The intent is fine but…

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Against all odds Irom Sharmila has been arrested repeatedly under Section 309 of the IPC Photo: Tehelka Archives
Against all odds Irom Sharmila has been arrested repeatedly under Section 309 of the IPC. Photo: Tehelka Archives

It is truly a forbidding revelation: India has the highest suicide rate in the world after China. There is supposedly a suicide every four minutes and 371 suicides take place per day. Tamil Nadu tops the list followed by Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.

As the vociferous liberals have it, isn’t it really barbaric and cruel to punish a person who fails in extinguishing his ‘more-miserable-than-death’ life by putting him in prison? If the state cannot provide a person with humane living conditions, can it be just in restraining his right to die?

These are issues that need to be debated as Section 309 is considered an anachronism unworthy of human society in the 21st century — a view that is gaining increasing currency.

Analysts are somewhat shocked that suicide rates are highest in southern States which are richer and better developed with better literacy, social welfare and health care. The rise in suicide rates is due to disappointments as a result of unmet expectations of achievement and new technologies like mobile phones. Social networking sites contributing to loneliness also lead to breakdown of family units traditionally relied on for support during distress.

The Narendra Modi government’s move will ensure that people who are driven to kill themselves do not end up in jail if they don’t succeed. Commission of the crime is more serious than attempts of the same. Suicide is the only crime where commission is not punishable but attempt is. This is because if you succeed, you are beyond all laws.

“The Ministry of Home Affairs is in the process of effacing Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code,” Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary told the Rajya Sabha two sessions ago. As many as 18 States and four Union Territories are in favour of deletion of Section 309, he added. The Law Commission in its 210th report has also favoured such a deletion. Section 309 is also arbitrary as it paints all suicides with one brush and makes no room for the particular circumstances.

“In 1994 the Supreme Court not only decriminalised the attempt to suicide but also observed that the ‘right to life’ includes the ‘right to die.’ The court strangely observed that all fundamental rights have positive connotations as well as negative connotations. Thus freedom of speech included right to silence, freedom to do business includes freedom not to do any business. Similarly, the right to life includes the right not to live. But then, decriminalising attempt to suicide is one thing and conferring a right to die is another Right to silence or right not to do business or trade constitutes merely temporary suspension of rights, and on any future date a person may exercise these rights. But once a life is extinguished, it is lost forever,” wrote well-known academic and leading luminary Faizan Mustafa earlier this year. He recalled how in 1996, a five-judge bench headed by Justice JS Verma overturned the 1994 decision which brought Section 309 back to life. Attempt to suicide should stay on the statute book because suicide comes in conflict with the monopolistic power of the state to take away life.

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The Law Against Suicide

Section 309, Indian Penal Code: 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 (with fine or both).

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The ‘right to die’ is based on a conservative and individualistic argument whereby suicide is considered a private affair that in no way can cause damage to others. But this logic is certainly false as far as most of us are concerned. A person may be the sole breadwinner of his family and if he commits suicide, his family would certainly be driven to destitution. The holding of a ‘right to die’ is in accordance with a capitalistic, property-oriented outlook that prefers to treat everything including the human body, organs and even emotions as a form of commodity.

Renowned social scientist Imtiaz Ahmed asks a very valid question when it comes to decriminalising suicide and repealing section 309 from the penal code. How will the State reconcile its ‘progressive’ intent with the fact that someone like one Irom Sharmila has been force-fed to keep going even as her battle for human rights is being summarily dealt with? Her case has been a matter of elaborate international attention through the decade that she has chosen to protest against what she terms as state-sponsored atrocities. There is also the question of some public figures like Anna Hazare going, or at least threatening to be going, on a fast unto death to pursue their goals. How does a State that considers MK Gandhi to be the ‘father of the nation’ reconcile to such ‘Gandhian’ form of protests?

Decriminalisation would also mean entering the very private domain of possibly maladjusted individuals, and that is where the mental health bill as it stands comes into focus. Section 124 of the law states that a mentally disturbed person may be exempt from ‘punishment’ but not ‘prosecution.’ Does he have the facility of sound legal support? Such questions are bound to crop up when the lawmakers and others deliberate over the future of the legal system.

According to Faizan Mustafa, “the so-called ‘right to die’ was also justified in the name of ‘globalisation of Indian economy’. The divisional bench in its 1994 decision observed that the view taken by them would advance not only the cause of humanisation, which is a need of the day, but of ‘globalisation’ also, as by effacing Section 309, we would be attuning this part of our criminal law to the global wavelength.” This kind of reasoning he avers clearly ignores the peculiarities of the social and economic conditions of our country and the rapid increase in suicide rates in general, and that of dowry deaths in particular. Suicide and mercy killing are different and should not be confused as one and the same. In the former, no third party is involved but in the latter, the third party is crucial. A growing consensus on passive euthanasia rather than suicide seems to be taking shape.

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