In this time of Covid-19 pandemic, mental health is a pressing issue as the whole world is facing a serious social, economic and health crisis. As a matter of fact, we have seen in news coverage and media reports about some really shocking suicide incidents these days. Therefore, it is the demand of the time to address this case which gives us a different aspect about suicide and suicide related legal provisions and makes us rethink about the whole concept once again.
Equivalent citations: 1987 (1) Bom CR 499, (1986) 88 BOMLR 589.
Date of Judgment: 25 September, 1986.
Bench: Justice B K Patil, Justice P Sawant.
Fact: The petitioner was a police constable who met a road accident in 1981.He suffered head injuries. He recovered from it, but he became mentally ill. The petitioner was going through psychiatric treatment as he was diagnosed with “Giddiness (fright), reduced sleep and appetite, nervousness, confusion, etc.” Later on, he was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. Even he was given electric shock-treatment. In the year1985, he tried to commit suicide by pouring kerosene himself and by trying to light his clothes.
The primary reason behind his suicide attempt was the delay of disposal in respect of his wife’s application for license for establishing a vegetable selling stall. An Honorable Minister of the State Government had provided him a letter which was addressed to the Municipal Commissioner to look into his case sympathetically as he was mentally ill and the petitioner wanted to see him with the said letter. But he was not allowed to do so and the security was very rude to him. After the suicide attempt an offense was registered against him under S. 309, Penal Code. He was formally arrested and later released on bail.
The learned Counsel appearing for the petitioner argued about three propositions:
- Firstly, attempt to suicide should not be an offense according to the sanctity of Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India and thus S. 309 was an ultra – virus to the constitution.
- Secondly, all different cases of suicide and attempt to suicide had been generalized under the provision of this section and the punishments were unjust and arbitrary. The section, thus, violated Article 14 of the Constitution.
- Thirdly, the assumption to consider suicide an offense and the punishment prescribed both were barbaric and irrational.
Argument of the respondent:
The learned Counsel of the respondent, counter argued that, the provisions of Articles 19 and 21 did not recognize the right to life as the petitioner had depicted in their argument. The function of these provisions was to stop the state from depriving right to life of the individuals. Also, the provisions of Article 14 did not bind the state to classify the offenders and thus the Constitution was not violated. Furthermore, the state had a clear prerogative to prescribe the punishment to the offenders and it could not be said barbaric. Also, the main intention behind prescribing punishment was to stop the prospective offenders.
i) Whether Section 309 was unconstitutional or not?
ii) Whether S. 309 treated all cases of attempt to commit suicide equally and made them an offense and prescribed punishment for them arbitrarily by the same measure?
iii) Whether the punishment was barbaric, cruel, irrational and self-defeating or not?
The rule was made absolute. Provision of S. 309 declared ultra-virus. The prosecution pending against petitioner declared quashed. Since the court has struck down S. 309, all prosecutions launched under the said section and pending in any of the Courts in the State also declared to be quashed.
Desire to die is natural among humans. But suicide and an attempt to suicide is an abnormal incident. There are many situations when a person commits or attempt to commit suicide: mental diseases or imbalances, physical condition disabling the person from taking normal care of himself, the loss of all hope of happiness, unbearable conditions of life, societal abhorrence etc.
The right to end one’s life is nothing new and some religions like Hindu and Jain have approved this practice. Even suicide is legal in various countries in Europe like France, UK and in countries like Russia, Japan. In many U.S state suicide and attempted suicide is not a crime. The purpose of the section is to prevent the prospective suicides. But it is illogical to achieve so by punishing suicidal persons. Rather, they require psychiatric treatment and mental support to get out of this situation.
Also, nothing in Section 309 treats the various suicide cases according to their context. Also, suicide involves no damage to person or property of others. So, it is illogical to incriminate it. As we see various statutes permit the donation of body parts under certain conditions, which is actually the recognition of the right of the individual to deal with his body as he wants to. So, the same can be argued in the case of one’s life and therefore, it can be held that, one should have the freedom to dispose his life as and when he desires.
Importance of the Decision:
The decision was ground breaking in nature. From the British colonial era the penal provisions around the Indian subcontinent did not change that much. Even till date India, Bangladesh and Pakistan follow the Penal Code, 1860, a colonial era law which is in need of thorough modification to adjust it in the present context. Yet, very few steps had been taken in this regard. But the judgment of this case has made it clear that not only the provisions of this act are backdated but also, these are barbaric and against the notion of justice. As Bangladesh inherited and follows the same provisions of Penal Code, 1860, this judgment has a serious persuasive impact on the Bangladeshi legal system.
Impact on the Bangladeshi Legal System:
Bangladesh has a lesson to learn from this Indian judgment. The provision of section 309 of Penal Code, 1860 of Bangladesh can be held as a barbaric and archaic provision under the persuasive sanctity of this judgment. Under article 32 of the Bangladeshi constitution someone’s protection of the right to life and personal liberty is a ‘Fundamental Right’ and also part II of the Constitution depicts the Fundamental Principles of State Policies, encouraging the state to work for the socio-economic betterment of the people. So, in the spirit of the constitution, Bangladesh must show responsibility to arrange institutional and legal mechanisms to support the suicidal people. Therefore, it is highly recommended to create a special law like The Suicide Act, 1961 of England and Wales as was mentioned in this judgment. Until then the judiciary of Bangladesh can play a progressive role following the path of the Indian judiciary through this case to exempt patients of suicide-prone diseases (schizophrenia, giddiness, fright, reduced sleep, etc.) from being convicted for attempted suicide.
It is the constitutional duty of the courts to ensure justice for country’s citizens. If legal provisions are made unjustly then the court has the power to bring them in line of constitutional and human rights aspects. Therefore, a writ petition can be made challenging the provisions of Section 309 of Penal Code, 1860 and in that petition this persuasive Indian precedent may play a very crucial role in relation to the court’s scrutiny about the said section. Therefore, it can be said that, the discussed case has an enormous important role to play not just in India but also in Bangladesh and other parts of the subcontinent too especially in the current context of pandemic related suicide and mental health issues.