Since the advent of mankind, suicides have been a complex part of society. It is considered as a factor contributing to the premature or unnatural end of precious lives. It is an act of self-destruction. It is an outcome of an unfit mental thought-process. It is not the nature of a person. It is an act which is as involuntarily done as voluntary it seems to be. A person is in such an irreversible ideation that he loses the prudence to decide the correctness of his actions.
The word suicide is derived from the Latin phrase ‘sui cadre’ which means ‘to kill oneself’. The 210th Law Commission Report stated that suicide (felo de se) means deliberate termination of one’s own physical existence or self-murder, where a man of the age of discretion and compos mentis voluntarily kills himself. It is an act of voluntarily or intentionally taking one’s own life.
Suicide is an end result of mixed emotions. It is to be noted that, in most of the cases a person does not want to die, but rather ease themselves from the sufferings that they’ve been going through.
Major Reasons for Suicide
There are myriad of reasons which can be attributed as the causes of rising suicides. Some of the reasons are mentioned below:
- Mental Illness- The Prime and the most common reason for suicidal tendencies are depression, anxiety. Other reasons could be- bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and various other mental illnesses.
- History of Abuse- Substances of abuses creates ideation of suicide. People who have been physically or sexually abused or young children who have been bullied by peers or at home have high risks of committing suicides
- Drug and Substance abuse- People who consume drugs and alcohol on a consistent basis are often found to be depressed. They use drugs as a means to escape their harsh reality, not realising that it is a short-term relief and in long run leads to a very opposite situation.
- Social isolation and loneliness-There are many reasons which lead to social isolation, like the death of close one, relationship crisis, mental illness, fear of rejection and etc.
- Erosion of prestige- Another possible reason could be a loss of prestige or a feeling of shame to such an intensity that it leads to self-harm.
- Unemployment and lack of financial resources- A person who is unemployed and unable to find a job followed by financial desperation where he fails to support his family, can develop severe stress condition and a feeling of unworthiness.
- Family history- Sometimes, suicides could be due to genetics and family history. Family members share common traits like aggression, anxiety, stress sensitivity and a family having a history of suicidal tendencies ignites the risk of suicides
- Existential crisis- It means that a person considers his life as void or when he questions his purpose of living. It could also happen due to a huge failure or due to lack of interest.
- Prescription of drugs- Lastly, the side effects of prescription drugs such as antidepressants can also result in suicidal ideation. The results of these medicines vary person to person and could sometimes affect very negatively, hence, triggering negative thoughts.
In all the reasons mentioned above, one thing is noted to be common, that is a ‘mental element’ which leads to the idea of suicides. Be it a social, political or economic crisis in a person’s life, it all ends up being a psychological factor which leads to suicide. Mostly, suicide-prone people are diagnosed with stress issues, depression or anxiety, to the level where they need to seek medical help. However, in India, rather than providing medical help, we treated these faltered people as criminals.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court has observed that suicide is a psychiatric problem and not a manifestation of criminal instinct. This Section of the Indian Penal Code says, ‘whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both’
It is a self-explanatory provision and doesn’t need to be translated into simple words. It is one of the most inhuman provisions incorporated into law. It is erroneous to the extent that the act when committed is not a crime, making a person out of reach of the law, but its failed attempt makes him a criminal.
Although, this provision was introduced by the Government with the intention of saving lives. It is believed that the lives of the men are not only valuable to them but to the state which protects them. The State intended to stop perspective suicides by imposing a punishment, thinking that this will reduce the suicide rates. To the contrary, most of the suicide cases went unreported and it silenced most of the needy people from coming forward with their issues. Hence, this has been a complete failed attempt and must be repealed.
It was well stated in the case State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia , that ‘the continuance of Section 309 IPC is an anachronism unworthy of human society like ours… the provision like Section 309 which has no justification has no right to continue to remain on the statute book’. Moreover, this section has been questioned on the grounds of its constitutional validity. Furthermore, it has been struck down by Section 115 of The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017.
Constitutional Validation of Section 309 IPC
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution states that ‘no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law’. It clearly asserts that every person has a right to live a dignified life. This right is devoid from any sort of inequality, discrimination or injustice. Now, the question arises whether a person has a ‘right not to live a dignified life’ inclusive of the ‘right to die’. There have been certain leading cases which have dealt with this issue.
