“Or let him walk, fully determined and going straight on, in a north-easterly direction, subsisting on water and air, until his body sinks to rest.”1
The current controversy regarding the charge sheet filed against Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, under Section 309 of the IPC for attempt to suicide has led to the revocation of the old school of thought of decriminalization of attempt to suicide. There are conflicting arguments presently in the intellectual domain with respect to the continuity of Section 309. One side suggests that it should be abolished and struck down, the other side wishes otherwise because then it would give light to the Right to Die debate under Article 21 of the Constitution. Both arguments stand on their merit, however, it must be understood that that while the former rests its case on the wisdom of the philosophy of the Indian Penal Code, the latter envisages its stance based on the technicalities of the law.
India is one of the very few countries in the world, which still criminalizes the attempt to suicide. England was the last of the Mohicans in their attempt to strike down criminalization of attempt to suicide. From a theoretical perspective, it is quite funny that a person who already is deranged with life, unhappy with the things around him, depressed, not sure what lies ahead of him, is made to undergo even more torture at the hands of the law once his attempts to rest his soul have undergone complete failure. This is equivalent to getting beaten up by your teacher for failing in class.
So when an individual does not wish to continue his life, when the stocks are against him, when he is going through severe depression, why would the law punish him for acting weak instead of lifting his spirits and providing him with emotional care?
the outset, humans are born with survival instincts, not suicidal instincts. However, societal pressures related to their surroundings force some people to develop suicidal instincts. These tendencies grow with time, especially in cases where the individual is not given appropriate medical treatment. It is a form of mental illness, but illness nevertheless. And the appropriate mechanism to counter this illness is to treat it. This is a problem, which needs to be addressed by psychologists. The role of the Law should be limited to ensuring that the patient is given the required medical support. Why would the law act otherwise is a question which has been asked on a number of occasions before, and the answer to the same always arrives at the affirmative.
Clause 126 of the Indian Penal Code Amendment Bill, 1872 introduced in the Rajya Sabha provided for the omission of Section 309. The Rajya Sabha duly recognized the foolishness and adhered to it by correcting the object of regression in 1978. However, since the Lok Sabha got dissolved in 1979, the Bill elapsed. A victim to the inefficacies of the Indian administration.
Constitutional Conflict Vs. Philosophical Neglect
In P. Rathinam v. Union of India2 the Supreme Court touched upon this subject with much wisdom. The Supreme Court, through tis Division Bench, held that Section 309 violated Article 21 of the Constitution under “Right to Live”. It was held that the “Right to Live” also included the right to take one’s life at his/her own behest. This was the technical approach adopted by the Supreme Court in route to strike down the archaic law. However, a Constitution Bench in the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab3 held that Article 21 of the Constitution does not include “Right to Die” within the purview of “Right to Life”. The law laid down by the P Rathinam judgment was struck down. ‘Right to life’ is a natural right embodied in Article 21 but suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life and, therefore, incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of ‘right to life’.
The most significant aspect of the judgment is that the Supreme Court focused solely on the Constitutionality of Section 309, and it did not go into the domain retaining the same in the Statute books. That was a matter, which was left to the discretion of the Legislature. As a matter of fact, since the Supreme Court upheld the Constitutional validity of Section 309, it did not completely determine the wisdom of retaining it within the framework of IPC. The question, which arises from the current context, is the archiacness of the law with respect to international standards, along with medical and philosophical reasoning. To decide whether Section 309 is unethical, immoral, subversive, regressive, inaccurate has been left to the choice of the Legislature. Deleting Section 309 from the IPC would not tantamount to an unconstitutional act, since the omission of Section 309 does not mean that the State allows for the commission of suicide. The point of intersection is abolishing the criminality of attempt of suicide, which is quite different from envisaging the commission of suicide. These are two separate things, and we stand at the crossroads from abolishing a barbaric act towards moving progressively.
The next appropriate steps for the Legislature is to prepare a Suicide Bill, which shall contain provisions for abetment of suicide, de-criminalization of suicide, along with the inclusion of every suicide attempt individual to be admitted to a psychological centre where he would be given special treatment and care according to his /her mental needs. This shall be backed up by an enforcing authority specially dedicated to look after attempt to suicide cases, where the it shall strive to keep a track of every suicide case, along with ensuring that each and every patient is treated and diagnosed appropriately.
1 The Hermit in the Forest, Manuspriti
2 AIR 1994 SC 1844
3 AIR 1996 SC 496