According to Section 309, anyone who attempts suicide is a criminal. The law has to go because it is a public health issue and not a legal problem
By Shekhar Seshadri
IN 1984, Justice Rajinder Sachar told the police and administration not to prosecute 119 individuals who had attempted suicide. Next year, in the case of a young man called Sanjay Bhatia, Justice Sachar said that Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (that punishes an attempt to suicide with oneyear imprisonment or fine or both), was unconstitutional. The judge remarked, “Instead of sending the young boy to a psychiatric clinic, it gleefully sends him to mingle with criminals, as if trying its best to see that in future he does fall foul of the punitive sections of the Indian Penal Code.”
At the time, the mental health fraternity of India, both mainstream psychiatrists and NGOs, were working hard to repeal Section 309. We rejoiced for Justice Sachar’s ruling and the 1987 ruling of the Bombay High Court in the Maruti Shripati Dubal case. Dubal, a Mumbai police constable, suffered severe head injuries in an accident. A few years later, he poured kerosene on his body and set himself alight. The high court ruled that Section 309 violated constitutional rights and dismissed the case.
The massive enterprise of the petition from the mental health sector and our optimism was knocked down in 1996 when the matter reached the five-member Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court, which was final and binding. Suicide was once again criminal.
So here we are, a quarter century later, braced to begin the process once again. In response to a PIL seeking the deletion of Section 309, the Delhi High Court recently indicated that it might consider decriminalising suicide within a year as part of a wider reform of Criminal Procedure Code.
History is repeating itself. The continued existence of the section reflects a tension between the political establishment and mental health systems. To put it bluntly, if you attempt to go on a hunger strike and fast unto death (like Irom Sharmila), Section 309 allows the State to take you to a hospital against your will and put you on a drip.
THE LOGIC behind our repeated attempts to repeal the law is that suicide is not a legal problem. If at all, it is a public health issue. India needs more stress management, more suicide helplines and mental health professionals. It needs what we call postvention. Poison, immolation, slitting wrists, jumping from bridges and buildings — human beings find ways to kill themselves. Only when the medical crisis has passed can one step in to prevent another attempt.
Section 309 is not a deterrent. In fact, it might get in the way of the person getting help
Section 309 is not a deterrent for those who attempt to commit suicide. In fact, it might get in the way of the person getting help. One, because of the fear of criminal charges, the individual and the family are likely to give false names and addresses to doctors, preventing any follow- up care. Two, for the same reason, it is likely that the individual avoids big hospitals and seeks small nursing homes or doctors who will provide medical care but will not perhaps follow up. Three, the impact on friends and family is complex. We feel guilt, anger, confusion, shame — all powerful feelings. We wonder, “Why didn’t she trust us enough to tell us? How did we fail her?”
Additionally, the criminal processes only increase the sense of shame and obfuscate the core human tragedy. You have a cop in your house and that becomes the focus of your anxiety. You lose sight of what is important — is she healing? How can I help? Therein lies the tragedy of Section 309.
The national mental health situation has improved in the period with more departments of psychiatry, context and time-specific helplines (such as during exam seasons). But the mental health fraternity cannot reach its services to those who need it if the law does not refashion itself to become therapeutic in character. Without re-examining the law, we are not very far from the colonial British law that punished suicide attempts with death by hanging.
Shekhar Seshadri is Professor, child and adolescent psychiatry, Nimhans, Bengaluru.