The word ‘suicide’ has been derived from two Latin words- ‘sui’ (means ‘self’) and ‘cide’ (means ‘killing’). Suicide is an act of self-killing which is very common all around the world. According to World Health Organization (WHO), every year around 8,00,000 people take their own lives, and more people attempt suicide. Idaelation of suicide is more common than suicide attempts.
Self-harm is strongly related to the risk of suicide but is a major public health issue in its own right. There are several reasons why a person might be having suicidal thoughts. Mostly, people who are suicidal, have some kind of mental condition or illness. They may have a chronic condition,i.e., the condition which may have been going for a long time or it may be an acute condition,i.e., a condition where the first symptoms of the mental illness happened rather quickly. While depression is one of the most common mental disorders, it is also underrecognized and underdiagnosed.
The word ‘suicide’ has been defined by different countries in different cases. In the case of Solorano v. Bristow, J. Bustamante of New Mexico’s Court of Appeal stated that:
“We define suicide as voluntary, deliberate and intensional self-destruction by someone of sound mind.”
In the landmark case of Gangula Mohan Reddy v. State of Andra Pradesh, Supreme Court defined suicide as “a person committing suicide must commit it by himself irrespective of means employed by him achieving his object of killing himself.”
As the term ‘suicide’ has nowhere been defined, there are several important provisions laid down by different enactments related to it.
Section 306 of IPC- abetment of suicide
Section 309 of IPC- attempt to commit suicide
Section 115 of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017.
Abetment to Suicide:
Section 306 of IPC talk about the abetment of suicide. It states that-
“If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide shall be punished with imprisonment of either imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine”. It is said to be:
Cognizable offense- The investigating officer can arrest without a warrant from the Court.
Non- Bailable offense- When the bail is granted to an accused by the discretion of the Court and not as a matter of right.
Non- Compoundable offense- When the case cannot be withdrawn by the complainant even after the accused and the complainant have reached compromise.
To attract the provision of this law:
Suicide is must
There should be active assistance and participation
There should be a direct nexus or implied nexus
The abetment to be judged in the context of the entire evidence
Presumption of abetment of suicide
How did section 306 come into force?
The provision of this section was amended into the Indian Penal Code keeping in mind the status of Sati earlier in those days. There were a lot of common incidents of sati happening during that time. Women were forced to burn themselves along with their dead husbands. Therefore in order to restrict abetting such kind of act, which is considered to be a heinous crime, this provision was brought into the picture.
Is abetment of suicide the same as murder?
This question was clarified by the Supreme Court in the case of Sangarabonia Sreenu v. State of Andhra Pradesh, where it was observed that although in both of the cases causing the death of the person is a common factor, abetment of suicide cannot be considered the same as murder but as two distinct offenses. In case of murder, the final of causing the death of a person is done by the accused unlike in the case of abetment of suicide.
Attempt to Commit Suicide:
Section 309 of IPC reads as-
Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offense, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both.
Suicide as such is not a criminal offense as the person who has committed suicide cannot be punished. But a failed attempt to commit suicide is a punishable offense under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. It is said to be a:
Cognizable offense- The investigating officer can arrest without a warrant from the Court.
Bailable offense- When the accused shall be granted bail as a matter of right.
Non- compoundable offense- When the case cannot be withdrawn by the complainant even after the accused and the complainant have reached compromise.
Controversies regarding section 309, IPC:
In the year 1882, the British Government brought an amendment that substituted “and shall be liable to fine” by “or with fine, or with both” in the Indian Penal Code. Before this amendment, the offense was punishable directly.
Then in 1971, the 42nd Law Commission Report, recommended that this section after independence should be abolished, as this section talks about penalizing a person who is already under stress or in some kind of mental disorder. This proposal was passed by the Rajya Sabha, however, because of some objections raised by certain States, the Lok Sabha rejected the proposal. The Law Commission again in its 156th and 210th reports recommended decriminalizing Section 309 of IPC.
In the case of Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra, the Court in 1986 declared that Section 309 of IPC is unconstitutional as it violates Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Court stated that the Fundamental Rights not only includes positive aspects but also its negative aspects,i.e., the right to life also includes right to not live. Putting it positively, it also includes the right to die or terminate one’s life.
Further, in 1994, the Supreme Court in the case of P. Rathiman v. Union of India, the division bench of two Judges observed that criminal penalties for suicide attempts violate the constitutional right to life as it amounts to double punishment, and especially in a case where the women attempt suicide after being abused. Hence, the Court declared section 309 as unconstitutional and void.
