Decriminalisation of Suicide

Vipin Mittal is a 2nd year student of JGLS, Sonepat

In the year 1860, the British passed the Indian Penal Code with Section 309, which criminalized Attempt to Suicide. Before I argue in favor of decriminalization of suicide, a look at the reasons as to why this provision could have been enacted by the British would be helpful.

With the circumstances of those days in mind, there could be two reasons for this. Firstly, the value of human labor was immense in those days, which made it important for the colonizers to ensure their workers do not give up on their lives because of the working conditions. With the practice of Bonded Labor present in great number, and the Bourgeoisie required their labor, taking away their right on their own life would seem a great way to ensure they die only of natural causes.

Another reason could be the practice of Sati. In this practice, widows voluntarily sacrificed their life after their husbands’ death. This practice was something that was irking the humanitarian bones of the English. In order to curb this practice of voluntarily sacrificing one’s life, the colonizers could have criminalized attempt to suicide.

This provision is something that represents what is wrong with our legal system. To punish a person who is already struggling to live, suffering from some form of mental disorder or emotional trauma or societal problems, and punishing that person can solve none of these problems.

One thing that needs to be noted here is that many of the judgments that uphold the validity of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code do it only on Constitutional basis and never question the humanitarian aspect of the law. The stand that I am taking has been reiterated number of times in the Court of law. An amendment was introduced in the legislature to omit Section 309, but the Parliament was dissolved before the amendment could be passed and the need to introduce this has not been felt again by the legislature.

Even the Law Commission of India in its 42nd Report suggested that the said provision must be omitted in 1971. This view was again held in the 210th report of the commission where the provision was rendered inhumane and hence had suggested decriminalization of Suicide.

A person attempting to commit suicide is not a threat to the society, neither is he, what the law calls, a legally sane person. An attempt to suicide is a cry for help, which can only be addressed through medical means and not penal means. A person imprisoned for the “crime” of committing does not get reformed or does not get deterred but is made emotionally weaker and mentally even more traumatized because of the brute environment of the prisons.

Let us imagine a situation where a person who is emotionally in a weak state for any imaginable reason like death of a family member, financially weak position, break up with girlfriend etc. In that state of depression, the person decides to take his life because he doesn’t want to live anymore.

What the current law suggests is that such person should either be successful in his attempt to take his own life or that he should be punished in case he survives. This is an erroneous position as this provision in a way ensures that people try harder to take their lives and not do it “half heartedly”.

So in the above example if the person survives, not only will he be in a state of depression but will also be behind bars for his luck of surviving his suicide attempt.

I think it has been long since we have been living with such inhumane laws and its time that more humane ways of dealing with such situations be introduced in law.

“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank — but that's not the same thing.”

-Joseph Conrad