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A Matter of Life and Death:

A Matter of Life and Death:

By Tanya Kumbhat

A quick glance at the daily papers would leave many puzzled , everyday lakhs of people – old, young, married, unmarried, disabled, make a decision that affects not just them but everyone who ever knew them. What most people don’t know is that ‘suicide’ in India is treated as a crime. Suicide is directly related to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, that talks about the right to live with dignity. Incidentally eminent Sociologist Emile Durkheim put forward a thesis describing suicide as not an individual act but being influenced by society as a whole. He classified different types of suicides on the basis of different types of relationship between the actor and his society.

Classification of suicide

a. Egoistic suicide: He referred to this type of suicide as the result of “excessive individuation” where the individual becomes increasingly detached from other members of his community.  These individuals are essentially loners, not bound to any social group and have no adherence to traditions and goals.

b. Altruistic suicide: Where the individual is overwhelmed by the group’s goals and beliefs. Individual interest and goals takes a tertiary position. Hunger strikers who starve themselves to death fall into this category. Suicide bombers would also fall into this category

c. Anomic suicide:  Moral confusion and lack of social direction, which is related to dramatic social and economic upheaval and lack of definition of legitimate aspirations through a restraining social ethic, which could impose meaning and order on the individual conscience.. This leads to a perpetual state of dejection.

d. Fatalistic suicide:  this is just the reverse of “anomic suicide”. Here the individual suffers from excessive regulation by society.

In India, attempting suicide is a criminal offence under Section 309 of the IPC with a punishment of up to one year in jail and a fine. The section reads:

“Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence shall be punished with simple imprisonment for term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both.  “

The offence is bailable, non-compoundable and triable by any Magistrate.  We find that many instances of failed suicide attempts have revealed an utter lack of criminal intent or any pre-meditated motive. Most of the times, it simply turns out to be frustration or anger or pain against someone or something which make a person take his own life. The so called “criminal intent” is often lacking and hard to attribute unless the person dying would have planned to benefit somehow or someone.

Perhaps religion had influenced this legislation as the act of suicide is forbidden in the Quran and the Holy Bible. The common belief among the Hindus is that a person who commits suicide will not attain “moksha” and his soul wanders around earth, haunting and tormenting people. Also Article 21 of the constitution of India is a provision guaranteeing the protection of life and liberty thus by attempting suicide, a citizen derides this provision as the article clearly meant to uphold the dignity of human life and the state strives to do so, in theory.

Studies such as a 2007 report in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Lakshmi Vijaykumar, who runs a suicide prevention network called ‘Sneha’ in the southern Indian city of Chennai, said that making suicide illegal has proved counterproductive.“Emergency care to those who have attempted suicide is denied as many hospitals and practitioners hesitate to provide the needed treatment fearful of legal hassles,” she wrote in the report.

The Law Commission in its report in 2008 had recommended decriminalisation of Section 309, saying: “It is unreasonable to inflict punishment upon a person who, on account of family discord, destitution, loss of a dear relation or other cause of a like nature, overcomes the interest of self-preservation and decides to take his own life. In such a case, the unfortunate person deserves. Though a Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 1972 to de-criminalise the provision, it was not ratified by the Lok Sabha as the House was dissolved in 1979 and has lapsed since then. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said repeatedly that criminalisation of suicide prevents people from seeking treatment. It also focuses on censure and assignment of fault, rather than locating the financial, social or medical reasons for it.

Although one problem with the decriminalisation of suicide that has been pointed out, is the question of abetment of suicide. If suicide isn’t a crime, is helping someone do it not one either? Then the cases of women who kill themselves because of dowry pressures from in-laws and husbands will be invalid.The second implication is that there would be a tendency to prove that it was done at the insistence of the person concerned. This gains relevance in the kind of cases a victim then might, under the force of social pressure, be compelled to say that they attempted suicide of their own volition.

The solution to this kind of problem needs to be sensitive and well-thought of. Corrective measures rather than punitive could be the possible answer. Compulsory counselling of such victims in all hospitals, monitoring such individuals , decreasing the stigmatization, encouragement of self-help groups can be better alternatives. Last year, the government drafted a bill to decriminalize the act of attempting suicide but it hasn’t yet been introduced for discussion in Parliament.   59 countries of the world have decriminalised attempted suicide and it is time that India does the same considers and modifies it’s stand on the issue.

Tanya Kumbhat currently in her second year at Christ University pursuing a B.A degree in Economics, Political Science and Sociology. The biggest dream of her life is to learn something new every day so that at the end of her journey ,she can look back at a colourful and knowledgeable life. She is a voracious reader and is interested in current events. To start an interesting conversation, she can be contacted at [email protected]

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