Suicide refers to the intentional taking of one’s own life, in other words, we can say it is a kind of self-murder. The prevalence of suicide cases has been increasing in recent years. The number of persons who attempt suicide is 25 times the death rate of suicide. In one of the recent researches of the World Health Organization, the experts said that close to 800,000 people across the world die due to suicide which is one person every 40 seconds. It is nowadays very common to see people stressed, anxious, under pressure, and depressed in a society, in such circumstances a person might also feel to escape the suffering that has been intolerable through suicide. Those who are not in the grip of suicidal thoughts and depression may not understand this but the suicidal person is in so much pain that he or she would not see any other alternative to escape from the situation than to kill himself or herself.
Till 2017, a failed attempt of suicide was considered as an offense under section 309 of Indian Penal Code 1860 which clearly states that “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 1 year or with fine or both”. Several questions were raised in the context of section 309. First, that this section comes under the category of offenses defined under Chapter XVI of IPC, this category includes offenses affecting the ‘human body of other person and section 309 is clubbed in the same category. The act of attempted suicide is inferred based on intention, but the intention might be ambiguous in many cases. The most important thing was the mental condition of the persons who survived suicide-attempts and the treatment of such persons, as this section was monstrous that inflicted further suffering to the person who already found the life unbearable. In fact, such persons deserve treatment, not punishment.
In the case, State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia it was held that the continuance of section 309 IPC is an anachronism unworthy of human society like ours.
In the case, Dubal v. State of Maharashtra it was held that those who attempt suicide on account of mental disorders require psychiatric treatment and not confinement in the prison cells to worsen their condition.
After the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 was passed and came into force on May 29, 2018, suicide is no more a criminal offense.
Practical implications of MHCA 2017 on suicide and suicide attempt
In India, the Mental Healthcare Act (MHCA) 2017 was passed on April 7, 2017, and enforced on May 29, 2018. This act was passed to provide mental healthcare and services to the people who are suffering from some mental illness (who have the substantial disorder and whose functioning is grossly impaired) and to fulfill, promote and protect the rights of such mentally unwell persons (who have the substantial disorder and whose functioning is grossly impaired), during delivery of services and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
According to section 155 of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, a person who attempts suicide will be presumed to be going through some kind of mental health issues and stress and will not be punished. It would be the responsibility of the government to take proper care, provide treatment and rehabilitation to reduce the risk of reoccurrence of the problem. Section 155 of this act decriminalized the attempt of suicide, thereby reducing further stress on victims which means sections 306 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code have become redundant but still remain in the law books. This act enables the person to access free medical healthcare treatment and rehabilitation.
Reasons to attempt suicide
Mental illness constitutes a major cause of the suicidal behavior of a person. Risk factors for suicide attempts by adults or youth include anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health issues. Sometimes childhood adversities such as love affair, sexual/ physical abuse, financial bankruptcy, stressful life events such as the death of a loved one, loss of job or relationship, abuse of alcohol or drugs, imminent criminal prosecution and suffering from or having been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness are responsible. Keeping these reasons in mind the punishment for suicide was decriminalized because such people need the treatment they should not be punished.
Constitutionality of Right to die
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution confers the right to live a dignified life. It states that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by the law”. It does not include the right to die. There has been a different opinion on the justification of this provision to continue on the statute book.
The question if the right to die is conferred by Article 21 came for consideration for the first time before High Court of Bombay in State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripati Dubal’s case[i], it was held that section 309 of Penal Code which provides punishment for attempt to commit suicide is not in violation of articles 14 and 21.
Chenna Jagdeshwar v. State of Andhra Pradesh[ii], the Andhra Pradesh High Court held that right to die is not a fundamental right within the meaning of article 21 and hence section 309, is not unconstitutional.
P. Rathinam/ Nagbhusan Patnaik v. Union of India[iii], a two Judges Bench of Supreme Court also held that the right to life under article 21 included right not to live a forced life i.e., to commit suicide and therefore section 309 of Penal Code was held unconstitutional.
Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab[iv], a Bench of five Judges held that the right to life is a natural right embodied in article 21 but suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life. Article 21 which guarantees protection of life cannot be constructed to read therein extinction of life or right to die.
Hence, the Constitution of India does not include the Right to Die.
In the rarest of the rare situations, if someone requires assisted mechanical support for survival or in a permanent vegetative state, the withdrawal of the life support may be allowed by the Supreme Court if that person wants to die or any family member thinks that he/she is leading a miserable life which is a violation of the right to live life with dignity. It was first held in the case of Aruna Shanbaugh v. Union of India.
The medical and healthcare professionals in contact with the persons who have attempted to die by committing suicide need to understand the guidelines and protocols of suicide law in India. Such persons should be treated with special care in society, we have to be kind to those people rather than laying a guilt trip on them. Cost implications and limited resources can be the obstacles for government in implementing the provisions of MHCA, 2017, but still, there is a need for government, non-government organizations and other concerned people to educate and create awareness among the public at large to fulfill the objectives, aims and purposes of the enactment of MHCA 2017 concerning other suicide laws and guidelines.
[i][i] State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripal Duba,l AIR 1997, SC 411.
[ii] Chenna Jagdeshwar v. State of Andhra Pradesh, AIR 1998, Cr LJ 549.
[iii] P. Rathinam/ Nagbhusan Patnaik v. Union of India, AIR 1994, SC 1844.
[iv] Gian Kaur v. the State of Punjab, AIR 1996, SC 946.
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