Are people who attempt to put an end to their lives criminals? Yes, says Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code 1860, condemning “whoever attempts to commit suicide” to “simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.” The obsolete provision flies in the face of modern and humane approaches to suicidal behaviour, which regard those who suffer from this malady as people in need of care, support, and rehabilitation. We now know that suicidal behaviour is determined by a complex matrix of factors including personal experiences, psychological history, the socio-cultural environment, and genetic make-up. The central government's decision to initiate steps to delete Section 309 is certainly overdue. The Law Commission of India recommended its repeal as early as 1971 and, once again, called for decriminalising the attempt to suicide in its 210th report in 2008. As it pointed out, this inhumane provision, which is a form of double punishment, remains on the statute books only in a few countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Singapore, besides India. The view that decriminalising the attempt to suicide will encourage people to take their own lives has no basis. As the International Association for Suicide Prevention has pointed out, there is nothing to show that suicide rates have increased following decriminalisation; in fact, the converse may well be true as decreasing suicide rates in some countries can be related to the medical and psychological help people who attempt suicide turn to in the absence of fear of being penalised by the law.
It is important to stress here that deleting Section 309 does not absolve the state, public authorities, and society at large of the responsibility to prevent suicides. It is the duty of the state to protect and preserve human life, and it can be argued that Section 306 of the IPC, which penalises the abetment of suicide, casts an obligation on public authorities to prevent the loss of life that may result from such acts as fast-unto-death. Upholding the constitutionality of Section 306, the Supreme Court of India observed it was a distinct provision that existed independently of Section 309 (Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, 1996). In the United Kingdom, the last European country to decriminalise the attempt to suicide, the Suicide Act of 1961 holds people criminally liable for aiding, abetting, and counselling the suicide of another. Decriminalisation is a recognition that suicide is a complex problem with psychological and social dimensions. As the Supreme Court observed, it is decidedly not a manifestation of a base criminal instinct.