The article, Attempt to Suicide: Constitutionality and Legal History. is written by Sakkera Rahul a 3rd-year B.A.LL.B(H) student at Dr Ambedkar Global Law Institute Tirupati.
We are going to look into the challenging problem of suicide attempts in India, exploring the constitutional validity and historical development of laws surrounding this sensitive matter. By examining landmark cases, legislative changes, and judicial pronouncements, my main aim is to shed light on the evolution of India’s legal stance on attempted suicide. Furthermore, it analyses the debate on decriminalisation and highlights the significance of mental health support and suicide prevention measures.
Attempting suicide is a complex and sensitive topic that has long been a subject of legal and societal deliberation in India. For years, the country’s legal system has grappled with the question of whether to consider suicide a criminal act or approach it as a matter of mental health. This article aims to delve into the constitutional validity of laws related to suicide attempts and provides a historical overview of legislative changes and judicial interpretations that have shaped the current legal landscape.
The Legal Evolution and History of the attempt to suicide:
Legal evolution refers to the gradual changes and developments in laws and legal systems over time. It reflects how societies adapt and modify their legal frameworks to address emerging issues and challenges. In the context of attempt-to-suicide laws in India, legal evolution encompasses the transformation of the country’s approach to dealing with suicide attempts from a punitive perspective to a more compassionate and mental health-oriented one.
Historically, India’s perspective on suicide attempts was heavily influenced by British colonial laws. During the colonial era, suicide was regarded as a criminal offence, and individuals who attempted it were subject to severe punishments. The underlying rationale behind this approach was to deter people from taking their own lives by instilling fear of legal repercussions.
However, as India gained independence and evolved as a sovereign nation, the legal landscape began to change. With advancements in societal understanding and increasing awareness of mental health issues, questions were raised about the constitutionality and humaneness of criminalising suicide attempts.
Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab
The case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab in 1996 marked a pivotal moment in the legal history of suicide attempts in India. In its landmark judgement, the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutionality of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalised suicide attempts. The court reasoned that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution did not encompass the right to die, reinforcing the state’s interest in preserving life.
However, the court also acknowledged the importance of providing mental health support and counselling to those struggling with emotional distress. This ruling ignited debates on striking a balance between punitive measures and empathetic treatment for individuals facing mental health challenges.
Mental Healthcare Act, 2017
In response to growing advocacy for decriminalisation and also a mental health-oriented approach, India witnessed legal reforms in the form of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. Replacing the outdated Mental Health Act of 1987, this new legislation aimed to protect the rights of people with mental illness and ensure their access to appropriate mental health services.
Under the Mental Healthcare Act, Section 115 specifically decriminalised suicide attempts, signifying a paradigm shift in India’s approach to dealing with such cases. Instead of punitive measures, the focus shifted towards mental health support, counselling, and rehabilitation, recognising the significance of mental health in addressing suicide-related issues.
The legal evolution of attempt-to-suicide laws in India showcases a journey from a punitive colonial legacy to a more empathetic and progressive mental health-oriented approach. The transformation reflects the nation’s recognition of the importance of mental health, the rights of individuals facing emotional distress, and the need to provide compassion and support rather than criminalization. This shift in perspective represents a significant step towards building a more compassionate and inclusive society that prioritises mental well-being.
The constitutional validity of criminalising suicide came under scrutiny in the landmark case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996). In this landmark judgement, the Supreme Court of India meticulously examined the nuances of the issue. The court upheld the constitutionality of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises suicide attempts. It reasoned that the right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution does not encompass the right to die.
The court’s judgement acknowledged that while the right to life Is fundamental, the right to die by suicide is not a fundamental right. The court deemed it crucial to preserve and protect life, thereby upholding the state’s authority to criminalise suicide attempts.
However, it is important to note that the court also empathetically emphasised the significance of providing mental health support and counselling to individuals in distress. This aspect of the judgement sparked debates on striking the delicate balance between punitive measures and compassion for those grappling with mental health issues.
Case Law: Attempt to Suicide
Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996)
Gian Kaur, a woman from Punjab, attempted to end her life by consuming poison. She was subsequently saved by medical intervention. In accordance with Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalizes attempted suicide, Gian Kaur was charged and prosecuted by the State of Punjab. The case brought to light the constitutionality of Section 309 and whether the right to life, as protected under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, includes the right to die by suicide.
Provisions of Law
Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalises any individual who attempts to commit suicide, subjecting them to punishment, which may include imprisonment for a term of up to one year, a fine, or both.
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution Guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, stating that no person shall be deprived of their life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.
In 1996, the Supreme Court of India heard the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab and delivered a significant judgement on the constitutional validity of Section 309 of the IPC. The court deliberated on whether the right to life as protected under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution includes the right to die by suicide.
The Supreme Court, in its judgement, upheld the constitutionality of Section 309, confirming that the right to life under Article 21 does not encompass the right to die by suicide. The court held that the right to life is a fundamental right, but it does not include the right to extinguish one’s life voluntarily. Court reasoned that the right to life, being a positive right, entails the right to live with dignity and not the right to die by suicide.
The court further emphasised the significance of preserving human life and protecting the social order. It was noted that the abolition of Section 309 could result in an increase in suicide attempts, and therefore, it was necessary to retain the provision as a deterrent.
However, the Supreme Court also acknowledged the importance of providing mental health support and counselling to individuals in distress. It emphasised that the State must adopt a compassionate and empathetic approach towards those attempting suicide. The court urged the government to take appropriate measures to address mental health issues and provide necessary support and assistance to such individuals.
This judgement in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab reaffirmed the constitutionality of Section 309 of the IPC, thus upholding the criminalization of attempted suicide. Nevertheless, the court highlighted the need for a more compassionate approach and the importance of mental health support for individuals facing emotional distress and suicidal tendencies.
