide in India. In these matters, criminal intent is in most cases evident, especially when the suicide is successfully carried out. Besides, narcotics laws exist as do laws to deal with terrorists.
Suicide should be decriminalized as no public purpose is served by continuing to have it on the books as a criminal offence. It is long overdue for the world’s largest democracy to align with the rest of the world in this matter.