A democracy may ask whether refusing to eat as a protest against a law perceived as dangerously skewed can be construed as an attempt to suicide. The State has made its position clear for the last 14 years in the case of Irom Sharmila Chanu, who has been in judicial custody and force-fed since she was arrested in 2000. She has been released for a day every 364 days, for imprisonment for a year is the maximum penalty for an attempt to suicide according to Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Perhaps the State’s eagerness to conflate a hunger strike with an attempt to suicide comes from its determination not to lift the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from Manipur, which is what Ms Chanu is fighting for. Human rights activists claim that the law, which gives the troops immunity for detaining or shooting anyone suspected to be a militant, has killed around 20,000 people in Manipur. A martyr to the cause could rock the boat; hence Ms Chanu is being kept alive as well as ‘contained’ under lock and key. For the first time, a court has ordered her release, acknowledging her “agitation” as a “political demand” through “lawful means”. But this order by the Manipur East sessions court will have to be ratified by the Imphal East chief judicial magistrate, who had ordered in June that charges be framed against Ms Chanu for attempted suicide.
For Ms Chanu, the way out of custody is riddled with many uncertainties. Yet the sessions court judgment is important, for it frees an individual accused of attempted suicide. True, the court has defined Ms Chanu’s act as legitimate political protest, not as an attempt to kill herself. But it may be relevant that the Union government declared its intention to decriminalize attempted suicide earlier this month, saying that this would be according to the Law Commission’s recommendations in its 210 report. The insensitivity and unfairness of Section 309 has always been an uncomfortable subject, but no government has been able to do away with it. To cause greater misery to people who are unhappy enough to try to end their own lives is a form of inhumanity in the name of the Constitution’s ‘right to live’. To efface the law would be a laudable deed. The government’s intention and the sessions court judgment are both, by slightly different routes, encouraging signs on the road to good sense and humanity.