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The need to decriminalise attempted suicide in India

[By Renjini Rajagopalan]

India needs to go through with eliminating section 309 of its penal code, punishing attempted suicide, as announced by the government at the end of 2014. The criminalisation of suicide is often used to suppress peaceful hunger strikes.

Section 309 of the IPC is a highly insensitive provision that requires a person to die successfully, or be prosecuted. Besides being an absolute abuse of human autonomy, punishing survivors of suicide attempts is not the hallmark of a civilized society.

As the largest democracy in the world, and as one of the most stable regimes in South Asia, India has the moral responsibility to pave the way for legal reforms. So far the new Indian government has made all the right noises, but will they begin to act in the full spirit of what they say?

Over the last decade, the suicide rate has gone up by a good 25%. India’s courts have however over the last 2 decades, slowly woken up to the reality that in a misguided effort at preserving life, they have been doing everything to facilitate just the opposite.

In the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India the Indian Supreme Court, speaking with respect to articles 21 and 14 of the Indian constitution stated the following:

“… we state that section 309 needs to be effaced from our statute books to humanize our penal laws. It is a cruel and inhuman provision, and it may result in punishing a person again (doubly) who has suffered agony and would be undergoing ignominy because of his failure to commit suicide.”

Again, in a path–breaking decision in Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India & Ors., given on March 7, 2011, a bench consisting of Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra, said:

“We are of the opinion that although section 309 Indian Penal Code (attempt to commit suicide) has been held to be constitutionally valid in Gian Kaur’s case, the time has come when it should be deleted by Parliament as it has become anachronistic… We therefore recommend to Parliament to consider the feasibility of deleting section 309 from the Indian Penal Code.”

The year 2014 ended on a good note for many legal activists, health and social workers when, during the first week of December, the Indian government finally acceded to their long-standing request of decriminalising attempted suicides in India. Under section 309 of the Indian penal code, attempted suicide in India is punishable with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, with a fine, or both.

The news of decriminalisation was confirmed by the Indian minister of state for home affairs Shri Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary in his response to a question posed to him in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha). While the bill is yet to go through, the process is seen as a formality, given that 18 Indian states and 4 union territories back the centre’s decision.

The move is also in concurrence with the view of the Law Commission of India, which, in its 210th report of October 2008, argued that attempting suicide was a “manifestation of a diseased condition of mind”. It called for treatment and care of suicide survivors rather than punishment.

Despite government resolve to scrap section 309, not all states of India are in agreement.

There are a few that fear decriminalising attempted suicide will make things easier for suicide bombers and activists on hunger strike, the hunger satyagrahis. Given India’s security challenges, their fears are not entirely unfounded, but to use an umbrella provision like section 309 is to neglect better legal alternatives such as India’s unlawful activities prevention act.

Any benefit we could accrue from retaining a regressive provision like section 309 disappears in the face of the sheer cruelty and harassment it forces upon the general population. A common image the decriminalisation debate regularly brings to mind is that of the Manipuri peace activist Ms. Irom Sharmila, who is seeking revocation of India’s draconian armed forces (special powers) act by means of indefinite fasting. Section 309 has consistently been used to suppress peaceful voices of dissent such as hers.

Alarming statistics

According to numbers provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is one of the three leading causes of death worldwide among those in the most economically productive bracket of 15–44 years, and the second leading cause of death in the 15–19 years age group.

The majority of such deaths occur in low and middle income countries. Back in 1999, the WHO estimated that by 2020, people who attempt suicide world-wide would be 10 to 20 times more than those who succeed in committing it. In such a scenario, the ensuing statistics can be an extremely disturbing number for a country with a population as large as India’s.

India’s National Crime Records Bureau estimated in its Accidental Deaths & Suicides Report of 2013 that more than 1 lakh (1,34,799) people committed suicide due to a variety of factors in 2012.

It was further recorded that ‘family problems’ (24%) and ’illness’ (19.6%) together accounted for 43.6% of total suicides. But that in itself is a conservative statistic. There are strong reasons to believe that in many instances, death by suicide goes unreported.

In many rural areas of India, death by suicide is frequently reported as due to illness or accident. This is done to avoid police investigations, the possibility of the body being mutilated during post – mortem examinations and due to the social stigma involved. Thus, suicide statistics derived from police records are often severely under–reported in India.

