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Suicide Law In India

It's not uncommon to see students stressed, anxious and under pressure in a society that believes in keeping students in check by pushing them beyond their limits towards higher achievements. Young high school students are forced to enrol in coaching factories, where they cram for exams to get into prestigious institutions like IIT. Students follow draconian rules and study schedules that leave them feeling depleted and depressed.

After all this effort, if they clear the exams and land up at any of the IITs, the journey of fierce competition begins. All the children who get admission in IIT are very good, maybe the best in their school or towns but when they land at IIT, they realise hundreds are better than them they have to compete with the best in the country and often some of them lose their way.

They feel disheartened and dejected. In IITs, a large percentage of children come from small towns. Even though they are good in their knowledge, they are not very well versed with English. All subjects at IITs are taught only in English; hence they often find it difficult to follow the lectures. IITs realising the problem, have special courses in English for these students. Still many students lose their confidence and become recluse.

Such students also find it difficult to handle computers as it was not accessible to them in school or at home and take time to get on par with students from big cities. This also causes inferiority complex in them. Even the syllabus seems to be very tough and few professors seem to be uncooperative, as they always try to build pressure on them in some way or the other.[1]

Till 2017, a failed attempt to commit suicide was considered to be a crime under sec 309 of the Indian Penal Code 1860, as follows

Sec 309:

Attempt to commit suicide- 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 tend to one year [ or with fine, or with both.]

This was however subject to debate back in 1996 in the Gian Kaur V State of Punjab[2]. It was argued that sec 309 of the IPC violated Art 21 which held that every individual had a right to live. Thus it was further contended that if a person had a right to live he also had a right to terminate his life. However it was completely struck down stating that there is no ground to hold that Section 309 IPC is constitutionally invalid.

The contrary view taken in P. Rathinam[3] on the basis of the construction made of Article 21 to include therein the right to die cannot be accepted to be correct. That decision cannot be supported even on the basis of Article 14. It follows that Section 309 IPC is not to be treated unconstitutional for any reason. It was further held that Right to Life is a natural right embodied in Article 21 but suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life and therefore incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of Right to life.

When a man commits suicide he has to undertake certain positive overt acts and the genesis of those acts cannot be traced to, or be included within the protection of the Right to life under Article 21.

There are several questions related in context of Section 309 of IPC as it comes under the category of crimes defined under Chapter XVI of offences affecting the human body and suicide has also been considered under the same category of crimes. The section is based on the principle that the lives of men are not only valuable to them but also to the state which protects them. However the consequence of such legislation is quite catastrophic and pathetic as the accused as they are called, who are in need of psychiatric attention are instead sent to mingle with criminals.[4]

Hence punishing an individual for attempting suicide would do more harm than good. Whatever the social, economic, political, or personal reasons it may be, it all boils down to one ultimate factor that determines the commission of the act. It is the psychological state of the individual that is most important in determining the intention to end their own life. A person who is psychologically disturbed requires proper psychological care and therapy, not solitude within the grey walls of prison cells. Imprisonment will only have adverse effects on their mental balance. [5]

On 7th April 2017, the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 has come into existence. As noted above suicide is a psychiatric problem and not a manifestation of criminal instinct under the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. In Chapter XVI under the miscellaneous , Section 115 mentions about the presumption of severe stress in case of attempt to suicide as mentioned below:

Not withstanding anything contained in Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code(45 of 1860) 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.

The appropriate Government shall have a duty to provide care, treatment, and rehabilitation to a person, having severe stress and who attempted to commit suicide, to reduce the risk of recurrence of attempt to commit suicide.

Thus suicide has been effectively decriminalised by the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. This Act seeks to view the accused as a victim of mental stress and is considered to be in a temporary loss of his intellect. Thus it gives a different purview of the so called offence of a suicidal attempt. The mental healthcare act is indeed a progressive act quite modern in its approach and contrasting to its conventional counterparts like the IPC.

This is in tune with the 210th Report of the Law Commission of India titles Humanisation and Decriminalisation of Attempt to Suicide. The report states that, Section 309 needs to be effaced from the statute book because the provision is inhuman, irrespective of whether it is constitutional or unconstitutional. The repeal of the anachronistic law contained in Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code would save many lives and relieve the distressed of his suffering.

Moving on to practicality, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and depression are just a few of the terms on the spectrum of illnesses that are little acknowledged or even known by a society at large. Hence a person facing such disturbances is stigmatised and secluded in the society rather than providing them comfort. Thus this is one of the main reasons why many people choose to seek help from suicide helpline. Here they can stay anonymous and talk freely without the feeling of being judged. However the efficiency of these helpline is very poor.

The founder and director of AASRA, a suicide helpline states that there are limited number of volunteers and countless calls to answer furthermore they lack enough funds to employ sufficient volunteers. They see little hope in getting funds from the government and thus depend upon NGOs, crowd funding and CSR activities.[6]

Thus to conclude with, the main issues regarding suicide in India are as follows:
  1. Criminalizing of suicide
  2. Lack of support to suicide helpline
  3. The prevailing system of education
  4. Lastly the society’s purview of depressed individuals.

The solution to these issues revolves around providing psychiatric counseling at places like higher secondary schools, colleges, offices and other places where people undergo great stress. If at all any individual wishes to commit such an unfortunate act then he/ she should be treated as a person suffering from temporary mental unstableness and so should be sent to rehabilitation centres.

  1. Why there are lot of suicides in IITs? What is the problem?, Embibe Exams,
  2. (1996) 2 Supreme Court Cases 648: 1996 Supreme Court Cases (Cri) 374
  3. P.Rathinam V Union of India (1994) 3 SCC 394 : 1994 SCC (Cri) 740
  4. State V Sanjay Kumar Bhatia, 1985 SCC OnLine Del 134 : 1985 Cri LJ 931
  5. Saurabh Anand, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar,(2018) 8GJLDP (October) 96 Suicide in India: A Socio-Legal Perspective.
  6. 40 unanswered calls show us the grim reality of suicide helplines in India

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