Government’s move to do away with a colonial penal law that prosecutes a person for a failed suicide bid has evoked sympathetic views from legal experts, who favoured its abolition saying the provision is “archaic and outdated” and has led to no conviction in 156 years.
They supported the move to decriminalise IPC section 309 (punishment for attempt to commit suicide), saying a person does not take the extreme step unless “something seriously goes wrong in one’s life” and such action is taken only when there is “momentary weakness in mental strength”.
Senior advocate and Rajya Sabha MP KTS Tulsi said, “I entirely support it and it is desirable”, while pointing out that nowadays suicide attempts have become common due to stressful life.
“This was a criminal offence when suicide was not common among the people…People are taking such steps nowadays as life has become stressful,” Tulsi said. “Why punish a person who is ready to give up his/her life,” he asked.
Former Law Minister and senior lawyer Shanti Bhushan went a step further and said, “It is his/her life and he/she should be allowed to take his/her life”, but nobody commits suicide unless “something serious goes wrong in one’s life”.
The Mental Health Bill 2013, which among other things seeks to decriminalise suicide attempts presuming that a person suffers from mental illness at the time of attempting to kill self unless proved otherwise, was passed in Rajya Sabha during the Monsoon Session earlier this month. When passed, it would amend Section 309 of the IPC which came into being in 1860.
Advocate and Lok Sabha MP Meenakshi Lekhi termed the government’s move to bring the bill as “positive and liberal step” and said that the measure provided for rehabilitation of a person, having mental illness and who attempted to suicide, to reduce the risk of recurrence of such incidents.
However, she held a different view on whether the right to life also included the right to die, saying the life guaranteed under the Constitution does not include right to die as “any violent act which ends a life amounts to murder.”
On this count, Tulsi said, “The constitutional right to live with dignity also gives the right to die with dignity”.
While supporting the Bill, senior advocate Rebecca John had a slightly different take as she questioned the “conditional decriminalisation” of the offence, saying it was “not at all adequate”, reflecting “lack of understanding” on the legislature’s part about emotional state of a human being.
Lekhi said those who attempt suicide were mentally ill as human beings “possess a survival instinct” which prevents them from taking own life.
John was of the view that suicide attempts should be completely decriminalised without any condition that the person ought to be mentally ill, because such a step is taken by an individual due to “momentary weakness in mental strength” and need not be suffering from any mental ailment.
She said that section 309 was “archaic and outdated” and several high courts of the country had repeatedly asked Parliament to strike it down.
Tulsi on the other hand said the government’s decision to decriminalise the offence of attempt to suicide “was a good move” as there have been no convictions till date under section 309 of IPC.
He also said it was “ironical” that if a person failed to kill himself, then the State will prosecute him under the IPC provision. “We have every right to be custodian of our body. The person who takes his life is not a criminal in technical sense,” Tulsi said.
Onus to prove that a person who attempts to suicide is suffering from mental illness at the time of attempting and shall not be liable to punished under the said section always lies on the State, not on the accused, Tulsi said.
Shanti Bhushan explained that a person commits suicide for various reasons “which we won’t be able to understand as sometime he/she is neglected in such a manner from the society that one can only think of ending his/her life.”
Referring to a recent suicide by a law student from Amity University, John said that had the student survived, then to prosecute him for “momentary weakness in mental strength” would be “very cruel”.
She said that in a criminal prosecution, the onus would be on the accused to prove that he/she was suffering from mental illness, but said the level of proof required from such a person, who is in a “vulnerable and emotionally pressurised” state, amounts to “insanity”.
She said that instead of “promptly prosecuting” such a person, who is in a state of depression, more compassion should be shown towards the individual and an attempt should be made to rehabilitate him or her.
Advocate Chetan Anand said a person who is ready to take his/her own life is already emotionally down and mentally not in a condition to think what is right or wrong.
“Hence, my view on decriminalisation of Section 309 is valid as the person should not be put to further emotional or mental trauma by punishing him/her and rather treat the individual so he/she can get back to life.
“The idea behind a prison is not only to punish a convict but also to correct the prisoner and that’s why they are also called ‘correction centres’ to make them realise the purpose of life and society and to stop a person to commit crimes in society,” he added.
“An attempt to commit suicide is not a crime committed by the person for which he should be punished but to treat him and make him believe in himself and live his life to the fullest,” Anand said.