The World Health Organisation defined suicidal act as “the injury with varying degree of lethal intent” and that suicide may be defined as “a suicidal act with fatal outcome”. Suicidal acts with non fatal outcome are called as “attempted suicide.” In recent times, attempted suicide has gained more importance than the suicide which is the successful act because for this there is no offender who can be brought within the purview of law. In India, attempt to suicide is made punishable under section 309 of Indian Penal Code, 1860. A lot of conflicting opinions have generated on retaining or deleting Section 309 of Indian Penal Code because of some differing judgments by the judiciary about whether right to life includes right to die within the meaning of article 21 of the Constitution of India.
One side is of the opinion that Article 21 of the Constitution of India is a provision guaranteeing protection of life and personal liberty and by no stretch of the imagination can extinction of life be read to be included in protection of life. By declaring an attempt to commit suicide a crime, the Indian Penal Code upholds the dignity of human life, because human life is as precious to the State as it is, to its holder and the State cannot turn a blind eye to a person in attempting to kill himself. Another set of people are of the opinion that the Section 309 of Indian Penal Code is cruel and irrational because it provides double punishment for a troubled individual whose deep unhappiness had caused him to try and end his life. It is cruel to inflict additional legal punishment on a person who has already suffered agony and ignominy in his failure to commit suicide.
Section 309 of the IPC was daunted with many controversies regarding its validity over the decades on the grounds of legality and morality. Finally, giving approval to the various Law Commission Reports and judgments of the Hon’ble High Courts and the Supreme Court, attempted suicide is de-criminalized (not punishable) after passage of The Medical Health Care Act, 2017.
Section 309 of Indian Penal Code, 1860
Suicide has not been defined anywhere in the IPC. However briefly defined, ‘suicide’ is the human act of self-inflicted, self-intentioned cessation. It has been defined by various sociologists and psychologists in different ways. Suicide is killing oneself intentionally so as to extinguish one’s life and to leave this world.
Suicide as such is no crime under the code. It is only attempt to commit suicide that is punishable under this section. If the person succeeds, there is no offender who could be brought within the purview of law. The section is based on the principle that the lives of men are not only valuable to them but also to the state which protects them.
If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.
S. 309 – Attempt to commit suicide: “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.”
Attempt must be intentional- The essence of suicide is an intentional self destruction of life.. Similarly, if a person because of family discord, destruction, loss of a near and dear relation or other cause of a like nature overcomes the instinct of self- preservation and decides to take his life, he should not be held guilty for attempt to suicide. In such a case, the unfortunate man deserves indulgence, sympathy and consolation instead of punishment. It is under very compelling adverse circumstances that a person resorts to taking the extreme step of attempting to commit suicide. Some of them are depressive illness, schizophrenic attitude, physical illness which is intolerable, poverty, unemployment, frustration, disappointment, dowry problems etc.
There are many ways in which suicide can be committed. The known methods are by drowning, hanging, poisoning, cutting throat, burning, shooting oneself, hunger strike etc. But it is difficult to generalize any and conceptualize particular theory because whenever we hear news about individuals committing suicide, we immediately come up with a conclusion that these people are depressed, dissatisfied, and unhappy with their lives. However, when popular and rich people commit suicide, we are left in confusion. Why would someone who is loved and idolized by many decide to kill himself? Depression may be the main culprit, but there are a lot of things to consider as well. These include overwhelming pain, grief, and stress; some use it as an escape for their failure and shortcomings like criminals who are about to be sentenced or caught. However, there are cases where suicide is an option that is mandatory or required. Thus, most people end up sacrificing themselves to save the lives of others in unbelievable circumstances. Heroes during the wartime generally belong to this category.
The Indian constitution under Article 21 confers the right to Life as the fundamental right of every citizen. The Right to Life enriched in Article 21 have been liberally interpreted so as to mean something more than mere survival and mere animal existence. The Supreme Court has asserted that Article 21 is the heart of the fundamental Rights provided under part III of the constitution. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that in order to treat a right as a fundamental it is not mandatory that it should be expressly stated as a fundamental right. In India “The right to life” under Article 21 of the Constitution has received the widest possible interpretation under the able hands of the judiciary and rightly so. On the grounds as mentioned, Article 21 does not have a restrictive meaning and needs to be interpreted broadly. This affirms that if Article 21 confers on a person the right to live a dignified life, it should bestows the “Right to Die” also, but the inclusion of Right to die under Article 21 contradict the provision of Indian Penal Code under section 309. As according to section 309 of the I.P.C. “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 one year or with fine, or with both”. This section is based on the principle that lives of men are not only valuable to them but also to the state which protects them.
Section 309, Indian Penal Code [“IPC”] criminalises an attempt to suicide by any person. However, Section 115, Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 [“MHA, 2017”] states that any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and therefore, shall not be punished under the IPC.Therefore, Section 115, MHA, 2017 imposes a rebuttable presumption that the person who commits suicide is suffering from severe stress and, therefore, shall not be punished under Section 309, IPC. The result of the abovementioned provision of the MHA, 2017 is that Section 309, IPC is otiose. However, if the presumption of severe stress is rebutted, then such a person may be punished under Section 309, IPC. The MHA, 2017 has made Section 309, IPC redundant unless the presumption of severe stress is rebutted. However, there has been widespread use of the provision regarding cases of “hunger strikes” and “fasts unto death”, and to coerce public authorities. Nonetheless, retaining the provision to serve this purpose under its current language has unnecessary implications.The costs of retaining the provision is that there are several instances of police charging persons under the provision due to a lack of legislative awareness. The retention of the provision also makes attempted suicide a medico-legal case and prevents effective treatment to the person who has attempted such suicide at the “golden hour” for providing effective treatment.Since there is a clear intention of the Legislature to make Section 309, IPC redundant, its practical unwanted implications shall be done away with by removing such provision from the statute book. However, there is a need for a provision to take action against those who either intend to coerce public authorities by threatening to commit suicide, or attempt suicide to evade public authorities altogether. Nonetheless, since the cost of retaining the provision in its current form creates an unnecessary burden, the recommendation along the lines of the 42nd Law Commission Report to add Section 506A, IPC seems to be valid even now.