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The Dilemma of S. 309, IPC: Attempt to Commit Suicide

Suicide is not a crime under the code. It's only the attempt to commit suicide which is a punishable offence. In other words, if a person succeeds then he couldn't be brought within the purview of the law. This section is based on the principle that 'the life of men is not only valuable to person himself but also to the state'. The state is under an obligation to prevent people from taking their own lives as it prevents murder of another.

Section 309 Attempt to Commit Suicide states that:

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 fine, or with both.

A key ingredient of this section is 'intention' of the offender. Suicide must be intentional self-destruction of life. Danger to life caused by mistake, intoxication, negligence or distraction is not to be considered under this section. Hence, Attempt must be intentional.

Alarming increase in Suicide cases
Due to the impact of Globalization, Materialism, Consumerism has led to increase in the expectation and standard of living of the people which evidently has increased- depression and anxiety, both of which are mainly responsible for boom in the number of suicide or at least attempt of it.  As per recent study it has been revealed that around 1.2 lakh people end their lives every year in India by committing suicide. Besides that more than 4 lakh people attempt to commit suicide.

And majority of these people are suffering from some kind of mental disorder or depression, addiction, and alcoholism. Over 7.5% of Indian Population is facing some kind of mental problem, of which 1.75% needs institutional intervention.

According to Health Ministry figures, over 9 lakh women in India need treatment for mental illness. Of those, nearly 2,80,000 are of 10-29 age group and around 2,50,000 of 30-50 group. It is also a fact the women attempt to commit suicide is much more than men and men usually becomes successful more often in their attempts.

According to the figures of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the number of suicide cases had increased around 27.7% in just 10 years from 1995 to 2005. This alarming rise in the number of suicide indicates that frustration, depression and anxiety are leading the population to take such extreme step such as killing oneself.

Right to Life Vis-a -vis Right not to Die-A Constitutional Dilemma
It is question of constitutionality and not just of morality. Section 309 seeks to punish a man who has failed in his attempt to commit suicide. This question was first answered by the Bombay High Court in the famous case of Maruti Shripati Dubal.

In this case Bombay HC struck down section 309 as it was ultra vires and Article 21 guarantees 'Right to Life and Personal Liberty'. The court held that Right to Life also includes Right to end one's life if one desires so. Justice PB Sawant said:

However, In Chenna Jagadeeshwar, Andhra High Court upheld the constitutionality of section 309 of IPC. Court also made said that Right to Life doesn't necessarily include Right to Kill Oneself which is an offence under IPC.

These opposite judgement created a very peculiar situation in the legal society. Later on, In the case of P Rathinam/Nagbhusan Patnaik (1994), a bench of Supreme Court gave its ruling on this matter. The Apex Court upheld the verdict of Delhi and Bombay High Court and overruled the Andhra HC ruling. It was contended by the petitioners that the validity of section 309 is in violation of Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution. Apex court called Section 309 as cruel and irrational provision which is violative of Article 21of the Constitution while striking it down.

While extending the scope of Article 21, the court upheld that Right to Life includes Right not to live a forced life. The Court also said that a person who attempts to commit suicide doesn't deserve to be persecuted and punished for his/her failure. They require soft words, wise counselling with a psychiatrist and positive attitude rather than stony dealing by a jailor following harsh treatment.

Then came the Judgement of Gian Kaur v State of Punjab (1996). For this case, a five-member constitutional bench, comprising of JS Verma, GN Ray, NP Singh, Faizauddin and GT Nanawati, was formed. The Bench over-ruled its decision in the case of P Rathinam/Nagbhusan Patnaik (1994).

The Apex court held Section 309, IPC as constitutional and said that Right to die is not a part of Article 21. Extinction of life is not included in protection of life. Also, The Right to die with human dignity cannot be construed to include the right to terminate one's natural life within its ambit.

'Right to life' is a natural right embodied in Article 21, but Suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life and therefore incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of the Right to life

Section 309:
IPC has only provided the maximum sentence which is up to one year. It also provided for imposition of fine only or both.

Is hunger strike an attempt to suicide?
According to Collins dictionary:
If someone goes on hunger strike or goes on a hunger strike, they refuse to eat as a way of protesting about something.

This case present great difficulty in determining the intention of the hunger strike; whether it is to kill oneself or simply to force the authorities to fulfil his demands. If the answer is affirmative, i.e. intends to kill himself then the accused will be liable under s.309. If not, then it doesn't fall under the purview of s.309.

In Ram Sundar  v State (1962), the accused was charged under s.309 by resorting to hunger strike. The accused admitted that he has gone on a hunger strike but denied that he had intended fasting unto death. The court, however, did not believe his defence and reached the conclusion that the accused actually meant to fast unto death unless his demands were met.
Allahabad High Court said:
"If a person openly declares that he will fast unto death and then proceeds to refuse all nourishment until the stage is reached when he may collapse any moment, then there is imminent danger of death ensuring and he would be guilty of an attempted suicide under section 309, IPC"�

The author is of the opinion that giving punishment for attempted Suicide is a monstrous act. To inflict further pain who found his life so unbearable and chances of happiness so slender that he decided to end it or to incur pain and death in order to end his life.

It is high time that s.309 be repealed from penal code. It has lost its utility in the present day of tension and stress. Even countries like USA, UK, Canada, and other European countries has already abolished the punishment for the act of Suicide.

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