Here is a crime – if you are successful in committing it, the law cannot punish you; however, if you are unsuccessful in committing this crime, the law will punish you. Yes, this is what the law is with regard to the offence of attempt to commit suicide. If a person is successful in committing suicide, he is beyond the reach of the law. However, if he attempts to commit suicide but the attempt does not succeed, he may be punished under Section 309 IPC for attempting to commit suicide. Now, the Government of India has decided to decriminalise the offence of attempt to commit suicide by repealing Section 309 IPC.
Here is what Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code states:
“309. Attempt to commit suicide.—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.”
Attempting to commit suicide has traditionally been an offence in many countries. However, over a period of time, several countries have decriminalised this offence. It is the turn of India now to think of decriminalising the offence of attempt to commit suicide.
It may be pointed out that in the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, (1996) 2 SCC 648 : AIR 1996 SC 946, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutional validity of the aforesaid offence under Section 309 of IPC, by overruling a previous decision of a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court in the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India, (1994) 3 SCC 394 that had held to the contrary. The Constitution bench held as under (see the judgment, here):
“…there is no ground to hold that Section 309 IPC is constitutionally invalid. The contrary view taken in P. Rathinam [(1994) 3 SCC 394] on the basis of the construction made of Article 21 to include therein the “right to die” cannot be accepted by us to be correct. That decision cannot be supported even on the basis of Article 14. It follows that Section 309 IPC is not to be treated as unconstitutional for any reason.”
However, on 17 October 2008, the Law Commission of India headed by Justice A.R. Lakshmanan, in its 210th Report [Humanization and Decriminalization of Attempt to Suicide], had recommended that Section 309 of IPC should be effaced from the statute books (see the Report here). The relevant paragraphs from this Report are reproduced as under:
“5.4 Section 309 needs to be effaced from the statute book because the provision is inhuman, irrespective of whether it is constitutional or unconstitutional. The repeal of the anachronistic law contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code would save many lives and relieve the distressed of his suffering.
5.5 The Commission is of the view that while assisting or encouraging another person to (attempt to) commit suicide must not go unpunished, the offence of attempt to commit suicide under section 309 needs to be omitted from the Indian Penal Code.”
It is pertinent to point out that, recently in 2011, in the case of Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India, (2011) 4 SCC 454, a bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra had observed as under:
“We are of the opinion that although Section 309 of the Penal Code (attempt to commit suicide) has been held to be constitutionally valid in Gian Kaur case [(1996) 2 SCC 648], the time has come when it should be deleted by Parliament as it has become anachronistic. A person attempts suicide in depression, and hence he needs help, rather than punishment. We, therefore, recommend to Parliament to consider the feasibility of deleting Section 309 from the Penal Code.”
Today (i.e., 10 December 2014), in a reply to a written question in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary stated that “it has been decided to delete Sec 309 of IPC from the Statute book”. He stated that views of all states and union territories were sought on the recommendations of the Law Commission of India in the aforesaid 210th Report. Accordingly, 18 states and 4 union territory administrations had supported that Section 309 of the IPC may be deleted. In view of this, the Government of India has decided to repeal Section 309 of IPC, thereby decriminalising the offence of attempting to commit suicide.
Therefore, once a Bill is passed by the Parliament repealing Section 309 of IPC, attempt to commit suicide will not longer be an offence in India. This may imply that the police will not be able to register an FIR under Section 309 of IPC even against those people who go on indefinite hunger strike. For example, Irom Chanu Sharmila, also known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur” or “Mengoubi”, who is a civil rights activist from Manipur, and who started hunger strike on 2 November 2000 which is still ongoing, has faced charges for an offence under Section 309 of IPC for attempting to commit suicide by way of hunger strike; she has been force-fed since then to keep her alive.
Decriminalisation of attempt to commit suicide in India is in keeping with the developments in other countries since several countries have already decriminalised this offence. As mentioned by Justice AR. Lakshmanan, Chairman of the Law Commission of India, in his letter dated 17 October 2008, forwarding the aforesaid 210th Report of the Law Commission to the Union Minister for Law and Justice: “…only a handful of countries in the world, like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and India have persisted with this undesirable law”. Now, India will no more be one of these countries once Section 309 IPC is repealed as promised by the Government of India.