The question whether Article 21 incorporates ‘right to die’ was for the first time witnessed in the case Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra , where the Bombay High Court contended that the right to life guaranteed by this Article includes a right to die and held that Section 309 is unconstitutional and struck it down. Furthermore, the Judges while enumerating different sets of circumstances in which a person may attempt to commit suicide, pointed out that ‘the purpose of the prescribed punishment is to prevent the prospective suicides by deterrence, it is difficult to understand how the same can be achieved by punishing those who have made the attempts. Those who make the suicide attempt on account of the mental disorders require psychiatric treatment and not confinement in the person cells where their condition is bound to worsen leading to further mental derangement. Those on the other hand who make the suicide attempt on account of acute physical ailments, incurable diseases, torture or decrepit physical state induced by old age or disablement need nursing homes and not prisons to prevent them from making the attempts again.’ Moreover, the court also asserted that ‘no deterrence is further going to hold back those who want to die for a social or political cause or to leave the world either because of the loss of interest in life or for self-deliverance. Thus in no case, the punishment serves the purpose and in some cases, it is bound to prove self-defeating and counter-productive. On this account also the provisions of the section are unreasonable and arbitrary’ .
Interestingly, the validity of Section 309 was again challenged in the case Chenna Jagadeeswar v. State of Andhra Pradesh . But the court, in this case, stated that Section 309 of IPC is not violative of Article 21 and upheld its validity. Furthermore, the court contended that the right to life enshrined under Article 21 does not include the right to die.
In the case P. Rathinam v. Union Of India , the apex court consented the view of the Bombay High court in the Maruti Sripathi Dubal Case and held that right to life means right to die. The court in this landmark case asserted that a person has the right to not live a forced life under the right to life. The court while contending Section 309 to be void said that ‘a person cannot be forced to enjoy right to its life to his detriment, disadvantage or disliking. Moreover, Section 309 of the IPC is cruel and irrational provision’ . The court was of the opinion that this section deserved to be effaced from Code to humanise our penal laws. This Section is so irrational and it punishes a person who has suffered agony and would be undergoing ignominy because of his failures to commit suicide.
The above case was overruled by the Supreme Court in the case Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab , and held that ‘right to die’ cannot be incorporated under ‘right to life’ made available to us under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. It stated that a person cannot be permitted to take away his own life. ‘Right to life’ is a natural right enriched under Article 21, however, suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life being incompatible and inconsistent with the nature of ‘right to life. Hence any aspect of life which makes life dignified may be included in it but not that which extinguishes it.
In the above case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Section 309 of IPC. It is pertinent to mention that the apex court while giving the judgment did not get into the retention or continuance of this Section.
Recommendation for the Repeal of Section 309 of IPC
The 210th Law Commission Report agreed to the apex court’s judgment in Gian Kaur case but also encouraged for repealing Section 309. It also provided for the following recommendations-
- Life is a gift of God and cannot prematurely be terminated by any person nor can it be approved by society. But even then, it would not be just and fair to aggravate such a person’s pain by punishing him.
- Where any law is illogical or does not prove to be effected, it should cease to exist.
- Section 309 of IPC is a stumbling block in the prevention of suicides and in improving the access of medical care to those who have attempted suicide.
- The repeal of the anachronistic law contained in this section would save many lives and relieve the distress of his suffering.
- The Commission is of the view that abetment to suicide must continue to be an offence (section 306) but Section 309 needs to be omitted from the Code.
Apparently, now Section 309 of IPC has been struck down with the institution of the new Mental Healthcare Act 2017. To put it in other words, the right to live does not include right to die but at the same time, there is no punishment for the same.
Mental Healthcare Act 2017
The Act provides for the ‘presumption of severe stress in case of attempt to commit suicide. It lays down that-
(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of IPC, any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proven otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.
This Section asserts that a person who tries to commit suicide is presumed to have severe stress. The Act uses the word ‘shall’, indicating a strict interpretation. Hence, Section 309 stands ineffective. What is important here, is that this has not been done with the intention to promote suicides, but with the belief, that imposition of punishment neither supports the survivors nor does it help in reducing the rate of suicides in a country. It merely serves more suffering to the person who is already suffering.
To put it in other words, the intention of the legislature is to provide the due medical help. It is believed that a person who has a suicidal tendency cannot think prudently. It happens in the heat of the emotions and in such a fraction of time, the right and wrong becomes blur. Hence such a person does not think rationally and needs support equivalently provided to other general mental illnesses.
Humanising the Criminal Justice System
It is pertinent to mention here, that in order to humanise the criminal justice system, decriminalisation of an offence is not enough in itself. In some cases, it requires more efforts and initiatives. Like in the case of suicides, the Government needs to introduce certain measures which can provide medical guidance to the survivors and control perspective suicides.
Every person has a fundamental right to live a dignified life. It means a life without any harm or danger. On the other hand, the State has an obligation to ensure this eventuates and if required it acts, to protect its people from every possible harm. This obligation extends to self-harm as well. To the contrary, it is impossible for the State to stop a person from committing suicide, or, to reach out to every suicide. But, it shall help in prevention and cure. To put it other words, the State shall help in preventing suicides by providing counselling, education, and awareness and on the other hand it shall protect the survivors by providing cure like treatment, care, and rehabilitation. This is explained below:
Means of Prevention
The Mental Health Care Act not only decriminalises suicides but also, though in general, provide for preventive programmes and awareness schemes
- Promotion of Mental Health and Prevention Programmes- As per section 29(1) of the Act promotes that the appropriate government shall, in particular, plan, design and implement public health programmes in order to reduce suicides and attempted suicides in the country.