Religious stigmatisation

The social boycotting of suicide attempters and their families is not peculiar to India alone. In fact, the most widely practiced religions of the world – be they Abrahamic ones like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, or Dharmic ones like Hinduism and Jainism – all consider suicide a sin. Even though India is home to people of all these faiths, there has never been a uniform view on suicide.

Indians have inherited a pantheon of cultural practices which are often at odds with one another. Despite India’s major religions prohibiting suicide, Sati, a form of suicide which required a widow to die upon her husband’s funeral pyre (often forcibly), was socially accepted. Such social evils prompted the hand of the legislature to step in to rectify what social mores could not.

Section 309 was, at the time of its enactment in 1860, brought in with the hope of deterring people from attempting or abetting any form of suicide because what civilized nation did not value life? In this way, the law as a tool of social good sought to protect citizens from their own self – destructive impulses, but by punishing them.

In the centuries following, science has revealed such penal action to be not only unnecessary, but self – defeating. Many of those who commit suicide do so in the hope of escaping from grave problems. Others suffer from serious mental conditions that require adequate counselling and medical aid. To punish such survivors is not only vindictive, it also fails to address the root cause of the issues which led the person to attempt suicide in the first place.

In fact, mental disorders are one of the most prominent and treatable causes of suicide, followed by substance abuse and sexual abuse. Studies have revealed that almost 80% people who committed suicide had several depressive symptoms. Depression plays a major role in suicide and is thought to be involved in approximately 65% – 90% of all suicides with psychiatric pathologies. That said, the stigma attached to mental disorders as well as discrimination against patients and families prevent many people from seeking mental health care.

Detrimental effects of suicide criminalisation

People who survive suicide attempts need to be rehabilitated, not imprisoned.

There is compelling evidence indicating that adequate prevention and treatment of depression, alcohol and substance abuse, as well as follow–up contact with suicide survivors can reduce suicide rates.

The WHO employed a ‘basic intervention and contact’ technique in their suicide prevention (SUPRE) trails to see if it would save lives, and it was found that in those cases where doctors were able to reach out to patients, talk them through problems and put them in touch with the kind of medical/psychological attention they needed, there was a definite decrease in repeated suicide attempts. This was because those who attempted suicides felt like they were cared for and supported.

But due to the legal hassle involved, hospitals in India often prefer to call in law enforcement agencies rather than treating the person involved. This has two main negative consequences.

Firstly, hospitals often lose out on that ‘golden hour’ where medical intervention could have helped save/improve the person’s life. Secondly, the subsequent police interrogation in the wake of such an attempt might lead a person to attempt suicide again and succeed.

Decriminalizing suicides could allow for doctors and counsellors to reach out and provide people prone to suicide with the necessary coping mechanisms they need.

Furthermore, delving into instances of failed suicide attempts has often unearthed an utter lack of criminal intent or any pre–meditated motive. Going by the words of section 309, any act that reveals a person’s intention towards the commission of such an offence could lead to their being criminally prosecuted.

Often, a person attempts suicide on the spur of the moment. The so called “mens rea” or “criminal intent” necessary for prosecuting is often lacking and hard to attribute unless such death was planned with a beneficiary in mind. Also, for someone convinced that suicide is their only way out, the penal action attached to a suicide attempt greatly discourages them from confiding their fears and feelings in another person, for then they would be confessing their intent to commit a crime. Therefore, no matter how well–intentioned, no law criminalizing an attempted suicide can hope to help eradicate it.

What abolitionists of ‘attempted suicide’ as a crime demand is fair treatment for those who fail in their attempt to commit suicide. Not all survivors of suicide attempts escape unscathed. Many remain handicapped or disabled for life.

Suicide, as a matter of culture, can be looked upon as a shameful act.

Compounding it with a criminal conviction often has detrimental effects such as community ostracism of the individual and his entire family.

The last thing the survivor and his family needs is dealing with a criminal case on top of everything else.

Recognising this, many countries have decriminalised attempted suicides, starting with France in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The UK and the US do not criminalise them either, nor do most other European countries.

In fact, very few countries retain such a regressive provision. And till about a month back, India shared this distinction with countries it usually likes to deride for having poor human rights records such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore.

About The Author

Renjini Rajagopalan is a human rights lawyer and a public policy analyst who works with a Member of Parliament from India.This article was originally published in opendemocracy.net

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