The act of taking away one's own life is viewed negatively almost everywhere around the world, and is thus resented. In several places, suicide is deemed punishable. A split exists in the opinions regarding the right of a person to take his own life, wherein the group refusing the right usually cites moral and religious reasons for their belief. Age, experience, gender, existential themes, religion, the meaning of life, etc. are highly influential factors on the views of individuals and of the society towards suicide. Previously considered illegal, suicide has been legitimised in most of the Western countries today but still remains a criminal offence in some countries including India. This question of criminalisation of suicide has to be put under the scanner - How’s the fear of getting punished for trying to end their lives stopping the people who are despising living the very life itself?
Societal Perception of Suicide:
The way societies perceive suicide, has differed among themselves and across time. In Greece, a justification for suicide was sought and was not considered totally wrong in itself. It was allowed to people who were legally ordered suicide, the ones suffering from incurable illnesses, and people who met with ‘unbearable misfortune’. In Ancient Rome, life was not considered as a gift by the gods and suicide was not generally prohibited. Most Romans supported the idea of suicide in situations like preferring death to avoid dishonour but it remained forbidden for the slaves and soldiers for economic and patriotic reasons. Among the early Christians, suicide had become a common occurrence until the sixth century when it became a mortal sin and was declared a crime, greatly influenced by the arguments of Augustine who systematically explored the question of suicide and strongly condemned it in his The City of God. Those who committed suicide were denied Christain burial and in the thirteenth century, strict laws were enacted against suicide. Later, severe penalties started to be inflicted on the body; it was degraded, drawn through the streets, then hanged or thrown on the garbage heap. The conception that suicide is diabolical and totally wrong, started to shift slowly in the Renaissance Period when arguments started to come to the fore in support of suicide in certain circumstances.
Today, more than 700,000 people die by suicide every year around the globe and for every suicide leading to death, there are between 10 and 40 attempts of killing oneself, which can be seen on the rise with the deploring conditions of society. In this light, suicide is very well symptomatic of where the society lags and a marker of its miserly organisation & failures. It has been pointed out by many that suicide stands opposite to nature and is an unnatural incident, despite the fact that it’s a daily occurrence and in no way separable from the very nature of society itself. Society, along with equipping people with the means of livelihood, provides fuel for hatred towards life to many people, a fact that gets buried when the same society considers suicide a taboo subject and hurls shame at those who killed themselves, flowing from a misplaced perception that the radical urge grew in a vacuum.
Other than being sinful, some people would argue that committing suicide is to avert one’s ‘duties’ towards society, something which is cowardly and deserves punishment. For example, Aristotle viewed suicide as an injustice towards the state and that it robs the community of the service of one of its members. This might explain the criminalisation of suicide by the state, because the state might want to prevent the loss of its human resource. Such arguments do insist on the duties of people but not on the explanations that an individual seeks from the society and the state. A person who considers his very existence stamped under the societal obligations would want to free himself, a desire that manifests in the form of a compulsion. Stating the punishments to such a person that he might incur for attempting it cannot deter him since, for him, the greater punishments lie in living the life. Criminalising suicide doesn’t even seem to save the lives of people suffering from mental illnesses. It is like treating the victim as a criminal which is highly unreasonable. A person having psychological problems (which is the case with most people who commit suicide) is not to be put behind the bars and deserves a healing touch through treatment which relieves them, not the label of a criminal and a place in prison.
The Case in India:
According to the World Health Organisation Report Suicide Worldwide in 2019, India has the highest suicide rate in the Southeast Asian region. Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code provides penal provision for attempting suicide, stating, “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(or with fine or with both)”. This is one of the many laws which were enacted during the British era and has been retained by the Indian Government. The constitutional validity of this section has been much debated, since it is seen as a violation of the Right to Life. In Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra 1986, the court deemed this law unconstitutional as it violates Article 21. Court ruled that there exists a right to die concurrently with the right to life; the desire to die is not unnatural and so there exists a right to die. This was contradicted in Chenna Jagadeeswar v. State of Andhra Pradesh 1987, where the court held that the said section was not unconstitutional as it did not violate Articles 14 and 21, the grounds on which Section 309 often gets challenged. P Rathinam Vs Union of India 1994, along with ruling that Section 309 is unconstitutional, held that the provision is cruel as well as inhuman. These cases are some of the crucial judgements related to this subject and often get cited while giving arguments in support of or against the decriminalisation of suicide in India.
The bill to repeal Section 309 was first introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 1972 which failed to pass in Lok Sabha because the house was dissolved. The Law Commission in its 210th report suggested that Section 309 should be effaced because it is inhuman and that “Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code provides double punishment for a person who has already got fed up with his own life and desires to end it.” Later, The Mental Health Care Act, 2017, limited the scope of section 309 by excluding people with severe mental issues from penalties. Both these provisions taken together stand in conflict with each other, which was also observed in a virtual hearing in 2020 by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde, that the Mental Health Care Act, 2017, negates Section 309 of the IPC. Section 115(1) of the Act states, “Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.” But what if the person who attempted suicide is not proved to be suffering from severe stress? Instead of penalising people, reformative actions are required and striking down of acts which criminalise suicide is a well-grounded way that would facilitate the shift of focus from blaming the people who tried to kill themselves towards the defects plaguing our society.