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India has reported an average of 381 deaths by suicide every day in 2019, summing up to 1,39,123 fatalities over the year, according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. An increase of 3.4 percent was observed in suicides during 2019 as compared to 2018 and 2017 , the data showed. The rate of suicide incidents per 1 lakh population have risen by 0.2 per cent in 2019 over 2018, as per the data. Suicide is an act of self-killing or self-destruction.

The section dealing with Suicide is section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which reads as follows:

“Attempt to commit suicide.-Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall he punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year 1[or with fine, or with both].”

In this section, the key ingredients are, to begin, the individual must have failed to commit suicide, as there can be no perpetrator if the act is performed successfully. Second, the attempt must be made on purpose. It can't be a miscalculation or an accident. To self-destruct one's life, one should have a clear objective.

The fact that Section 309 is included in Chapter XVI of the Indian Penal Code has been a source of concern. With the exception of Section 309, which is a self-destructive act, all other offences in this chapter refer to instances where injury to the human body is caused by another individual.

In order to reduce the number of suicide cases in India, the main aim of this section was to have a deterrent effect. It is the state's responsibility to protect its citizens from injury of any kind. According to NCRB statistics, the number of recorded cases of attempted suicide has been steadily rising in recent years, suggesting that this section has clearly failed to achieve its aim.

The judgements and events that led to decriminalization of suicide are as follows:

  • In the year 1970-71, the 42nd law commission report suggested to delete the provision of attempt to suicide.

  • In the year 1978-79, the suggestion was adopted by the Indian government, but the country's elected body changed in 1979, and the bill introduced in the Lok Sabha lapsed.

  • In the year 1985, in the case of State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia, the Delhi High Court held Section 309 to be "unworthy of human society."

  • In the year 1987, in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Satpati Dubal , Bombay High Court held that Section 309 ultra vires the Constitution as it violated Articles 14 and 21.

  • In the year 1988, In the Chenna Jagdeshwar v. State of Andhra Pradesh case, the Andhra Pradesh High Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 309 and claimed that the right to life does not include the right to die.

  • The Supreme Court in the year 1994 upheld the views of the Delhi and Bombay High Courts and ruled Section 309 unconstitutional in the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India .

  • The Supreme Court in 1996 with a 5-judge bench in Smt. Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab upheld Section 309 as constitutional, overturning P. Rathinam's verdict.

  • In the year 1997, the 156th Law Commission recommended that Section 309 of the IPC be retained.

  • In 2008, the 210th Law Commission recommended that Section 309 of the IPC should be repealed.

  • In 2011, in the case of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union of India & Ors, the Supreme Court recommended that Parliament consider the decriminalisation of IPC Section 309, while creating passive euthanasia guidelines.

  • In 2013, the Mental Healthcare Bill was introduced in Rajya Sabha.

  • In 2018, the Mental Healthcare Act (MHCA) of 2017 was passed, making attempted suicide no longer a crime.

It's necessary to understand what Article 21 of the Indian Constitution says before diving into the cases. It ensures that all people have the right to live in dignity. No one can be deprived of his or her life or personal liberty without following the legal procedure. This article applies to all individuals, citizens and non-citizens alike. In numerous High Court and Supreme Court judgments, the question of whether the right to live includes the right to die has been discussed.

In the following cases, the fate and constitutionality of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code have been decided:

  • In the case of State v. Sanjaya Kumar Bhatia (1985), the Delhi High Court acquitted the accused of attempting suicide. The court stressed that the elimination of Section 309 of the IPC from the law, i.e., the opinion on its decriminalisation, should be essential. It was stated as 'unworthy of society' by the court.

  • In the case of Maharashtra v. Maruti Satpati Dubal (1987), the Bombay High Court considered for the first time the issue of the inclusion of the right to die within the framework of the right to life. The court observed that all the efforts to prevent suicide by deterrence by punishing the person who has attempted the suicide are in vain. The court stated that a person who has attempted suicide is already in enough torment either physically or mentally, locking that individual behind bars will only aggravate his/her level of mental or physical agony. What one requires is medical attention or treatment. Therefore, the court struck the Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code as unconstitutional on the ground that it violates Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 21 (Right to Life and Personal Liberty) and held that Article 21 also includes the right to die.