In 1996 the above case was overruled in the case of Gian Kaur v. The State of Punjab, in which the Constitution Bench of five judges stated that the right to life is a natural right and suicide is an unnatural extinction or termination of life which is inconsistent or incompatible with the ‘right to life’ concept, thus upholding the constitutionality of section 309 of IPC.
Recently, the Madras High Court in the case of P. Chandrakumar v. The State, held that sitting on a hunger strike would not be considered as an attempt to commit suicide and it cannot attract this provision of IPC which criminalizes suicide attempts.
Concept of Euthanasia:
Supreme Court in a few of its verdicts dealt with the concept of euthanasia where it explained the distinction between active and passive euthanasia.
Active Euthanasia- It is also known as aggressive or positive euthanasia. This type of euthanasia involves a positive act or an act of commission entailing the use of lethal substances to cause the deliberate death of the person by direct intervention. This type of death is conducted under specific steps such as injecting a lethal substance inside the patient’s body.
Passive Euthanasia- It is also known as non-aggressive or negative euthanasia. This type of euthanasia involves the removal of life-supporting systems or the deduction of medical treatments. It is a situation where in order to preserve the life of the patient life-supporting systems and medical treatments are stopped.
In the case of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India, where suicide by passive euthanasia was allowed by the Court under specific criteria. The Court laid down broad guidelines related to passive euthanasia in India. In case the patient is not in the condition to give his consent or does not have a living will, only parents, or spouse, or a close relative or a next friend can decide about the removal of life-supporting means. The Court stated that passive euthanasia is a method of dying with dignity and hence upholding the constitutionality of article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
In another case of Common Cause v. Union of India, the constitution bench of the Supreme Court allowed passive euthanasia and formation of living will,i.e., when a person is medically ill and is not in the condition to give consent, he/she can mention his desire for medical treatment by means of a written statement. The Court stated that the right to life includes the right to die with dignity and is also a part of Fundamental Rights.
Mental Healthcare Act, 2017:
As per section 115 of MHCA, 2017, any person who attempts to commit suicide will be presumed to have severe stress unless proved otherwise, irrespective of what is stated under section 309 of IPC, and will not be tried and punished under the said code.
This section further imposes an obligation on the part of the government to provide care, treatment, and rehabilitation to the person who attempts suicide and has severe stress, to reduce the risk of recurrence of such act.
People who are suffering from mental illness living below the poverty line, even without having possession of a BPL card, and those who are homeless, treatment and rehabilitation costs for them will be free of any charges at all mental health establishments run or funded by the government.
The government of India by decriminalizing the attempt to commit suicide has shifted from a legal stance to more of a medical stance as the Act has changed the whole concept regarding an attempt of suicide in India. The act seeks to view the accused as more of a victim of mental stress or illness and someone who has been in temporary loss of his intellect. It gives a different view to the attempt of suicide, once considered as an offense.
Moreover, the Law Commission of India in its 210th report titled “Humanisation and Decriminalization of Attempt to Suicide” which state section 309 as inhuman and seeks to efface from the statute book, regardless of its constitutionality. Repealing this provision under the Indian Penal Code would result in saving more lives than what it has accomplished till now.
The attempt to commit suicide is no more an offense in England under section 1 of the Suicide Act, 1961. The section states that the provision which criminalizes the act of attempt to suicide stands revoked. The Act states that abetting, counseling, aiding, or procuring of such acts done by or attempted by another person is still an offense, and can be punished with imprisonment which may extend to 14 years. After the decriminalization of this act, England experienced a huge decline in the number of suicide cases between the year 1961-1974.
Germany, Canada, Sri Lanka, and Ireland also decriminalized the act of attempt to suicide in the years 1751, 1972, 1998, and 1993, respectively.
In the Netherlands, one cannot participate in arrangements, or supply means and instructions to use them to commit suicide, but can provide moral support during someone’s suicide.
Yet in the countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Malaysia, an attempt to suicide is still a punishable offense where the punishment includes imprisonment which may extend to 1 year or fine or both under sections 325 of Pakistan Penal Code, 309 of Malaysian Penal Code, and 309 of Penal Code of Bangladesh, respectively.
The main issue which came while decriminalizing section 309 of the Indian Penal Code was that this change might increase the number of suicide cases in India. Being a medico-legal case, after being examined, the doctors have to send a report to the concerned authorities. This helps the government or the concerned authority to keep track of the number of people who need medical treatments or rehabilitation facilities.
Even though the bill was passed it was not brought into effect in many of the regions of the country. Mental health being a big taboo in India, people here need to be made aware and more sensitive towards mental health and dealing with suicidal tendencies. Proper implementation of the passed bill will be a huge step in helping the survivors gain faith in life again as well as breaking this long ongoing taboo.
BBA.LLB. (H), 3rd Year
REVA University, Bangalore.