For years libertarians have argued that the right to end one’s life should rest with the individual. That right is about to come to pass, thanks to the Mental Health Care Bill, 2013, which was cleared by the Lok Sabha last month. Among many other pathbreaking changes to the mental healthcare landscape in India, the bill decriminalises an attempt to suicide, bringing relief to all those unfortunate souls who tried to commit suicide — and failed, thereby laying themselves open to being charged under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code.
The decriminalisation of suicide is undoubtedly the most striking feature of the bill. Experts have long felt that getting hauled up for a criminal act after failing to commit suicide was a double whammy for the person. Although, as Dr J.R. Ram, consultant psychiatrist, Mental Health Foundation, Calcutta, points out, those who have attempted suicide have rarely been actually prosecuted.
But as Dr Anirudh Kala, a member of the Mental Health Policy Group constituted by the ministry of health and family welfare, points out, in most cases of attempted suicide, the police does make a visit to the emergency ward of the hospital. This is because the hospital authorities are bound to inform them. “A series of harassment and settlement follows and the focus shifts from mental health treatment. It also stigmatises the patient and the family,” says Dr Kala.
The bill attempts to right this. Section 124(1) lays down that “the person who attempts to commit suicide shall ordinarily be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have mental illness and not be subject to any investigation or prosecution”.
This provision in the bill has been welcomed by most mental health experts. Says Vandana Gopikumar, co-founder of The Banyan, a Chennai-based home for mentally ill destitute women. “This clause will decriminalise the act and encourage those in need of counselling and related support to access these without fear or shame. It will also remove the stigma associated with suicide.”
Some say decriminalising attempts to suicide may harm the interests of women. Bhargavi Davar, director, Center for Advocacy in Mental Health, Bapu Trust for Research on Mind and Discourse, Pune, stresses, “It will have an adverse impact on women who try to take their life owing to domestic violence. The police investigation into the incident also reveals the domestic abuse that led to it.”
Piali Biswas, a 19-year-old housewife tried to commit suicide by hanging herself after being harassed by her in-laws. She was rushed to the hospital, which immediately informed the police. Says her father Arun Saha, “The police informed us and we got to know how she had been tortured for over a month.” Saha believes he would have never known about it if the attempt to suicide weren’t considered a crime.
Later, the case went to court and while the in-laws were prosecuted, the girl was acquitted of the charge of attempt to suicide.
However, Jayna Kothari, founder, Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bangalore, does not feel decriminalising suicide will be of any great consequence to domestic violence cases. “I do not think decriminalising Section 309 of the IPC will have any adverse impact on women facing domestic violence. This section relates to the attempt to suicide. Abetment to suicide will continue to be an offence under Section 306 of the IPC.”
Kothari feels that though the decriminalisation of attempted suicide has attracted a lot of attention, the more significant aspect of the bill is Section 124(2). It states that it would be the government’s duty to provide healthcare, treatment and rehabilitation to a person attempting suicide as it would be assumed that such a person was suffering from mental illness.
The bill not only makes it a duty of the government to provide care, treatment and rehabilitation to a mentally ill person who attempted suicide, but also reduces the risk of recurrence of attempt to suicide, says Soumitra Pathare, a Pune-based psychiatrist and co-ordinator of the Centre for Health Law & Policy at the Indian Law Society. Pathare wrote the original draft of the bill.
“This is important, because people surviving suicide attempts need support and care,” says Kothari. However, she feels that the bill falls short in that it does not say clearly what kind of care and treatment or rehabilitation is to be provided and which agent of the state would provide it — the police, the hospital or any other local authority.
So would one see a rise in suicide rates, now that attempt to it is all but decriminalised? Most feel that is unlikely. Take Raju Bhattacharya, a 65-year-old former public sector employee. After resigning from his company, he became severely depressed. He tried to commit suicide twice — first by setting himself on fire, and then with an overdose of sleeping pills. Each time, he was saved by the timely intervention of his wife. Says Bhattacharya, who is much more at peace today, “I don’t think it matters whether you criminalise or decriminalise suicide. A person who contemplates suicide doesn’t think of what will happen to him if he fails in the attempt. He is not in the right frame of mind to weigh the pros and cons. The previous law had never acted as a deterrent to anyone who wanted to commit suicide.”
However, others feel that the move is to be welcomed. Three months ago Rabin Chatterjee — a 71-year-old retired government official — took an overdose of sleeping pills, unable to bear the excruciating pain following radiotherapy treatment for cancer. Chatterjee was rushed to the intensive care unit of a nursing home and was eventually saved. Since Chatterjee had attempted suicide, the nursing home authorities wanted to call the police in. Says his son Avik, “We were already traumatised. And we certainly didn’t want to disclose this to anybody else. We had to negotiate with the nursing home to hush up the matter and save my father from the ignominy of being charged under Section 309 of the IPC. If attempt to suicide had been decriminalised at that time, we wouldn’t have had to go through such an ordeal.”
“Most people commit suicide due to depression. Decriminilisation will certainly spare them from getting prosecuted. Moreover, they will also get treated for their depression and psychological problems,” says Prasanta Kumar Ray, social psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, Calcutta.
However, Ray feels that if someone attempts suicide just to implicate another person (in the case of jilted lovers, for instance), that act should be criminalised.
Clearly, even though the new law will decriminalise suicide, the debate on the subject is far from over.
(Some names have been changed on request)