(C)laws of the Land: Plight of suicide attempt survivors

Artwork by Gourango Sarkar

In a society like ours, which sees an act as an end in itself without venturing into the wisdom of the contributory reasons for that act, many are of the opinion that suicide (or its attempt) tantamount to ruining one’s life. A suicide attempt survivor is seen with an unsympathetic eye.

 

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” – Rousseau

India chose to be a “welfare state” some 66 years ago with a promises of removing tears from every eye. In this view the fifth and sixth decades of our independence have been legendary when it comes to realising how those promises could never be realised. In the 15 years of these two decades so far, every year an average of 1.2 lakh Indians committed suicide.

“More than one lakh people (1,34,599) in the country lost their lives by committing suicide during 2010. This indicates an increase of 5.9% over the previous year (1,27,151). The number of suicides in the country during (2000–2010) has recorded an increase of 23.9%… The all-India rate of suicide (number of suicides per one lakh population) was 11.4 as compared to 10.9 in 2009,” says the National Crime Record Bureau’s report on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India-2011.

The fact that “3,130 children below 14 years (1,640 boys and 1,490 girls) committed suicide in 2010” speaks volumes about the seriousness of the issue.

These figures, apart from raising many serious questions about our policies and the nature and notion of out welfare state, also point a finger at inefficiency and indifference of the society in addressing the issue.

In this article I will focus solely on the issue of the plight of the suicide attempt survivors under the law and not suicide per se.

Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) reads:

“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 up to one year or fine, or with both.”

In a society like ours, which sees an act as an end in itself without venturing into the wisdom of the contributory reasons for that act, many are of the opinion that suicide (or its attempt) tantamount to ruining one’s life. A suicide attempt survivor is seen with an unsympathetic eye.

Attempt to suicide is definitely an act of shame for humanity and its principles. It is an act that demands mourning (both for the individual and the phenomenon) but should it necessarily be bracketed as a crime? Yes, we must strive in unison to outwit ‘suicide’ but we should not tag its ‘attempt’ as a legal offence. Because, by doing so, those who fortunately escape from the jaws of death will now be tagged as criminals, with their names registered in the criminal records forever – a burden that they will have to bear for the rest of their lives.

By criminalising it, will that person not live under a heavier burden than ever before? Will this tag (and the shadow it casts) not instigate him to do the same again, and reduce his chances of recovering life again? Is this what we intend? Is this what the union and the law of the land aspire for? The answer has to be a big no. The union and the law want them to live as dignified citizens and not as criminals. All mistakes need not necessarily be crimes—at times you need to handle them with emotions and sympathy and not legislation.

A supreme court bench of justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra, in 2011 noted that “the time has come when it (Section- 309 IPC) should be deleted by parliament as it has become anachronistic… we recommend to parliament to consider the feasibility of deleting Section 309 from the IPC.”

The 210th Report of the Law Commission of India titled ‘Humanisation and Decriminalisation of Attempt to Suicide’ says,

“It needs mention here that only a handful of countries in the world, like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and India have persisted with this undesirable law…it is felt that attempt to suicide may be regarded more as a manifestation of a diseased condition of mind deserving treatment and care rather than an offence to be visited with punishment.”

The Delhi High Court in State vs Sanjay Kumar Bhatia, a case under Section 309 of IPC, observed: “Instead of the society hanging its head in shame that there should be such social strains that a young man (the hope of tomorrow) should be driven to suicide compounds its inadequacy by treating the boy as a criminal. It is ironic that Section 309 of the IPC still continues to be on our Penal Code. The result is that a young boy driven to such frustration so as to seek one’s own life would have escaped human punishment if he had succeeded but is to be hounded by the police because his attempt failed.”

It would be helpful to listen to somebody who has undergone the trauma.

“The way society treats you after your failed suicide attempt has a great role in determining the future course of your journey. Even though my family never mentioned it to me, neighbours gave me a nasty glare whenever I crossed them,” says  Nikhil Gupta (name changed), a second year student in the Delhi University.

He further adds, “behind my back they would say, look he tried to commit suicide…what a disgrace he is to his family. Now when I look back upon my life, it is not the attempt that scares me, what scares is the treatment I was subjected to after the failed attempt. It does a lot of psychological hampering and you start cursing yourself all again. You sometime even think of a second attempt.”

In Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court observed: “If the purpose of the punishment for attempted suicide is to prevent the prospective suicides by deterrence, the same is not achieved by punishing those who have attempted, as no deterrence is going to hold back those who want to die for a social or political cause or to leave the world either because of the loss of interest in life or for self-deliverance”.

One of the main arguments forwarded by the proponents of section 309 IPC is that attempt to suicide is an unnatural act i.e. against the order of nature and hence an offence. But the very term ‘order of nature’ is a relative one. There is no unanimity to either its interpretation or its manifestation. What may appear in the natural order in one instance may not be the same in other.

It is important that we understand that suicide is not a choice but a compulsion. It is never a voluntary action. It is not something that one does with great pomp and joy. (Artwork by Gourango Sarkar)

 

The Bombay High Court further supports this argument in its observation that “the means adopted for ending one’s life may be unnatural varying from starvation to strangulation. But the desire which leads one to resort to the means is not unnatural. Suicide or an attempt to commit suicide is not a feature of a normal life. It is an incident of abnormality or of an extraordinary situation or of an uncommon trait of personality. Abnormality and uncommonality are not unnatural merely because they are exceptional.”

It is important that we understand that suicide is not a choice but a compulsion. It is never a voluntary action. It is not something that one does with great pomp and joy. It is always an involuntary and reflexive action wherein the individual has the least and often no control over his mind. He/she is governed by the environment around and the never-ending psychological webs.

Let us not analyse things from a second person’s viewpoint because then we can’t really attach ourselves to the agony that the victim suffers from. We need to approach it the way the victim was thinking at that instant. Otherwise, our quest for the solution will result in a series of hysteria wherein we will be focusing solely on the ethos of morality and legality and not practicality.

In its 42nd report submitted in 1971, the Law Commission of India, recommended repeal of section 309. Consequently the Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 1978, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha, advocated the removal of the said section. Ironically, it could not be passed by the Lok Sabha as it was dissolved the same year and the bill lapsed.

Section 309 may be constitutionally sound, as declared in the Gain Kaur case, but the larger question that demands answering is: is it humane too? Also, we need to understand that what is constitutionally correct may not be morally and ethically correct as well.

In this context, the Law Commission in its 210th report points out that, “The supreme court in the case of Gian Kaur focused on the constitutionality of Section 309. It did not go into the wisdom of retaining or continuing the same in the statute.”

If we carefully observe why people commit suicide it does appear that most of them are driven out of frustration over their mad, sad and bad state of life, which consequently perpetuates a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness; a downtrodden mind and the ever engulfing and expectant society, casting a lingering glare, often resembling that of a scavenger.  At times these reasons, in summation, are ponderous enough for a mortal’s mind to digest them all. It may just swallow them and not chew; and when it does swallow, they choke him down to oblivion thus devouring his physical frame.

Even though the person concerned is to be blamed (in some content), he is not to be prosecuted. The environment around and the norms and perceptions of the society do play a major role in it… they catalyse the act.

Let’s hope that we will be able to repeal this section and combat this menace with a more mature, flexible, tolerant, and productive approach. Shouldn’t we?

  • (This article was published in Governance Now magazine on April 16, 2013.)

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