Decriminalising Suicide – A Way Forward

This article was submitted by Kajol.A.Punjabi from Government law College, Mumbai for National Legal Writing Competition,2016.

To be or not to be. That’s not really a question. 
— Jean-Luc Godard


Suicide, also known as self-destruction is defined as death caused by self-directed injurious behaviour with any intent to die as a result of the behaviour. Suicide attempt, on the other hand, is a nonfatal self-directed potentially injurious behaviour with any intent to die as a result of the behaviour. A suicide attempt may or may not result in injury. Now the question arises that is it truly a ‘self’ destruction? Other than suicide for various religious or philosophical reasons, most people don’t really want to die, they just want to stop the pain. Destructing oneself or killing one self is not the primary motive. If those who are suffering could find a way to introduce more pleasure into their lives and actually enjoyed being alive, they likely wouldn’t even consider suicide. Suicidal thoughts signify that there is significant pain and/or some sort of dysfunction in life. Innate human instinct makes the act of suicide against our nature as human beings. The intention behind the person committing suicide is not just to give up his/her life but it is to stop the pain. How can humanity consent to prosecute for this ‘relief’? The writer of this article in no way is supporting the idea of suicide but wants to make the reader understand the actual perspective which must be considered in such incidents. It was rightly stated that, ‘To run away from trouble is a form of cowardice and, while it is true that the suicide braves death, he does it not for some noble object but to escape some ill.’—Aristotle


In India, the suicide rate can be estimated to be 25.8 per 100,000 for men and 16.4 per 100,000 for women, according to the World Health Organization. The male suicide rate in India (predominantly called a ‘male dominated society’) is 23rd-highest in the world, while the female rate is seventh-highest. The U.S. suicide rate is 19.4 for men and 5.2 for women. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report said there were 0.47 psychologists per million people in India. A study published in the Lancet in May showed that in the six states it studied, only 12% of people with depression had contact with a mental health care providers.[1]


The Indian penal code which was drafted in 1860 has been in place without major amendments in the 21st century. It is obvious to the rational mind that such an archaic law needs to be amended today when not only the world but even India has come so far. This law has remained untouched and not amended for the past 155 years since it came into force, thus warranting a relook and repeal as per today’s scientific understanding of the subject and societal attitude.[2]


The first signs of a change in perception towards attempt to suicide in India appeared in 1981, when the Delhi High Court first condemned section 309 of the Indian penal code as “unworthy of society.” The Supreme Court in 1994 even went on to call it “irrational and cruel and hence void.” The apex court gave a judgement saying that the right to life and liberty under article 21 of the constitution includes a right to die. Such a pronouncement from the highest court of land certainly needs consideration. But this was overruled a couple of years later by a five-judge constitutional bench of the apex court subsequently, who then reinstated the law in the 1996 (Gian Kaur vs. state of Punjab case).[3]

Section 309 of the IPC reads that  ‘Attempt to commit suicide.—Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall he punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year 1[or with fine, or with both].’[4] Unfortunately India was one of the handful nations around the world like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore which persisted with this undesirable law until December 2014 when the Union home ministry declared its intention to repeal the archaic and undesirable law. The Times of India in its newspaper dated 10th December 2014 reported, ‘The government has decided to decriminalize “attempt to suicide” by deleting Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code from the statute book. Under the said Section, a suicide bid is punishable with imprisonment up to one year, or with fine, or both.’ While this was the beginning of the noble step taken up by the legislature (though it was already too late) and was welcomed by all. The Upper house of the Parliament Rajya Sabha on August 8, 2016 decriminalized the Offence of Attempt to Suicide by passing Mental Healthcare Bill


The Bill seeks to provide a better health care facilities for those people who are suffering from mental illnesses. Bill also seeks to decriminalize the offence of Attempt to Suicide. By virtue of Section 124 of the Mental Healthcare Bill, notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 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. The Mental Health Care Bill also says that government shall provide “care, treatment and rehabilitation” of any one who attempted to commit suicide to reduce the risk of recurrence. In the original bill that was first introduced by UPA-II, the government had proposed presuming people trying to commit suicide to be suffering from “mental illness”, which has now been changed. As discussed above that the person committing suicide is not having a criminal intent of taking away a life, though it’s his own life, but the true intent is to be free from the pain. Thus calling such a condition as mental illness is also acceptable as it does not deem to punish the person. Section 124 further provides that, the appropriate Government shall have a duty to provide care, treatment and rehabilitation to a person, having mental illness and who attempted to commit suicide, to reduce the risk of recurrence of attempt to commit suicide.

“I’m not afraid of being dead. I’m just afraid of what you might have to go through to get there.” ― Pamela Bone


When we talk about suicide the recent debate on euthanasia comes to our mind. Euthanasia was a inconvenient idea a few decades back, but now it must be accepted. As the science and technology have grown so much that its quite easy for some to show a dead person alive in front of his family members and earn huge revenue to the hospital. Nowadays its common to hear from a person aged 70 to 80 years say ‘I have mentioned in my will and also warned my children against putting me on any kind of live saving machine when I am on my death bed.’ This proves what people are looking for, euthanasia needs to be legal. People want to at least die peacefully and this too must be added in the Part III of the Indian Constitution as a Fundamental Right. Keeping a person alive against his wishes with all the possible pain is an offence as much it is to take away life against will.


Decriminalizing suicide cannot be the end of the change. What needs to be done is to remove the stigma attached with suicides in India. Law can never be the entire answer. Thus simply making laws must not be the ultimate aim, there is a need to build the political and social will to follow these laws. A joint initiative of various organisations and the common man will help us to get rid of the problem as a whole.


[1] https://blogs.wsj.com/briefly/2016/08/11/is-india-decriminalizing-suicide-the-short-answer/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4462779/

[3]  Gian Kaur Vs State of Punjab. AIR 1996 SC 946. 1996. [Last cited on 2014 Dec 13]. Available from:https://www.ncrb.nic.in/

[4] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1569253/

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