ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Cry for Help

The most recent observation by the Supreme Court makes it clear that it is time to decriminalise attempted suicide.

In the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Aruna Shanbaug “right to die” case, the Court made a significant statement on attempted suicide. Observing that a person who attempts to take his/ her own life needs help more than punishment, it asked Parliament to consider decriminalising the attempt to commit suicide. This would entail deletion of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) under which an attempt at suicide, if proven, attracts punishment of one year’s simple imprisonment or a fine or both. It is ironic that the apex court has to ask Parliament to consider this issue when there have been a series of legal rulings on this section since 1987 and two recommendations by the Law Commission to remove it from the IPC.

The attempt at suicide is invariably a desperate act, and literature has recorded the fascination and horror that it evokes. The basic premise behind the State’s punitive response is that the Act goes against the social norm that considers it “unnatural” to take one’s life. The individual’s life is valuable to the State and society and therefore the State has a stake in preventing its destruction. However, this should mean that the State has a bigger stake in ensuring that the individual who attempts suicide is given every form of help to deal with the circumstances that led him or her to make the attempt in the first place. On the other hand, Section 84 of the IPC says that an act cannot be considered an offence if the person is of unsound mind, incapable of knowing the nature of the act or realising that it is wrong or contrary to the law. In this context, can an attempted suicide therefore qualify as a criminal offence?

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