When attempt to end life is the start of more problems

Mental Health Care Bill decriminalises suicide attempts, but treats it as a mental health issue

January 05, 2014 12:39 am | Updated November 16, 2021 09:31 pm IST - Bangalore:

Despite a Supreme Court observation not to charge people who attempt to commit suicide — punishable under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — the police have continued to book cases in the State.

Documents obtained by The Hindu through the Right to Information Act reveal that 961 people have been booked for attempt to commit suicide since 2007 in Karnataka, including 96 till June last year.

Meanwhile, the debate over decriminalisation of attempt to commit suicide continues in the courts, parliament and civil society. The Supreme Court had advised the Union government to consider repealing the section from the IPC through an act of parliament in the Aruna Shanbaug case in 2011. The United Kingdom, which drafted the Indian Penal Code in 1861, decriminalised attempted suicides in 1961.

The Union government circulated a questionnaire to all State governments and the Karnataka government had supported the repealing of the section.

The Mental Health Care Bill, which was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in August 2013, is the only legislation that addresses the issue. One of the provisions of the Bill is that “any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to be suffering from mental illness at the time of attempting suicide and shall not be liable to punishment under the said section”.


However, opinion is divided over this provision. B.M. Suresh, additional professor of psychiatry at NIMHANS, Bangalore, says, “The presumption that all those who attempt suicide are mentally ill can lead to stigma. A maximum of 20 per cent of those who attempt suicide can be said to be suffering from mental illness.” He says the rest may require counselling but cannot be termed mentally ill. “Even counselling need not necessarily involve mental health professionals.”

Vandana Gopikumar, founder of The Banyan, a Chennai-based NGO that works with the mentally ill, says, “It is a fantastic move, but the phraseology needs more attention.” She says punishment for attempting suicide enhances the sense of hopelessness the person feels. “To criminalise suffering can precipitate further stress.”

Harsh process

But, the continued usage of IPC section 309 has been particularly harsh on those who try to take their own lives. Jayalakshmi, a nurse who attempted suicide twice in 2007 owing to alleged harassment by then MLA Renukacharya, was fined Rs. 3,000 and detained for the day on the court premises here on November 9, 2013. This, after she decided to plead guilty.

“After they issued a non-bailable warrant for not attending proceedings, I decided that I would plead guilty and face the consequences rather than let the case continue inordinately,” says Ms. Jayalakshmi. She adds that she was frustrated with repeated adjournments.

‘Right to die’

The debate around suicides did not always involve a mental health perspective.

The Bombay High Court had argued in the Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra case that rights have their positive and negative aspects. Hence, the court had argued that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India could also be interpreted as the right not to live a forced life.

Subsequently, the Supreme Court went into the matter and in 1994 in the P. Rathinam v. Union of India case, a division bench of the Supreme Court upheld that view.

However, in 1996 in the Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab case, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court held that article 21 cannot be interpreted to mean “right to die”.


The Law Commission argued in its report that decriminalisation could solve the problem of “gross under-reporting” of suicide attempts. It observed, “[The] magnitude of the problem is unknown. Unless one is aware of the extent of the problem, effective intervention is not possible.”

Dr. Suresh says, however, that under-reporting might continue as the perceived stigma of being termed mentally ill might dissuade people from reporting suicide attempts.

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