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In Quest Of Change: Suicide In India And The Law

Suicide is a complex and emotionally upsetting phenomenon that affects people individually, as well as in families and communities. There are many factors that can lead someone to take their own life, from social stigma to the inability to express their feelings to others. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for someone to feel burdened by societal stigmas in a place like India where there are so many of them.

Sometimes, these stigmas and preconceptions make people's life so terrible that the only option except enduring them is to give up and commit suicide. One may commit suicide for a variety of reasons, including loneliness, interpersonal or family problems, chronic illnesses, drug or alcohol misuse, financial hardship, mental illness, and other problems.

One of the top three reasons for death among young people around the world is suicide. The WHO estimates that each year, close to a million individuals try or die by suicide, giving the world's mortality rate of 16 per 100,000 people, or one death every 40 seconds, an average. In 1998, it was anticipated that suicide made up 1.8% of the total global burden of disease; it was also said that by 2020 was expected to rise to 2.4% in the market and in formerly socialist nations, with a reported suicide incidence of 10.6/100,000 in 2009, India is ranked 43rd overall (WHO suicide rates). [1]

India, which has a population of over a billion, struggles with a high number of suicide cases, despite difficulties in gathering and reporting data, statistics show a considerable prevalence, with India contributing significantly to global suicide deaths. These gloomy numbers emphasise the pressing need to address the root causes causing this disaster.

India has several different and connected factors that contribute to suicide. Social problems including poverty, unemployment, and financial hardship can make people feel more hopeless and depressed. Intense competitiveness and academic pressure, particularly among young people, add significant psychological stress. The vulnerabilities that women confront are further exacerbated by gender-based violence, discrimination, and cultural expectations, making them an especially vulnerable population.

Ancient writings and cultural ideas have also influenced suicide in some way in the Indian context. The Bhagavad Gita decries suicide as shameless, in contrast to the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, which glorify it. While historical customs like "sati" and "jahuar" and contemporary customs like "sallekhana" were common, the Vedas allow suicide for religious reasons. Modern India, however, is actively addressing mental health issues, lowering stigma, and offering help.

Legislations related to suicide in India:

India's suicide laws have changed significantly in recent years due to increased awareness of mental health issues and the requirement for humane approaches. Before 2018, the act of taking one's own life was a punishable offence under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which stated:

"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." [2]

Abolition of Section 309 was suggested by the Law Commission of India in its 42nd Report (1971), which criticised the penal statute as being "severe and unreasonable." Following the publication of the aforementioned Law Commission's Report, the Government of India adopted the recommendation, and the Rajya Sabha was presented with the Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 1972, which would repeal Section 309. The Rajya Sabha adopted the Bill in November 1978 with a few minor changes after the Bill was referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses and received its report. The Sixth Lok Sabha was dissolved in 1979 with the Bill still pending, hence it was no longer in effect.

The constitutional validity of Section 309

  • Section 309 of IPC in context with Article 21 of the Indian Constitution:
    According to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law".

    This article defines the right to life as the right to lead a purposeful, full, and dignified life. Its meaning is not constrained. The purpose of the fundamental right under Article 21 is to prevent any limitations on a person's personal freedom and deprivation of life by the State unless done so in accordance with a legal process. The term "personal liberty" is used most broadly in Article 21 and refers to a variety of rights that together make up a person's personal freedom. Some of these rights have been elevated to the status of separate basic rights and are further protected under Article 19.
It is debatable if Article 21's right to life also includes the option to die. [3]

State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripati Dubal was the first case in which the High Court of Bombay was asked to evaluate this issue. The Bombay High Court ruled that section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which punishes attempts at suicide by individuals, is unconstitutional in this case because it violates the right to life provided by Article 21.

The Mental Health Care Act, 2017 (enacted in 2018):

With the introduction of the Mental Health Act by the Health Ministry on May 29, 2017, the application section 309 has been restricted.

The provisions of the act (Section 115) states:
  1. 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.
  2. The appropriate Government shall have a duty to provide care, treatment and rehabilitation to a person, having severe stress and who attempted to commit suicide, to reduce the risk of recurrence of attempt to commit suicide. [4]

Now according to the new act passed in 2017, the government is required to offer rehabilitation, care, therapy, and treatment to anyone who attempts suicide in order to lower the likelihood that the same incident would happen again.