  • In the Chenna Jagdeshwar v. State of Andhra Pradesh case, the Andhra Pradesh High Court took a different view and upheld the constitutionality of Section 309 of the IPC. In the same case, it also claimed that the right to life did not include the right to die and that Section 309 did not violate Articles 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

  • In the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India(1994), a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court acknowledged the relationship and inconsistency between Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The court upheld and upheld the views of the High Courts of Delhi and Bombay and overruled the viewpoint of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh that Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code is unconstitutional on the ground that it violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The provision was defined by the court as "cruel and irrational." The goal was to end the law of double punishments for the convicted. A person who attempts suicide is already in anguish and pain, and punishing him will only add to his misery by shaming him. The accused loses the most because he or she is not hurting someone else except oneself, and the state's intervention with one's personal liberty is unjustifiable.

  • A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court overruled the judgment of P. Rathinam in the case of Smt. Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996).The question in this case was whether, in view of P. Rathinam's decision, if Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) is unconstitutional, Section 306 (abetment to commit suicide) must also be unconstitutional and should not be considered a crime.

By decriminalising suicide attempts, the government has changed its focus from a legal to a medical viewpoint. The Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, which repealed the previous Mental Health Act of 1987, has completely changed the legal landscape in India when it comes to attempted suicide. The Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha passed the bill on 8 August 2016 and 27 March 2017, respectively. The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 was given assent by the president on 7 April 2017.

The most relevant section of the act regarding the attempt to commit suicide is Section 115. It provides that:

  1. Any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed to be under severe stress and not be tried and punished under section 309 or any other section of the Indian Penal Code unless otherwise is proved.

  2. It is the duty of the appropriate government to take care, provide adequate treatment and rehabilitation to anyone who attempts to commit suicide due to severe stress. The purpose is to reduce the risk of reoccurrence of an attempt to commit suicide by the individual.

The act is a big step forward in India's efforts to foster mental and emotional health. The act further stipulates that someone suffering from a mental disorder should be treated similarly to those who are physically ill when it comes to healthcare services. There will be no prejudice on the basis of such an illness. The right to life applies to the right to a meaningful and dignified life, or the right to be treated with respect.

The key impetus for this significant move was the understanding that a person who attempts suicide is still in deep pain, depression, and suffering from a mental health crisis, and punishing that person would only add to the pain and mental torture that they are already experiencing. The court agrees that rather than putting a person through a gruelling trial and punishment, the remedy for someone who has failed in a dramatic effort to end their life is to have recovery facilities.

Instead of being bogged down in court wrangling, the victims have been given a second chance to live their lives. To stop bullying a victim who is still physically and psychologically drenched. When a person attempts suicide, it is a common assumption and tragic fact that he or she is psychiatrically ill and has lost all hope and aspirations of life.

In India, there is still a lack of proper implementation. The key point made in favour of decriminalising Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code was that doing so would increase the number of suicides. Case reporting is also important because it assists the government and other concerned agencies in keeping track of the number of people who need recovery services. It's a Medico-Legal Case (MCL), which means the doctor must report to the relevant authorities after evaluating the patient.

As per the World Health Organization’s latest report released on 9 September 2019, in the South-Asian region, India has the highest suicide rate. India’s suicide rate is 16.5 suicides per 100,000 people. The atrocious data shows that Indian women comprise 37% of total per cent of global female suicide as per Lancet Public Health October issue.

Many senior attorneys, trauma experts, and psychologists claim that decriminalising attempted suicide will not result in a rise in the number of cases because a person who attempts suicide is not in a position to examine all of the conditions in front of him or her, i.e., if a person has lost all confidence in life and wishes to end the suffering once and for all, a consequence of the act will not matter.

Even though the bill was passed, the director of a suicide prevention hotline, AASRA, claimed that it has not yet been enforced in every area of the country. People from all walks of life need to be informed about mental health and how to cope with suicidal tendencies. Simply writing and passing a bill is insufficient; proper implementation is important for breaking the stigma and assisting survivors in regaining their confidence in life.

In India, mental health is a controversial subject; people are afraid of it and often avoid addressing it. According to numerous mental healthcare experts, the introduction of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 is a major move forward that will help to crack the taboo, but there is still a long way to go. Although there is no penalty for attempting suicide, the case must always be reported.

Aditi Gupta

2nd Year

Chanakya National Law University

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