The article critically examines the basis of the decision of the Supreme Court to strike down section 309. Further, the author argues for the need for policy initiative, better access mental health care, and recognition of mental health care and health rights as a necessity for those contemplating and committing suicide.
The recent government proposal to strike down Section 309 as a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code is certainly welcome news. Studies have consistently found that an overwhelming majority of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder at the time of their death. However, often these disorders are hardly recognised, diagnosed or adequately treated.
The announcement on the deletion of Section 309 does not indicate whether this step is prompted by mental health concerns. The government does state, however, that the proposal is based on the recommendations of the reports of the Law Commission of India. The deletion was first recommended in the 42nd report of the Law Commission of 1971. Significantly, this report did not make the recommendation out of mental health concerns surrounding persons committing suicide. It relied, among other sources, on the commentators on Manu in the Dharmashastra to state that a person who is driven to death is either “incurably diseased” or “meets with a grave misfortune”. The deletion of Section 309 was suggested out of pity or sympathy for those attempting to commit suicide. The suggestion came up again in the 210th report of the Law Commission in 2008, a document concentrating solely on the decriminalisation of suicide. This report did make references to the fact that persons committing suicide need sympathy, care and treatment, not punishment. But neither report made a strong case for the rights of persons with mental illnesses, continuing to describe them as having an incurable disease and deserving sympathy.