This article illustrates the legality of attempted suicide in India: How Section 309 IPC acts as a barrier to suicide prevention and why it needs to be repealed.
About the author: Dr. Tarannum Ahmed is a recent graduate from the London School of Economics and a public health researcher, working as a consultant with Aara Health.
Suicide attempt is a serious mental health problem that requires immediate mental health intervention. Long overdue, India decriminalised suicide with the implementation of The Mental Healthcare Act (MCHA) in 2017. However, suicide continues to be criminalised under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This article reviews the Indian legal perspective of attempted suicide and discusses why Section 309 IPC needs to be repealed from the statute book. The article is structured as follows: Part 2 discusses the Indian Constitution and the right to life. Part 3 introduces Section 309 IPC and examines its current status. Part 4 explores The MCHA, 2017 as well as its restrictions on Section 309 IPC. Part 5 addresses the barriers to suicide prevention due to the continuance of Section 309 IPC. Part 6 concludes the article by providing an alternative to the legal perspective and emphasises on access to mental health services.
2. The Indian Constitution
In India, the Constitution of India is the supreme law of India. Article 21 of the Indian constitution states: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by the law”. Whilst the constitution encompasses the right to life or liberty, it does not mention the right to die. Therefore, suicide attempts are not covered within the constitutional right to life in India (Ranjan et al., 2014).
3. Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)
Section 309 IPC is an archaic section of the law introduced by the British Raj Regime of 1860 (Ranjan et al., 2014). According to it, “Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year (or with fine, or with both)”. Although it is popularly believed that the law has been repealed, it continues to be in the law books. Moreover, there have been continued reports of its use by the Indian Police Service all around the country.
4. The Mental Healthcare Act (MCHA), 2017
The MCHA Act was passed in 2017 and enacted on May 29, 2018 (Math et al., 2019). The preamble of MHCA 2017 promises to provide mental healthcare and services for persons with mental illness (PMI) and to protect, promote, and fulfil the rights of such persons during delivery of mental healthcare and services (MHCA, 2017). Section 115 of The MHCA states: “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 have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code” (MHCA, 2017). Therefore, as underscored by Dr. Vijayakumar, a well-known psychiatrist and member of WHO’s Network on Suicide Research and Prevention, Section 309 IPC has become ‘‘redundant’’ and needs to be repealed.
5. How the continuance of Section 309 IPC acts as a barrier to suicide prevention
As mentioned earlier, albeit the introduction of The MHCA, 2017, Section 309 IPC continues to be used by police forces across the country. Whether the reason is lack of awareness of the relatively new MHCA or to deal with cases related to “hunger strikes” and “fasts unto death”, the continuation of Section 309 IPC has serious implications on suicide and suicide prevention. Section 309 IPC substantially influences help-seeking behaviour, deprives a victim of treatment at a crucial hour, and functions as an impediment to data collection.
A significant proportion of the Indian population is aware of the existence of Section 309 IPC but is not deterred to make a suicidal attempt (Ranjan et al., 2014). However, previous studies have established that criminal prosecution of victims restricts help-seeking behaviour (Ranjan et al., 2014). A person contemplating suicide experiences enormous stress and does not have the ability to make informed decisions. In such situations, criminality should not serve as a refraining factor towards access to treatment. Given that, Section 309 IPC should be repealed because it is insensitive and continues to view suicide attempts from a legal perspective than a well-deserved public health and human rights perspective.
Additionally in 2019, Dr Vijaykumar, expressed the importance of repealing Section 309 IPC. She highlighted how its existence makes attempted suicide a ‘‘medico-legal case’’ which deprives ‘‘the victim of effective treatment during the golden hour’’. In most cases, the charges are often dropped in due course; nonetheless, there is valuable time lost in the process that has an adverse effect on the mental health of the victim who should have been treated with compassion to begin with. Scenarios such as these result in trauma that potentially worsens the victim’s mental health and acts as a barrier to suicide prevention.
Moreover, data related to self-harm and suicide attempts are critical in the formulation of national suicide prevention strategies. Section 309 IPC subsequently hinders data collection because it prevents people from coming forward to seek help. Robust evidence on lived experiences is needed to inform mental health interventions and policies. Section 309 IPC reduces the chances of people coming forward to record their experiences which leads to under-reporting of data. Furthermore, Section 309 IPC classifies attempted suicide a medico-legal case wherein hospitals and health institutions under-report or do not provide data on attempted suicide. In order to develop effective suicide interventions, we need a strong evidence base. Repealing Section 309 IPC will encourage people to be more open about their experiences without the fear of being prosecuted and facilitate the generation of accurate data.
India took a commendable step by decriminalising suicide through the implementation of The MCHA in 2017. Unfortunately, by retaining Section 309 IPC, it has unintentionally attributed to barriers towards suicide and suicide prevention in India by enabling potential prosecution and trauma. Given that, Section 309 IPC should be repealed or redefined in a manner that cannot be used against victims who are suffering from serious mental health issues.
Suicide and suicide prevention should be viewed from a public health and a human rights perspective rather than a legal perspective. A comprehensive framework needs to be developed that focuses on increasing awareness around mental health issues, removing access to toxic substances such as pesticides and insecticides that are commonly associated with suicides in India and controlling factors that facilitate suicide such as alcoholism and drug addiction. Furthermore, every individual should have access to mental health services. COVID-19 has dramatically increased the demand for mental health services. It is now more important than ever to include mental health provision and suicide prevention in our policies.
Math SB, Basavaraju V, Harihara SN, Gowda GS, Manjunatha N, Kumar CN, Gowda M., 2019. Mental Healthcare Act 2017 – Aspiration to action. Indian J journal of Psychiatry, 61:S660-6.
Mental Healthcare Act., 2017. Available from: http://www.prsindia.org/ uploads/media/Mental%20Health/Mental%20Healthcare%20Act,%20 2017.pdf.
Ranjan, R., Kumar, S., Pattanayak, R.D., Dhawan, A., and Sagar, R., 2014. (De-) criminalization of attempted suicide in India: A review. Industrial psychiatry journal, 23(1), p.4.