Legal Reforms and Decriminalisation: Attempt to Suicide
Legal reforms and decriminalisation are essential aspects of the evolving legal landscape surrounding suicide attempts in India. These concepts have significantly shaped how the country approaches the sensitive issue of suicide, moving away from punitive measures towards more compassionate and mental health-oriented approaches.
Legal reforms pertain to the changes and modifications made to existing laws and regulations concerning a specific subject. In the context of suicide attempts in India, legal reforms refer to the amendments and updates made to laws that previously criminalised suicide. Historically, during British colonial rule, suicide attempts were treated as criminal offences, leading to severe penalties for those who attempted to take their own lives.
Over time, there has been a growing realisation that criminalising suicide is not the most effective approach to addressing this complex issue. Legal experts, mental health professionals, and activists have advocated for a shift towards more humane and supportive legal frameworks. These advocates have highlighted the need to consider suicide attempts as manifestations of mental health challenges rather than purely criminal acts.
Decriminalisation refers to the process of removing criminal penalties or legal consequences for certain actions or behaviours. In the context of suicide attempts, decriminalisation involves abolishing the punitive measures and legal repercussions that were previously associated with individuals who attempted to take their own lives.
The decriminalisation of suicide attempts acknowledges that those who engage in such behaviour are often experiencing severe emotional distress and mental health issues. Instead of subjecting them to criminal prosecution, the focus shifts towards providing mental health support, counselling, and rehabilitation. Decriminalisation is a crucial step towards destigmatizing mental health challenges and encouraging individuals to seek help without fear of legal repercussions.
The Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 Is a significant example of decriminalisation in India. Under this legislation, Section 115 decriminalises suicide attempts and emphasises the importance of mental health care for individuals in distress. This legal reform reflects the country’s evolving understanding of mental health issues and the need to prioritise compassionate and supportive measures over punitive actions.
These legal reforms and decriminalisation have played vital roles in reshaping India’s approach to addressing suicide attempts. These changes reflect a greater emphasis on mental health support, counselling, and rehabilitation, aligning with the recognition that those struggling with emotional distress require understanding and care rather than punitive measures. Through these developments, India aims to foster a more compassionate and effective response to the complex issue of suicide attempts.
Mental Health and Suicide Prevention:
Mental health and suicide prevention are critical aspects of public health and well-being, especially considering the sensitive nature of suicide attempts. The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, plays a pivotal role in addressing these concerns in India. We will discuss the significance of mental health support and suicide prevention measures in the context of the aforementioned Act.
The Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 marked a significant shift. In India’s approach to mental health. One of the key aspects of the Act is the decriminalisation of suicide attempts. Prior to its enactment, suicide attempts were treated as a criminal offence under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. This approach, inherited from British colonial laws, focused on punitive measures rather than addressing the underlying mental health issues.
With the introduction of the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, Section 115 specifically decriminalised suicide attempts. The Act recognised the importance of treating suicide as a manifestation of mental health distress rather than an act deserving of punishment. By removing the legal burden from those attempting suicide, the Act aims to encourage individuals to seek help and support without fear of legal repercussions.
The Act emphasises the rights of people with mental illness and also ensures that they have access to quality mental health services. It places a strong emphasis on informed consent and the right to make decisions about one’s own mental health care, thereby empowering individuals to seek help voluntarily.
It emphasises the establishment and also promotion of mental health services and facilities across the country. And mandates the creation of Mental Health Review Boards to safeguard the rights of individuals with mental illnesses and oversee the implementation of the Act.
In the context of suicide prevention, the Act encourages the development of effective and accessible mental health services, including counselling, therapy, and crisis intervention. It recognises the critical need for early identification and intervention for individuals at risk of suicide. By focusing on mental health support and rehabilitation, the Act also aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and create a more compassionate and understanding society.
To increase suicide prevention efforts, the Act also emphasises the importance of mental health awareness campaigns. By increasing public awareness about mental health issues and suicide prevention, the Act seeks to foster a more supportive environment for individuals facing mental health challenges.
Conclusion: Attempt to Suicide
The sensitive issue of attempted suicide in India has been a subject of deep legal and also societal contemplation. The historical evolution of laws surrounding suicide attempts reveals the influence of British colonial policies, where suicide was considered a criminal offence to deter individuals from such actions. However, with the advent of India’s Constitution, the constitutionality of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was questioned, leading to a pivotal judgement in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996). The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld the constitutionality of Section 309 while also highlighting the need for mental health support and counselling for those struggling with mental distress.
Recent legal reforms, exemplified by the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, reflect a shifting perspective towards decriminalisation and a focus on mental health-centric solutions. Section 115 of the Mental Healthcare Act also replaces the punitive approach with an emphasis on rehabilitation and support for individuals attempting suicide. These changes also signify a crucial step forward in understanding suicide as a manifestation of mental health issues rather than a criminal act.
However, efforts to combat suicide in India cannot solely rely on legal changes. Mental health awareness campaigns and the establishment of accessible counselling services are indispensable to providing support to those in distress. The nation must prioritise suicide prevention measures and allocate resources to bolster mental health services.
In conclusion, the journey towards addressing attempts at suicide in India has seen significant transformation, from penalising suicidal behaviour to recognising it as a cry for mental health support. With the ongoing efforts to destigmatize mental health and implement comprehensive suicide prevention strategies, India can make considerable strides towards creating a compassionate society that prioritises the well-being of all its citizens.
– Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, AIR 1996 SC 946: Attempt to Suicide
– Indian Penal Code, Act No. 45 of 1860: Attempt to Suicide
– Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, Act No. 10 of 2017: Attempt to Suicide