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Report No. 210

2. Constitutionality and Desirabilty of Section 309, IPC

2.1. The constitutionality of section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 has been the subject matter of challenge several times before the Supreme Court and High Courts.

2.2.1. Article 14 of the Constitution provides for equality before law and reads as under:

"The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India."

2.2.2. Article 21 of the Constitution provides for protection of life and personal liberty and reads as under:

"No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."

2.3. It will be apposite to first note the following observation of the Delhi High Court in State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia, 1985 Cr LJ 931, a case under section 309, IPC:

"A young man has allegedly tried to commit suicide presumably because of over emotionalism. It is ironic that Section 309 I.P.C. still continues to be on our Penal Code. The result is that a young boy driven to such frustration so as to seek one's own life would have escaped human punishment if he had succeeded but is to be hounded by the police, because attempt has failed. Strange paradox that in the age of votaries of Euthanasia, suicide should be criminally punishable.

Instead of the society hanging its head in shame that there should be such social strains that a young man (the hope of tomorrow) should be driven to suicide compounds its inadequacy by treating the boy as a criminal. Instead of sending the young boy to psychiatric clinic it gleefully sends him to mingle with criminals, as if trying its best to see that in future he does fall foul of the punitive sections of the Penal Code. The continuance of Section 309 I.P.C. is an anachronism unworthy of a human society like ours. Medical clinics for such social misfits certainly but police and prisons never. The very idea is revolting.

This concept seeks to meet the challenge of social strains of modern urban and competitive economy by ruthless suppression of mere symptoms - this attempt can only result in failure. Need is for humane, civilized and socially oriented outlook and penology. Many penal offences are the offshoots of an unjust society and socially decadent outlook of love between young people being frustrated by false consideration of code, community or social pretensions. No wonder so long as society refuses to face this reality its coercive machinery will invoke the provision like Section 309 I.P.C. which has no justification right to continue remain on the statute book."

2.4.1. In Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra, 1987 Cr LJ 743, the Bombay High Court held that section 309, IPC is ultra vires the Constitution being violative of Articles 14 and 21 thereof and must be struck down. It was pointed out that the fundamental rights have their positive as well as negative aspects. For example, the freedom of speech and expression includes freedom not to speak and to remain silent. The freedom of association and movement likewise includes the freedom not to join any association or to move anywhere.

The freedom of business and occupation includes freedom not to do business and to close down the existing business. If this is so, logically it must follow that right to live as recognized by Article 21 of the Constitution will include also a right not to live or not to be forced to live. To put it positively, Article 21 would include a right to die, or to terminate one's life. The Court further pointed out that the language of section 309, IPC is sweeping in its nature. It does not define suicide. In fact, philosophers, moralists and sociologists are not agreed upon what constitutes suicide.

What may be considered suicide in one community may not be considered so in another community and the different acts, though suicidal, may be described differently in different circumstances and at different times in the same community. While some suicides are eulogized, others are condemned. That is why perhaps wisely no attempt has been made by the legislature to define either.

The want of a plausible definition itself makes the provisions of section 309 arbitrary and violative of Article 14.There are different mental, physical and social causes which may lead different individuals to attempt to commit suicide for different ends and purposes, there being nothing in common between them. Section 309 makes no distinction between them and treats them alike, making the provisions thereof arbitrary.

Further, the Court observed that if the purpose of the punishment for attempted suicide is to prevent the prospective suicides by deterrence, the same is not achieved by punishing those who have made the attempts, as no deterrence is going to hold back those who want to die for a social or political cause or to leave the world either because of the loss of interest in life or for self-deliverance. The provisions of section 309 are unreasonable and arbitrary on this account also. As is rightly said, arbitrariness and equality are enemies of each other. The blanket prohibition on the right to die on pain of penalty, it was pointed out, is not reasonable.

2.4.2. The High Court also observed that there is nothing unnatural about the desire to die and hence the right to die. The means adopted for ending one's life may be unnatural varying from starvation to strangulation. But, the desire which leads one to resort to the means is not unnatural. Suicide or an attempt to commit suicide is not a feature of a normal life. It is an incident of abnormality or of an extraordinary situation or of an uncommon trait of personality. Abnormality and uncommonality are not unnatural merely because they are exceptional.

2.4.3. The High Court further observed that the right to die or to end one's life is not something new or unknown to civilization. Some religions like Hindu and Jain have approved of the practice of ending one's life by one's own act in certain circumstances while condemning it in other circumstances. The attitude of Buddhism has been ambiguous though it has encouraged suicide under certain circumstances such as in the service of religion and country. Neither the old nor the new Testament has condemned suicide explicitly. However, Christianity has condemned suicide as a form of murder. In contrast, the Quran has declared it a crime worse than homicide.

2.4.4. The High Court quoted the eminent French sociologist, Emile Durkheim's threefold classification of suicides made on the basis of the disturbance in the relationship between society and the individual:

(i) Egoistic suicide which results when abnormal individualism weakens society's control over him; the individual in such cases lacks concern for the community with which he is inadequately involved;

(ii) Altruistic suicide which is due to an excessive sense of duty to community; and

(iii) Anomic suicide which is due to society's failure to control and regulate the behaviour of individuals.

