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NOTES FROM THE DEAD

Suicides are shockingly common in India — 15 every hour, according to a home ministry report released last year. Some take their own life without leaving an explanation, while others leave a suicide note. And sometimes, in these notes, they blame others for forcing them to commit suicide.

Witness the case involving former Haryana minister Gopal Goyal Kanda and Geetika Sharma (pictured), an air hostess who took her own life. Sharma committed suicide on August 5, 2012, and in her suicide note, she essentially held Kanda responsible for her drastic act. This case has once again focused attention on the sort of legal value these suicide notes hold.

According to Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), “If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Section 107 of the IPC goes on to clarify what constitutes abetment. There are three conditions: if someone “instigates any person” to do anything, or “engages with one or more other person or persons in any conspiracy” to take action that will lead towards the act, and if a person “intentionally aids, by any act or illegal omission” the action that led to the crime.

“The first step to resolving anything involving a suicide note requires someone to lodge a first information report (FIR),” says Y.P. Singh, a Delhi based criminal lawyer. “Without an FIR, there will be no investigation to determine whether or not a person named in a note is guilty of abetment to suicide.”

Suicide notes, and their content, are different from dying declarations. Dying declarations enjoy a unique status. They are viewed in the light of the idea that no one is willing to die with a lie on his or her lips. As such, they are taken a lot more seriously than suicide notes. As K.T.S. Tulsi, Kanda’s lawyer, points out, “Dying declarations are an exception to the rule of hearsay.”

“Both documents are fairly important,” says Majid Memon, a Mumbai-based criminal lawyer. “But being found guilty of abetting suicide is not as great an offence as being found guilty of murder, which can happen with dying declarations.”

So what legal value do suicide notes hold? For one, they are generally seen as nothing more than another piece of evidence. “A person cannot be convicted on being named in a suicide note alone,” says Memon. “More corroborative evidence is needed for that to happen.”

This is simply because one has to determine conclusively if a person accused of abetment in a suicide note is genuinely guilty. In January 2010, the Supreme Court said that in order to be charged with abetting suicide (Section 306 of the IPC), there has to be clear mens rea, or intention, of wanting to have the victim commit suicide.

A good example would be the suicide of model Viveka Babajee who was found hanging in her flat. There was a note in her dairy that said, “U killed me, Gautam Vora.” Allegedly, Babajee was in a relationship with Vora, a stockbroker, and she committed suicide when she discovered he was cheating on her. Vora did admit that he had an altercation with her. However, none of this was deemed enough to charge him under Section 306.

“There has to be an act of omission or commission by the accused to be found guilty. That is to say, they need to have done something outright to drive a person to suicide, or have done nothing to stop it from happening,” adds Memon. “After all, not all cases of suicide are abetted.”

There are a number of cases where disciplinary action by an authority figure against someone may have led the latter to commit suicide. “This has caused the courts to wonder if such cases could be considered abetting suicide,” says Tulsi. “If a husband tells his wife to ‘go die’ and she does, it doesn’t count. However, if he somehow gets her to consume poison, that would be considered abetment,” he says.

He adds that cases where a person takes his life after being harassed by creditors are generally not considered abetment to suicide.

One problem with suicide notes is that they need to be authenticated. Courts need proof that the note was not written by someone else, and the handwriting must be authenticated as being the victim’s. An example would be the case of Asha Shukla vs the State of UP and Another in 2002. In 1998, Praveen and Nimisha Sharma, a young married couple, were found dead in their rented apartment in Ghaziabad, apparently by hanging themselves. During the investigation, a suicide note surfaced that claimed Nimisha’s mother, Asha Shukla, had driven the couple to commit suicide, which in turn led to Shukla being charged under Section 107 of the IPC. However, it turned out that Nimisha’s in-laws, with the help of the Ghaziabad police, had forged the note. In the end, Shukla was acquitted of any wrongdoing.

So, as Singh points out, “A suicide note is just one piece of evidence among lots of other evidence.” And on the whole, India’s criminal justice system tends to take accusations made in a suicide note on a case by case basis.

Gopal Kanda would be hoping that in his case Geetika Sharma’s suicide note would also come to nought.