A step toward humanisation


Finally, a ritualistic burial is to be given to Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the ‘living-dead’ law that has haunted India’s criminal justice system for decades. Taking a step towards a more humane law, the Union government has decided to repeal Section 309 with overwhelming favour from a majority of the States. Under Section 309, an attempt to commit suicide is punishable with simple imprisonment up to one year and/or a fine. Anachronistic in its approach, this law dealt with those in agony by holding up medical help through procedural delays and then penalising them rather than rehabilitating them through counselling and care. Over the years, this law has seen a tumultuous journey of contestations, to and fro, between retention and suspension. In an early attempt to repeal it, the Rajya Sabha had passed the IPC (Amendment) Bill, 1978, but the Bill lapsed as the Lok Sabha was dissolved in 1979. Later, the Supreme Court, in P. Rathinam (1994), stated that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution included the “right not to live a forced life”, thus holding the provision unconstitutional. But subsequently, in Gian Kaur (1996), a five-judge bench overruled P. Rathinam, upholding the validity of Section 309. Gian Kaur stated that sanctity of life was a significant aspect of Article 21, and “by no stretch of imagination can extinction of life be read to be included in protection of life”. Similarly, the Law Commission of India in its 42nd Report (1971) recommended the repeal of Section 309, while in the 156th Report (1997) recommended retention, based on Gian Kaur.

The Commission’s 210th Report (2008) again recommended a repeal of the law, which was favourably reiterated in Parliament and decided upon recently. Globally, a significant historical factor aiding the penal law against suicide was perhaps the condemnation of suicide by institutional Christianity. St. Augustine called suicide “an unrepentable sin”, while for St. Aquinas, suicide was “unnatural”. This ethic found its way into English common law in the mid-13th century, and suicide remained an offence in England until 1961. No wonder that the 42nd Report of the Law Commission relied, inter alia, on Manusmriti, that holds suicide circumstantially permissible, to recommend the repeal. In resisting the repeal, Bihar urged caution, saying suicide-bombers would no longer be covered and deterred by law. This is however a minor concern because there are several anti-terror laws to deal with such situations. Madhya Pradesh believed that the repeal would dilute Section 306 dealing with abetment to suicide. But this claim overlooks the Gian Kaur decision that stated that “Section 306 enacted a distinct offence which is capable of existence independent of Section 309”.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 7:56:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/editorial-a-step-toward-humanisation/article6691224.ece

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