16-year-old Meera popped 23 of her mother’s sleeping pills and went to her bed. Her father was diagnosed with cancer when she was merely two months old and they shifted their home frequently in search of correct treatment. His ultimate demise four years back, shook the entire family, especially Meera’s mother; the pills became a nightly ritual. One day, Meera heard her mother talking to an astrologer. He claimed that Meera was unlucky for her father from the moment that she was conceived. Eventually, Meera suffered from an acute depression and then came the day when she took a drastic step. Who should be held accountable for this suicide attempt?
Indian judicial system criminalizes attempted suicide under Section 309 of Indian penal Code (IPC). Section 309 states that 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 extend to one year or with fine, or with both. Next morning when Meera didn't wake up, her mother forced her to vomit and her life was saved but would it be humane to criminalize her for a choice that was, driven, in part, by social and mental causes beyond her control?
Suicide has been a topic of philosophical debate for a very long time. Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was the first person to denounce suicide, as he believed that life is gifted by God and a man has no right to take away something that doesn’t belong to him. There were church-led condemnations of suicide and leaders of Jewish society denied burials in hallowed grounds to suicide victims. In 13th century, Aquinas was inspired by a want for intellectual understanding; he reviewed Christian theology, Summa Theologiae, in a systematic and comprehensive manner. In this work, Aquinas stated that suicide is an act against God. Admonitions by Aquinas led to civil and criminal law to discourage suicide. Social stigma against attempters, completers and survivors of suicide was prevalent during the Middle Ages. For instance, suicide victims were not given proper burials and their bodies were disgraced; their head would be placed on a pole on the outskirts of cities as a warning while their bodies were thrown outside the city gates for the carnivores to consume.
While there was strong hatred towards suicides, later there were also some palpable reflections of changing views which can be seen in the works of Shakespeare. He brought to light the concepts of melancholy, pain of lost love and escape from disgrace in his literary depictions of suicides. Stabbing was the means used by seven characters. Four characters poisoned themselves. One character drowned and let itself die without trying to survive. Another character swallowed fire. Shakespeare tried to break the wall of stigma by reminding society that suicide is not avoidable in a sheer manner. In 1897, Emile Durkheim published Le Suicide, first case study of suicide. He argued that suicide was not just an individual choice but was driven by social causes no matter how hidden they may be. One of the reasons suicide is less stigmatized today is the understanding that outside pressures, or societal push, can contribute to suicidal behavior.
Methods to denounce suicide have changed dramatically but the purpose is same: to discourage suicide. But is the law really effective? Suicide victims are meant to be treated with empathy and passion. It is important to understand the reasons and consequences that led them to take such extreme measure in the first place. Sanctions after a failed suicide attempt are like a double whammy for a survivor.
Meera’s attempt to kill herself was never reported to the police because her family feared the social criticism and criminal sanctions. Hence, she never went through the criminal due process which was made to curb suicides in India.
Six years after this incident, Meera’s mother collapsed in the living room. She was rushed to a nearby hospital. She died because of two consecutive heart attacks. Loss of a loved one can invoke depression. Moreover, a person who has been exposed to suicidal behavior is likely to attempt suicide again. What if she does? What if she succeeds this time? India would lose one more asset. When a person decides to take one’s life with their own hands, they don’t ponder over consequences in the future that they will have to face in case they survived. Hence, people attempt suicide, they die and law disappoints.
Hypothetically speaking, If India’s judicial system, in lieu punishing with imprisonment and fine had made counselling mandatory for victims and their families; there is a high probability that Meera’s mother would have reported her daughter’s first suicide attempt and the counselling received would have brought any such future attempts to a standstill. If there is any hope to save a loved one without endangering family’s reputation and financial condition, everyone shall be willing to take this one more step and report such suicide attempts.
Approximately 1,35,000 residents of India commits suicide every year. Said another way, approximately 1,35,000 of the human capital of India is lost every day, because of suicides. Reforms in Section 309 of IPC may not halt suicides but can certainly reduce the probability of losing Meera and thousands of Indians like her.
It has been three years since the Supreme Court urged the parliamentarians to amend the law, but unfortunately no action has been taken till date. How long does government wants to wait before we lose just another gem?