The client would receive free rehabilitation and therapy in any government-funded mental health facility. The 2017 act attempts to redefine mental disease and alter how people view mental health issues. It was put into place to align India's laws with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, with the goal of reforming the country's system of psychological medical care.

"Everyone has the right to have a dignified life. The act of 2017 states that there may not be any discrimination against the mentally ill person based on any factor, including gender, caste, class, social and political beliefs, religion, culture, etc. This is because the provisions attempt to put the mentally ill person on an equal footing with the physically ill in terms of healthcare.

This law supports the right of people with mental illnesses to live in, participate in, and not be excluded from society. The Act of 2017 has generally been welcomed with the hope that, with sufficient consideration, it will ensure the intellectually ill have the opportunity to live in dignity and foster dialogue about mental health treatment. This would contribute to the eradication of the stigma associated with psychological illness.

Decriminalisation of attempt of suicide:

Suicide is frequently seen as a result of severe psychological suffering and problems with one's mental health. Treating it as a crime violates the person's right to autonomy and dignity furthering the stigma associated with mental health difficulties. Decriminalisation enables a more empathetic approach to people who attempt suicide. It makes it possible to change the emphasis from punishing them legally to giving them the appropriate mental health help and care.

People who fear legal repercussions may be discouraged from seeking assistance as a result of criminalization. People are more likely to seek help when the criminal element is removed, creating a climate where mental health support is available and encouraged. Decriminalisation makes it possible to look more closely at the underlying causes of suicide, such as socioeconomic difficulties, interpersonal conflicts, or mental health issues.

Thanks to this, the emphasis can be shifted from punishment to prevention and intervention. Decriminalisation can open the door for better mental health advocacy by promoting more understanding, education, and de-stigmatisation. It can start discussions on the value of national mental health support systems and the requirement for easily accessible mental health services.

It is crucial to understand that decriminalisation does not imply minimising or downplaying the gravity of suicide. Instead, it enables a more sympathetic and all-encompassing strategy that emphasises assistance, prevention, and addressing the underlying mental health issues. Although there are arguments for decriminalising suicide, it's vital to take into account the other side as well. Criminalization serves as a disincentive to stop people from trying to commit suicide. Some people would be discouraged from taking such dramatic measures by the threat of legal repercussions, which could give them time to contemplate and prompt them to seek assistance or rethink their choice.

Suicide being treated as a crime enables the government to step in and save the person's life. It allows them to take prompt action to stop self-harm, offer urgent medical care, and assure the person's safety. Decriminalisation may unintentionally promote imitation, particularly among weaker people swayed by sensationalised incidents. Criminalization serves to deter imitation and advance a culture that recognises the significance and seriousness of self-harm and encourages a spirit of prudence. Some people contend that God, the ultimate creator, alone has the authority to decide who lives and who dies. They frequently quote Deuteronomy 32:39 (KJV) from the Holy Bible:

"See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: Neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand." [5]

The idea that only God has the power to decide whether life should die or be preserved is encapsulated in this verse. It emphasises God's omnipotence in giving and taking life, as well as the knowledge that nothing outside of him can hinder his plans. These people use this scripture to argue against suicide because they believe it violates God's sovereignty and is against His divine design. Instead of taking issues into one's own hands, they contend that it is crucial to seek God's healing and restoration and to put our trust in His wisdom.

In conclusion, it is critical to grasp the value of empathy, understanding, and extensive support systems as we negotiate the difficulties of suicide in India and its legal requirements. While there are legitimate reasons for and against decriminalisation, in my opinion, a more humanitarian approach should be used.

Decriminalisation can lessen the stigma associated with suicide by enabling people to receive the support and care they require without worrying about facing legal ramifications. It enables us to concentrate on early detection, prevention, and resolving the underlying mental health issues that fuel suicide ideation. We can foster an environment where people in need are more likely to ask for assistance by putting a priority on mental health advocacy, awareness, and access to resources.

Decriminalisation by itself, though, is not a cure-all. It should be supported by a strong mental health infrastructure, campaigns to reduce stigma, and educational programmes. To guarantee a comprehensive strategy that addresses the complex issues surrounding suicide, cooperation between legal authorities, mental health specialists, and community organisations is crucial.

In the end, our shared objective should be to promote a society that respects and safeguards every life, promotes mental health, and offers effective crisis interventions. We can work towards a future where the burden of suicide is lessened and people can receive the help, compassion, and hope they need to get through their worst moments by fusing legal reforms with comprehensive mental health measures.

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