This classification is not regarded as adequate by many, but gives us the broad causative factors of suicide. It is estimated that about onethird of the people who kill themselves have been found to have been suffering from mental illness.

The Court observed that those who make the suicide attempt on account of the mental disorders require psychiatric treatment and not confinement in the prison cells where their condition is bound to worsen leading to further mental derangement. Those on the other hand who make the suicide attempt on account of acute physical ailments, incurable diseases, torture or decrepit physical state induced by old age or disablement need nursing homes and not prisons to prevent them from making the attempts again.

2.5.1. In P. Rathinam v. Union of India, AIR 1994 SC 1844, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court also held that section 309, IPC violates Article 21, as the right to live of which the said Article speaks of can be said to bring in its trail the right not to live a forced life. Quoting from a lecture of Harvard University Professor of Law and Psychiatry, Alan A Stone, the Supreme Court noted that right to die inevitably leads to the right to commit suicide. However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the view of the Bombay High Court that section 309 is also violative of Article 14.

Dealing with the argument relating to the want of a plausible definition of suicide, the Supreme Court observed that irrespective of the differences as to what constitutes suicide, suicide is capable of a broad definition and that there is no doubt that it is intentional taking of one's life, as stated at page 1521 of Encyclopaedia of Crime and Justice, Volume IV, 1983 Edn.

As for the reason that section 309 treats all attempts to commit suicide by the same measure without regard to the circumstances in which attempts are made, the Supreme Court held that this also cannot make the said section as violative of Article 14, inasmuch as the nature, gravity and extent of attempt may be taken care of by tailoring the sentence appropriately; in certain cases, even Probation of Offenders Act can be pressed into service, whose section 12 enables the court to ensure that no stigma or disqualification is attached to such a person.

2.5.2. The Supreme Court observed that suicide, the intentional taking of one's life has probably been a part of human behaviour since prehistory. Various social forces, like the economy, religion and socio-economic status are responsible for suicides. There are various theories of suicide, to wit, sociological, psychological, biochemical and environmental. Suicide knows no barrier of race, religion, caste, age or sex. There is secularization of suicide.

2.5.3. The Supreme Court further observed that suicide is a psychiatric problem and not a manifestation of criminal instinct. What is needed to take care of suicide-prone persons are soft words and wise counseling (of a psychiatrist), and not stony dealing by a jailor following harsh treatment meted out by a heartless prosecutor. It is a matter of extreme doubt whether by booking a person who has attempted to commit suicide to trial, suicides can be taken care of.

2.5.4. The Supreme Court expressed the view that section 309 of the Penal Code deserves to be effaced from the statute book to humanize our penal laws. It is a cruel and irrational provision, as it may result in punishing a person again (doubly) who has suffered agony and would be undergoing ignominy because of his failure to commit suicide. An act of suicide cannot be said to be against religion, morality or public policy, and an act of attempted suicide has no baneful effect on society. Further, suicide or attempt to commit it causes no harm to others, because of which State's interference with the personal liberty of the concerned persons is not called for.

2.5.5. The Supreme Court also observed that the view taken by it would advance not only the cause of humanization, which is a need of the day, but of globalization also, as by effacing section 309, we would be attuning this part of our criminal law to the global wavelength.

2.6. In Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, AIR 1996 SC 946, however, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court overruled the decisions in Maruti Shripati Dubal and P. Rathinam, holding that Article 21 cannot be construed to include within it the 'right to die' as a part of the fundamental right guaranteed therein, and therefore, it cannot be said that section 309, IPC is violative of Article 21. It was observed that when a man commits suicide he has to undertake certain positive overt acts and the genesis of those acts cannot be traced to, or be included within the protection of the 'right to life' under Article 21.

'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 'right to life'. The comparison with other rights, such as the right to 'freedom of speech', etc., is inapposite. To give meaning and content to the word 'life' in Article 21, it has been construed as life with human dignity. Any aspect of life which makes it dignified may be read into it but not that which extinguishes it and is, therefore, inconsistent with the continued existence of life resulting in effacing the right itself. The 'right to die', if any, is inherently inconsistent with the 'right to life', as is death with life.

2.7. It is significant to note that the Supreme Court in Gian Kaur focused on constitutionality of section 309, IPC. The Court did not go into the wisdom of retaining or continuing the said provision in the statute.

2.8. It may not be inapposite to also note C. A. Thomas Master v. Union of India, 2000 Cr LJ 3729, wherein the accused, a retired teacher of 80 years, wanted to voluntarily put an end to his life after having had a successful, contented and happy life. He stated that his mission in life had ended and argued that voluntary termination of one's life was not equivalent to committing suicide.

The Kerala High Court held that no distinction can be made between suicide as ordinarily understood and the right to voluntarily put an end to one's life. Voluntary termination of one's life for whatever reason would amount to suicide within the meaning of sections 306 and 309, IPC. No distinction can be made between suicide committed by a person who is either frustrated or defeated in life and that by a person like the petitioner. The question as to whether suicide was committed impulsively or whether it was committed after prolonged deliberation is wholly irrelevant.

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