Suicide Laws in India
A recent look at the suicide prevention laws in India and the avenues
available for mental health in light of the National Suicide Prevention
Day on 10th September. The MHCA has alleviated some of the stigma
around suicide and its criminalization.
The rate at which suicide has been increasing in the country has been staggering off late, with the numbers increasing steadily since 2016. Post this year the number of suicides in India has increased to a number of 230,314 in total, making suicide one of the most common causes of death in the nation. The age groups wherein such a tragedy occurs is seen to be between15-39. With mounting stress and lack of awareness, especially with the taboo associated with suicide and mental health, this phenomenon has only become more rampant.
It has been documented that nearly 800,000 people die by suicide all over the world each year out of which 135,000 persons, which constitutes about 17%, are residents of India, a nation which accounts for about 17.5% of the total world population. Historical data suggests that between 1987 and 2007, the rate of suicide has even increased from 7.9 to 10.3 per 100,000 person with higher suicide rates in the southern and eastern states of India. With laws for punishment for suicide and a further lack of awareness, this number has been increasing at an alarming rate with the legislation doing very little to combat mental illness in the country.
As far as legislation goes, section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, deals with attempt to committing suicide. Attempt to commit suicide states that whoever attempts to commit suicide or tries to undertake any act towards the commission of such an offence, will be punished under the law with imprisonment which lasts for a term which may extend up till a year or with a fine or with both.
However, due to the highly controversial aspect of this law and with new awareness for mental health issues and the normalisation of the same, this Section has come under the scrutiny for many humanitarian reasons. Even back in 1996, a debate had arisen in the case of Gian Kaur V State of Punjab wherein it had been argued that the basic premise of section 309 of the IPC violated Article 21 of the Indian constitution that stated that each and every person had the right to live. Hence, based on this right it was further argued that if an individual possesses the right to live, then such an individual also possessed the right to terminate his own life. However, this premise was not taken well and it had been immediately struck down believing that there cannot be any attribution to constitutionality over this argument, which thereby made it invalid and void under the law.
The controversy with regards to IPC Section 309
- Many different observations and theories come to mind when we analyse the constitutionality of Section 309 of the IPC and what causes a greater dilemma is that this section comes under section 309 under the category of crimes as defined under Chapter XVI of offences, which affect the human body. Thus, suicide has also been brought within the ambit of such bodily crimes.
- The argument put forth for the support of this is that human life is not just of value to the individual but to that state which protects and values it as well. However, this premise of comparing human life with the property of state was not taken to very well and was regarded as pathetic.
- Therefore, any form of punishment rendered for the attempt of suicide will only result in further deterioration of the mental health of such an individual leading to further catastrophic repercussions. The psychological, mental and physical state of such an individual need to be assessed medically and any individual who has had a chemical imbalance of the brain to the degree to which he ends up taking his own life, needs more medication and counseling to regain life’s natural tendency towards self-preservation rather than further punishment for attempting the same.
The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017
The Mental Healthcare Act had been enacted on 7th April 2017, with a view to provide protection and much needed respite to individuals suffering from any mental illnesses which have become as common as the common cold now. The main point of enacting this has been to spread much needed awareness that any attempt on one’s own life is the result of a psychiatric problem wherein the dopamine and serotonin levels of the brain decrease to such an extent that it leads to an imbalance causing severe depression and downward spiralling thoughts. It is important to note that such a condition occurs due to repeated emotional abuse, which, in turn, causes such a chemical reaction or disruption which can and must only be cured through good medication, support and counselling. Attaching taboo to this medical issue is akin to attaching taboo to a common cold or a fever. Everything occurs as a symptom of the condition inside the body. Section 115 mentions about the presumption of severe stress in case of an attempt to suicide as mentioned below:
- Regardless of the provisions of section 309, of the Indian Penal Code, any individual who attempts to commit suicide must be presumed, unless otherwise proven, to have been under severe mental duress and stress and thus, shall not be liable to face any punishment for the same.
- It is the duty of the appropriate Government to provide care, treatment, and rehabilitation to this individual, having severe stress due to which he or she attempted to commit suicide. This is done to reduce the risk of recurrence of such an attempt to commit suicide again.
- Therefore, suicide has now been effectively decriminalised under the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. This Act has sought to view the accused as a victim of mental stress and who is temporarily incapacitated Therefore, it gives a different purview of the once considered offence of suicide.
- Furthermore, this is along the lines of the 210th Report of the Law Commission of India titled ’ Humanisation and Decriminalisation of Attempt to Suicide’. This report states that, Section 309 must be effaced from the statute book since this provision is inhumane, regardless of whether it is constitutional or not. Such a repeal of the law contained in Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code would end up saving more lives than what it has accomplished till date.
- Moreover, moving on to practicality, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and depression are simply a few of the various other mental disorders suffered by human beings across the world, some of which have worsened to other mental illnesses in addition due to negligence and lack of a proper support system.
The current status of Section 309 and the Punishment
- While the above Section has been decriminalised it still remains to be a part of the IPC and has not been repealed from the Code
- The change which has taken place, however, is that The Mental Healthcare Act (MHCA), 2017, which came into force in 2017, has significantly reduced the scope for the use of Section 309 IPC as a criminal offence and has only made the punishment under the said section an exception and not the actual law.
- As stated earlier, section 115(1) of The MHCA states that ‘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’
- Moreover, delving further, section 115(2) says that 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.
- Even though the above two sections make it seem like Section 309 is as good as repealed, this has not been the case.The restrictions put on the use of this section under the provisions of the MHCA, as opposed to the section being removed from the statute all together, do not seem to be enough simply because of continued reports of its use by police forces across the country.
- One recent instance states that a runaway couple allegedly attempted suicide at Ashoknagar police station in Bengaluru by consuming hair dye. However, the local media reported that they were booked under Section 309. Further, again an inmate at Gurgaon’s Bhondsi jail, who had allegedly tried to kill himself with a pair of scissors, was reported to have been booked under Section 309 of the IPC .
- Many senior police officers have also agreed to the fact that there is a huge lack of awareness amongst officers in the police about the relatively new MHCA and that they are more prone to follow the provisions under Section 309 of the IPC instead.
- Despite the above issue, the charges under Section 309 are often dropped subsequently, when other senior officials are taken into consideration. Hence, even though the Section has not been removed from the statute altogether, there are still protections available for this Act under the MHCA.
Suicide Prevention bodies and helplines in India
Over the years, a number of organizations, spreading awareness, helping and providing aid to persons suffering from mental illness have been established. Some of the noteworthy ones have been given below:
- Aasra: This is a Mumbai-based organisation, which has a 24x7 dedicated free helpline number, wherein professionally trained volunteers are available to answer the call. The volunteers can converse in both Hindi and English. Helpline Number: +91 98204 66726
- Fortis Stress Helpline: The Fortis 24x7 Stress Helpline number is available for students as well as parents who may have queries related to stress, mental well-being etc., related to exams and academics. A team of mental health specialists, who can converse in English as well as any regional Indian languages, from the hospital, are available at all times for help. It is even possible to contact them via email on firstname.lastname@example.org. Helpline Number: +9183768 04102
- Cooj Mental Health Foundation: Cooj is a Goa-based mental health organisation which provides both e-counselling as well as a suicide helpline number. They are available on call from Monday through Friday between 1 pm and 7 pm. For e-counselling, one can send an email to email@example.com. Helpline Number: +832 2252525
- ICall: ICall is an email and telephone-based counselling service established by Tata Institute of Social Sciences and they offer free services with the help of a team of qualified and trained mental health professionals. They are available Monday to Saturday between 8 am and 10 pm.
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