- Creating Awareness About Mental Health and Illness and Reducing Stigma Associated With Mental Illness- It is quite necessary to have awareness regarding mental health and illness. This duty is also imposed on the State. As per section 30 of the Act, the appropriate government shall take all measures to ensure that-
- a) The Act and its objectives are given wide publicity through media, including television, radio, print, and online media at regular intervals.
- b) Introduce programmes which help in removing the stigma associated with mental illness. Such programmes must be planned, designed, funded and implemented in an effective manner.
- c) Periodic sensitisation and awareness training must be given to the appropriate Government officials including public officers and other officers.
- National Level Strategies- The Government must create national wide strategies in order to give a proper commitment to suicide prevention. This will help in planning prevention for the long run.
- Promotion and Supports to NGOs- The Government must encourage and support various NGOs, Medical clinics and other organisations which help in providing support to the suicide-prone persons.
Means of Cure
The Act also incorporates provisions for the cure that can be provided to the survivors. As per Section 115(2) of the Act, the appropriate Government shall have the duty to provide:
- a) Care
- b) Treatment
- c) Rehabilitation
It is available to the person having severe stress and who attempted to commit suicide, to reduce the risk of recurrence of an attempt to commit suicide. The act lays the procedure and establishment authority at the Centre as well as State level for better implementation of the above-mention cures. It also provides the rights of persons with mental illness and the right of admission as an independent patient.
Help You Can Provide
Suicide in itself is not a mental illness, however, mental illness or disorders lead to suicides. Apart from the State, a person himself, his family, friends, and society at large plays a very vital role in the life of a suicide-prone person. Following are some means that can help in saving a life:
- Check for warning signs. This plays a very crucial role. Every person who is about to suicide indicates his feelings in some way or the other, which must not go unnoticed.
- Comfort the person and let them know that you care and are deeply concerned for them.
- Be an active listener. Communication is the best way to assess whether a person is suicidal or not. And not only this, it helps in assessing a real cause behind being suicidal as well.
- Never leave a suicidal person alone. This is the key to save a person’s life. Often, the thought of suicide is merely product of some difficult and unbearable moments which passes away with time.
- Lifestyle changes. Many times changing one’s lifestyle can also help in preventing suicidal tendencies like getting out of toxic relationships, avoiding alcohol and drug consumption, exercising and sleeping well.
- Seek Medical Help. The best way to prevent suicide is to seek medical help. Mental Health Practitioners are well trained to deal with such problems. They shall:
- a) Assess the reasons of suicide
- b) Provide counselling for travail matters leading to stress
- c) Furthermore, provide medications if required.
- d) In addition to medications, they provide therapy
In earlier times, mental health problems were widely spoken off topic. It is all right for a person to die out of cancer, but when it comes to having a mental illness, even as small as depression or stress, such a person is considered falter. Not only this, the doctors dealing with mental illness were considered as the doctors of mad people. However, this is changing with time and people are starting to understand the value of mental well-being.
Suicide is not something which can be taken lightly. A step in the right direction can help save a life.
To sum it up, Suicide is not a manifestation of criminal instinct. It is a mental illness, or as stated in The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, a result of severe stress for which a person shall not be punished under Section 309 of IPC. However, ‘right to die’ is not a part of ‘right to live a dignified life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution. Hence, the ‘right to life’ including ‘right to live with human dignity’ would mean the existence of such right up to the end of natural life. Pursuing this further, it does not mean that an act of suicide could be slipped into our Penal Code. Hence, it is recommended that Section 309 of IPC is ineffective and must be repealed, once and for all. A person having suicidal ideation needs medical help and not a punishment.
The concern now is not to decide whether suicide must be criminalised or decriminalised. This has been rightly covered by Section 115 of The Mental Healthcare Act. Our prime concern now is how to make our Criminal Justice System more humane. It is correct for the State to decriminalise offences which don’t hold a logical value. But, in addition to this, it is equally important for the State to introduce certain preventive and supportive measures in order to help in controlling it. Like in the case of suicides, the Government must promote the importance of mental health. It must encourage awareness programmes for educating people and to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. This will help in preventing suicides. Not only this, the State must provide full support to the survivors by providing proper care, treatment, and rehabilitation.
Lastly, it is not only the duty of State but of its people too, to keep a healthy and safe environment. Every person must take care of their near and dear ones. One must take every precaution possible to help prevent suicides. Moreover, no one has the power to stop a person from suiciding, but, one step towards its prevention or cure can save a life and help in Humanising The Criminal Justice System.