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Report No. 210

4. Other Views

4.1. Shri Justice Jahagirdar has expressed his view in his article entitled "Attempt At Suicide - A Crime or A Cry" in the following words:

"A man commits suicide for various reasons and in diverse circumstances. The aim, in all cases, is to get deliverance from the several real or imaginary misfortunes to which that person is subjected. If he is successful in his attempt, it is regarded as deliverance; if unsuccessful it is regarded as an offence. Survival is an offence. It is impossible to find any rational justification for inflicting a punishment upon a person who has made an attempt to escape punishment which he thinks society is inflicting upon him. Is survival itself not sufficient punishment?

Over a long period, fortunately, the attitude towards suicide and attempted suicide has changed and most civilised countries have done away with the concept of attempted suicide as an offence. 'Suicide', said Goethe, 'is an incident in human life which, however much disputed and discussed, demands sympathy of every man and in every age must be dealt with anew'. That attempted suicide is a matter for treatment and not punishment has been recognised by several countries.

After the French Revolution in 1789, attempted suicide was abolished as an offence in France and subsequently in all European countries. England, as usual, was laggard in reforms, but fortunately in 1961 by the Suicide Act, the 'crime' of attempted suicide was abolished. In USSR and in most of the states in the US, it is not an offence. It was accepted that suicide is the result of psychological disturbances impervious to rational deterrents. In England a society called The Samaritans provides psychological support to those contemplating suicide.

Most of the cases are psychiatric. The presence of Section 309 of the Penal Code is thus not only irrational and obnoxious but also positively harmful to the members of a society for whose benefit it is supposed to be on the statute book. As a result of this provision existing on the statute book, people needing mental treatment who are driven to commit suicide are prevented from seeking the same for fear of being punished. Which is the theory of punishment which informs section 309 of the IPC? It cannot be deterrent because a man commits the act for reasons beyond his control; it cannot be reformative because a sick man is thrown among the felons.

The punitive theory is wholly irrelevant because the person attempting suicide does no wrong to others. In sum, the attempt to commit suicide cannot and should not be regarded as an offence. It is not committed by a person who wants to hurt anyone; it is not resorted to by one with criminal intention. Suicide and attempted suicide are difficult to define. An act which cannot be defined precisely cannot be punished. Suicide is attempted by people for reasons beyond their control. They need sympathy, care, love and treatment.

By branding such people as 'criminals', treatment is rendered difficult. Punishment for attempted suicide is unsupportable by any recognized theory of punishment. What the 'abolitionists' of Section 309 are asking for is a fair treatment for those unfortunate, hapless people who fail in their attempts to commit suicide. The deletion of Section 309 is not an invitation or encouragement to attempt to commit suicide. Do not punish the helpless; help the helpless."

4.2. The World Health Organization, on knowing the efforts of the NGO, the SNEHA, Suicide Prevention Centre, for prevention of suicide, stated to them that having suicidal behaviours specified by law as a punishable offence has many negative effects at a public health level. Moreover, punishing with imprisonment a behaviour consequent to either a mental disorder or a social difficulty gives a completely wrong message to the population. There is now evidence from countries that have repealed similarly old legislation, of the overall improvement.

4.3. The President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, France, has, vide his letter of 9 October 2007 addressed to Hon'ble Minister of Law and Justice, Government of India, strongly supported withdrawal of the status of attempted suicide as a punishable offence. He has stated that most countries in the world who have had laws criminalizing attempted suicide have withdrawn those laws in the second half of the twentieth century, justifying the withdrawal by the belief that attempting suicide is not a crime that should be punished but rather a desperate reaction to a difficult life situation by people who usually suffer from a mental disorder.

These changes have indicated awareness that suicidal individuals need to be helped and imprisonment only makes their problem worse. One of the fears expressed when all countries in Europe and North America decriminalized attempted suicide was that suicide rates may increase. There are no indications whatsoever that there was an increase in suicides following decriminalization, and in many instances it is thought that suicide decreased since more suicidal individuals received the help they need.

Countries such as Singapore, which still imprison some suicide attempters, do not appear to have any benefits from those practices. For example, in Singapore suicide rates have been increasing in recent years despite their having suicide as a punishable offence. The International Association for Suicide Prevention wishes India to join the countries of the world, who have decriminalized attempted suicide in order to clearly communicate to suicidal individuals that they should seek help, rather than avoid admitting to their problems for fear of imprisonment.

4.4. The SNEHA, Chennai is of the opinion that the continuance of the archaic law in India, like section 309, IPC, is proving to be counterproductive to the cause of suicide prevention. In many countries, including the whole of Europe, North America, much of South America and Asia, including neighbouring Sri Lanka, attempted suicide is not a criminal offence any more. Many who resort to suicide and who manage to survive do not seek medical help for fear of being arrested and penalized. Suicide is a "cry for help".

People who attempt suicide need extensive and sometimes long-term psycho-social support. The panacea for them certainly cannot be imprisonment. They need compassion, emotional support and sometimes even psychiatric help. If the act of attempted suicide were to be decriminalized it will make things more workable and easier for all to extend their hand and support in reducing suicide in India. It will encourage those who attempted suicide to seek medical and professional help immediately without fear or inhibition.

Only a handful of countries in the world, like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and India have persisted with this law. The apprehension that the repeal of the law would cause an increase in suicides is belied by the fact that Sri Lanka repealed the law four years ago and the suicide rate is showing a trend in reduction. In the opinion of the SNEHA, the persistence of this law leads to following difficulties:

1. Emergency treatment for those who have attempted suicide is not readily accessible as they are referred by local hospitals and doctors to tertiary centres as it is termed as Medico Legal case. The time lost in the golden hour will save many lives.

2. Those who attempt suicide are already distressed and in psychological pain and for them to face the ignominy of police interrogation causes increased distress, shame, guilt and further suicide attempt.

3. At the time of family turmoil dealing with police procedure adds to the woes of the family.

4. It also leads to a gross under-reporting of attempted suicide and the magnitude of the problem is not unknown. Unless one is aware of the nature of extent of the problem effective intervention is not possible.

5. As many attempted suicides are categorized in the guise of accidental poisoning etc. emotional and mental health support is not available to those who have attempted as they are unable to access the services.

4.5. It will be advantageous to quote the following paragraphs from Ratanlal & Dhirajlal's Law of Crimes (26th Edn., 2007, pages 1825-1827):



Humanization and Decriminalization of attempt to Suicide Back




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