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Is attempt to suicide punishable? Two laws have opposing views, SC seeks govt’s response

Supreme Court asks govt's view on conflict between IPC Section 309 which criminalises attempt to suicide and the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 which bars prosecution.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Friday sought to know the central government’s stance on the conflict between Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalises attempt to suicide and the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 (MHCA), which bars prosecution of a person trying to take their own life under severe mental stress.

A bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde observed that the MHCA negates Section 309 of the IPC. CJI Bobde also said one cannot presume the intentions behind a suicide and asked Attorney General K.K. Venugopal to assist the court on the issue.

The bench was virtually hearing a PIL filed by animal activist Sangeeta Dogra, who sought directions to ensure prevention of suicide attempts by people who threw themselves inside animal enclosures in zoos.

Dogra showed a picture of an elephant that was chained after a man deliberately entered its enclosure. The bench reacted to this by saying that it cannot stop people from “jumping into the dens of animals”.

It later went on to order, “This is a plea seeking for directions in an attempt to suicide by people by throwing themselves into an animal enclosure. An attempt to commit suicide is punishable offence under Section 309 of IPC. However, we find that Section 115 of the Mental Healthcare Act adversely impacts Section 309 of IPC.”

The bench tagged the petition with another pending matter where the constitutional validity of Section 309 IPC has been challenged.

Also read: On World Suicide Prevention Day, a look at the mental health crisis brought on by pandemic

‘Not always that a person committing suicide is under stress’

While the bench was hearing deliberations over the PIL, CJI Bobde digressed to speak on the conflict between the two laws. He asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta whether there can be a blanket presumption on intentions behind suicides.

“It is not always that a person who is committing suicide is under extreme stress or is of unsound mind. Some priests and monks have killed themselves in protest and they were found to be in complete calmness of mind,” the CJI said.

He also spoke about the practice of Santhara (a religious ritual of voluntary death by fasting) among Jains. “There are also people who do Santhara. The intention of Santhara is to not commit suicide, but to liberate yourself from this miserable world.”

Saying that a blanket presumption of stress is made in cases of suicide attempts, Bobde then issued a notice to the government.

Former additional solicitor general A.S. Nadkarni was appointed as amicus curiae in the matter.

Debate over IPC Section 309 

Friday’s order is likely to renew the debate over retention of Section 309 in the rule book. The British-era law was promulgated when killing or attempting to kill oneself was considered a crime against the state.

Mental health experts have been demanding removal of IPC Section 309, ever since MHCA was enforced in July 2018. MHCA has virtually made suicide attempts punishable only as an exception.

Reports of Section 309’s use by police forces across the country, however, suggest that the restrictions put on its use have not been enough.

The Law Commission has twice, in 1971 and 2008, recommended the repeal of IPC Section 309. The IPC (Amendment) Bill, 1978, was even passed by the Rajya Sabha. But the Parliament had dissolved before it could be passed by the Lok Sabha and the Bill lapsed.

In March 2011, the Supreme Court also recommended that the Parliament should consider the feasibility of deleting this Section. In 2018 again, a bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud had observed that it was inhuman to punish a distressed person who failed to end her or his life by suicide.

These two observations (2011 and 2018) came after a 1996 Constitution bench judgment upheld the validity of Section 309.

Also read: Suicide helplines go unanswered in India. Or you get untrained volunteers


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