Debating the ‘right to die’

Attempt to commit suicide should stay on the statute book because suicide comes in conflict with the monopolistic power of the state to take away life

December 17, 2014 01:08 am | Updated September 30, 2016 08:16 pm IST

You choose your country, you choose your spouse, you choose your profession, you choose your political masters, and you choose where you want to live and how. Die you must. But how to die and when: should that be a matter of choice as well?

India has the highest suicide rate in the world after China. Last year, 1,35,445 people killed themselves — every four minutes someone ends his or her life in India or 371 suicides take place per day. Tamil Nadu tops the list followed by Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. In view of these alarming figures, the decision of the Narendra Modi government to decriminalise attempts to suicide needs thorough examination.

Issues for introspection Isn’t it really barbaric and cruel to punish a person who fails in extinguishing his ‘more-miserable-than-death’ life by putting him in prison? If the state cannot provide a person with humane living conditions, can it be just in restraining his right to die? These are issues which need serious introspection. Continuation of Section 309 is considered an anachronism unworthy of human society in the 21st century.

It is shocking to note that suicide rates are highest in southern States which are richer and more developed with better literacy, social welfare and health care. The rise in suicide rates is due to disappointments as a result of unmet expectations of achievement and new technologies like mobile phones. Social networking sites contributing to loneliness also lead to breakdown of family units traditionally relied on for support during distress.

The Narendra Modi government has >initiated the process to decriminalise attempt to suicide , a move that will ensure that people who are driven to kill themselves do not end up in jail if they don’t succeed. Commission of the crime is more serious than attempts of the same. Suicide is the only crime where commission is not punishable but attempt is. This is because if you succeed, you are beyond all laws. “The Ministry of Home Affairs is in the process of effacing Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code,” Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary told the Rajya Sabha. As many as 18 States and four Union Territories are in favour of deletion of Section 309, he added. The tenth Law Commission in its report has also favoured such a deletion. The move is justified because suicides are committed during temporary loss of soundness of mind and insanity, as such is a complete defence even for killing other human beings. Section 309 is also arbitrary as it paints all suicides with one brush and makes no room for the particular circumstances.

The better option is not ton punish anyone for attempting suicide but the law may be allowed to remain on the statute book as the chances of abuse of its deletion are very high.

In 1994 the Supreme Court not only decriminalised the attempt to suicide but also observed that the ‘right to life’ includes the ‘right to die.’ The court strangely observed that all fundamental rights have positive connotations as well as negative connotations. Thus freedom of speech included right to silence, freedom to do business includes freedom not to do any business. Similarly the right to life includes the right not to live. But then decriminalising attempt to suicide is one thing and conferring a right to die is another. Right to silence or right not to do business or trade constitutes merely temporary suspension of rights and on any future date a person may exercise these rights. But once a life is extinguished, it is lost forever. In 1996, a five-judge bench headed by Justice J.S. Verma overturned the 1994 decision which brought Section 309 back to life. Attempt to suicide should stay on the statute book because suicide comes in conflict with the monopolistic power of the state to take away life.

Suicide is not something new or unknown to civilisation. It has definitely been part of human behaviour since the dawn of civilisation. Humanity has been confronted with this problem of self-destruction since then. It is argued that no individual has complete autonomy with respect to life. His family does have a claim over him. The ‘right to die’ is based on a conservative and individualistic argument whereby suicide is considered a private affair which in no way can cause damage to others. But this logic is certainly false as far as most of us are concerned. A person may be the sole bread winner of his family and if he commits suicide, his family would certainly be driven to destitution. The holding of a ‘right to die’ is in accordance with a capitalistic, property-oriented outlook which prefers to treat everything including the human body, organs and even emotions as a form of commodity.

Flawed reasoning The so-called ‘right to die’ was also justified in the name of ‘globalisation of Indian economy.’ The divisional bench in its 1994 decision observed that the view taken by them would advance not only the cause of humanisation, which is a need of the day, but of ‘globalisation’ also, as by effacing Section 309 we would be attuning this part of our “criminal law to the global wavelength.” This kind of reasoning clearly ignores the peculiarities of the social and economic conditions of our country and the rapid increase in suicide rates in general and that of dowry deaths in particular. The better option is not to punish anyone for attempting suicides but the law may be allowed to remain on the statute book as the chances of abuse of its deletion are very high, particularly by mother-in-laws or even by children in case of elderly parents. Suicide and mercy killing are different and should not be confused as one and the same. In the former no third party is involved but in the latter the third party is crucial. We should certainly have a law permitting euthanasia, but not suicide.

(Faizan Mustafa is the Vice-Chancellor of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.)

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