Suicide and its Legal Journey in Indian Laws
Suicide under Indian Laws

In this detailed law note, you’ll learn more about the legal validity of suicide under various Indian Laws, namely the Constitution and the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Definition of Suicide

The term suicide has not been defined anywhere in the Indian Penal Code, 1860. It is the human act of self-inflicted or self-intentioned cessation (ending). In simpler words, it is an act of self-murder or killing oneself.

Suicide is synonymous with the destruction of the self by oneself or the intentional destruction of one’s life. If a person intentionally attempts to end his life, his act will be termed suicide. Thus, mens rea is one of the essential ingredients of this offence.

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Attempt to Suicide Under IPC

Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code declares that attempting suicide is a punishable offence, and the survivor will be punished accordingly.

It says, “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.”

The essential ingredients of section 309 of IPC are:
1. The person must have been unsuccessful in an attempt to commit suicide.
2. The act of attempt must be intentional and not by mistake or accident.

Constitutionality of Section 309 IPC

1. In 1970-71, the 42nd Law Commission Report suggested for deletion of section 309 of IPC.

2. In 1978, the then central government accepted the suggestion given in the 42nd Law Commission Report. A bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha but, it lapsed because the house lost its majority.

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3. In 1985, in the case of State vs Sanjay Kumar Bhatia, the Delhi High Court held that section 309 of the Indian Penal Code was unworthy of human society.

4. In 1987, in the case of the State of Maharashtra vs Maruti Satpati Dubal, the Bombay High Court held section 309 IPC to be ultra vires as it violates Article 14 and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The court further observed that freedom to remain silent exists concurrently with freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. Then there also exists the right to die, concurrently with the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The desire to die is not unnatural, so there exists a right to die under Article 21.

5. Again, in the case of Chenna Jageshwar vs The State of Andhra Pradesh, the Andhra Pradesh High Court upheld the constitutionality of section 309 IPC and stated that the right to life doesn’t include the right to die under Article 21.

Must Read: Is the Right to Die a Fundamental Right

6. Finally, the tussle between the conflicting judgments of various High Courts was resolved by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of India, by a two-judge bench in the case of P. Ratiram vs Union of India, upheld the decision given by the Delhi High Court and declared section 309 IPC unconstitutional. The court said that this section again punishes a person who had already suffered agony as a result of which such person attempted suicide. Further, it said that the right to life includes the right not to live a forced life.

7. Further, in 1996, in the case of Gyan Kaur vs the State of Punjab, the Supreme Court of India, by a five-judge bench, overruled its previous judgment of P. Rathiram and held section 309 constitutional. The court said that the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution did not include the right to die or the right to be killed. Thus, an attempt to commit suicide under section 309 of IPC is not void or ultra vires.

8. In 2011, the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Aruna Shanbaug vs Union of India and Others, allowed passive euthanasia as the only ground to terminate one’s life and issued its guidelines. Further, the court asked the parliament to consider the decriminalisation of suicide.

What Is Euthanasia?

The word ‘Euthanasia’ is derived from the Greek word Euthanatos, where Eu means good and Thanatos means death. Putting together, the combined word means good death.

It is defined as ‘the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma.’ It can also be called ‘Mercy killing’ or ‘Assisted suicide.’

Types of Euthanasia

Euthanasia is of two types, namely:

1. Active Euthanasia: The positive act or affirmative action or act of commission entailing the use of a lethal substance or force to cause the intentional death of a person by direct intervention.

2. Passive Euthanasia: Negative euthanasia or non-aggressive euthanasia defines as entailing withholding of medical treatment for continuance of life, for example, withholding of antibiotics where without giving it a patient is likely to die.

In India, the right to life does not include the right to die. But it provides for the right to die with dignity that is facilitated by passive euthanasia only and in certain circumstances allowed with the permission of the court.

The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017

In the light of Aruna Shanbaug vs Union of India and Others judgment, parliament passed a law called the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. The fundamental aim of parliament is to decriminalise the attempt to commit suicide.

Section 115(1) of this Act says:

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 such an attempt to commit suicide.

Thus according to the Mental Health Care Act, it’s presumed that a person who attempts to commit suicide is under severe stress unless it is proven otherwise. Thus, the survivor will be provided with treatment and rehabilitation by the central government to prevent any recurrence of an attempt to commit suicide.

However, in 2014, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court termed the judgment of the Aruna Shanbaug to be inconsistent in itself and referred the issue to a five-judge constitutional bench.

Common Cause vs Union of India, AIR 2018 SC

The constitutional bench led by the then chief justice of India, Dipak Mishra, upheld that the fundamental right to life and dignity includes the right to refuse treatment and die without suffering.

The court also observed that the fundamental right to a meaningful existence includes the person’s choice to die without suffering. The court, in the instant case, gave a new concept of ‘living will’ apart from passive euthanasia.

What Is Living Will?

A living will or advance directive is a document that a person writes in his normal state of mind seeking passive euthanasia if they reach an irreversible vegetative state in case of a terminal illness.

Essential Ingredients of the Living Will

1. The document of ‘living will’ shall be made by a person of sound mind without any coercion, undue influence, fraud, or misrepresentation.

2. The document shall be executed before a first-class magistrate and in the presence of at least two impartial witnesses.

3. The document shall indicate the intention of the maker as to when medical treatment may be withdrawn or no specific medical treatment will be given to him.

4. The document should specify the name of the guardian or the close relative who will be authorised to give consent to refuse or to withdraw medical treatments.

The Legality of Suicide in India – Conclusion

The Supreme Court of India overruled the judgment given by the Bombay High Court in Maruti Shripati Dubal vs The State of Maharashtra and P. Rathinam vs Union of India, wherein section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, was held unlawful.

The court maintained the judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in Chenna Jagadishwar vs The State of Andhra Pradesh and Gyan Kaur vs The State of Punjab that holds that section 309 of the IPC was not violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. Accordingly, it cannot be declared null and void.

The hypothesis of utilitarianism given by Sir John Bentham is based on the principle of Pleasure and Pain. Thus, by attempting suicide, the joy is gotten exclusively by one individual who ends his life to escape from the existential stress. However, the agony is caused to numerous citizenry who are reliant upon the individual who has ended his life.

On the other hand, one may also argue that, yes, suicide is not a common feature of life, but, at the same time, if someone is unable to take care of his body or has lost all his senses and intentionally desire to quit the world; then it would be morally wrong to compel such a person to continue with torture and pain in his life.

What do you think?

Ritesh Kumar
WritingLaw » Law Notes » Suicide Under the Indian Constitution and IPC Law Study Material
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