The Rajya Sabha recently passed the Mental Health Care Bill 2013 which says that a person who attempts to commit suicide will not be prosecuted under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code as there will be a presumption that he/she is mentally ill. However, the Section will come into play only if it is proved that the person is not suffering from mental illness.
It has taken many years and many sympathetic court decisions to reach this understanding that a person attempting to commit suicide needs help rather than be punished as a criminal. Recently when the debate over euthanasia was raised in Aruna Shanbaug’s case, the Supreme Court also examined cases, such as P. Rathinam v Union of India and Smt Gian Kaur vs State of Punjab, in which the issue of what the right to life means was raised.
In P. Rathinam (1994), the Supreme Court had held that it was not right to punish persons for attempting suicide. It was pointed out that the Law Commission of India in its 42nd report, as far back as 1971, had recommended repeal of Section 309, calling it “harsh and unjustifiable”.
In the eighties, Justice Rajinder Sachar of the Delhi High Court quashed 119 suicide cases filed by the Delhi Police. In State vs Sanjay Kumar Bhatia, Justice Sachar had spoken out very strongly against keeping Section 309 on the statute books.
The Bombay High Court in Maruti Sripati Dubal vs State of Maharashtra had held that “The section punishes the attempt to commit suicide with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both. We have already enumerated the different sets of circumstances in which a person may attempt to commit suicide. If the purpose of the prescribed punishment is to prevent the prospective suicides by deterrence, it is difficult to understand how the same can be achieved by punishing those who have made the attempts. Those who make the suicide attempt on account of the mental disorders require psychiatric treatment and not confinement in the person 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. No deterrence is further 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. Thus in no case the punishment serves the purpose and in some cases it is bound to prove self-defeating and counter-productive”.
In CESC vs Subhash Chandra Bose Justice Ramaswamy of the Supreme Court had said that that physical and mental health have to be treated as integral part of the right to life, because without good health the civil and political rights assured by our constitution cannot be enjoyed. In State of Himachal Pradesh vs Umed Ram Sharma, it was observed “that the right to life embraces not only physical existence but the quality of life as understood in its richness and fullness by the ambit of the Constitution”. While that observation is related to roads in hilly areas, it was referred to by the judges in P. Rathinam to bolster their opinion that the right to life includes the right not to live a distressed life.
The verdict in P. Rathinam was overturned by the Supreme Court in Gian Kaur vs State of Punjab. The court held that the right to life does not include the right to die. Aruna Shanbaug’s case was followed by a PIL in 2014 regarding euthanasia. The Supreme Court in that case ordered that the matter be placed before a constitution bench.
The current Mental Health Bill does not repeal Section 309 of the IPC. It, however, helps people who have attempted suicide to obviate imposition of the Section. The Bill says that if they are mentally ill, they will not be liable to prosecution under Section 309. It has to be proved that the person is not mentally ill in order for Section 309 to come into effect.
—India Legal Bureau
Lead Illustration: Anthony Lawrence