Suicide is the intentional, voluntary,un-accidental, act of a sane man which results in his own death. In Pakistan, Section 325 of Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 provides that “whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offense, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both”. The law to punish the attempt to commit suicide is as old as the penal code itself.
Because in subcontinent penal code is designed and enforced by Englishmen, that is why it would be judicious to quote Blackstone’s common law view of suicide here: “the law of England wisely and religiously considers that no man hath a power to destroy life but by commission from God, the author of it; and, as the suicide is guilty of a double offense; one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the king, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects; the law has therefore ranked this among the highest crimes, making it a peculiar species of a felony, a felony committed don one’s self”.
Read more: Hindus in Sindh commit suicide as they fail to find food
Increase in the rate of suicides
Presently, as per World Health Organization, more than 700 000 people die due to suicide every year, and for every suicide, there are many more people who attempt suicide. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds. The question is: Whether the criminalization of suicide-attempt is productive in the prevention of it? Research answers in No. Rather, it adds more mental issues, agony and sufferings by labeling the victim as accused in society. Astonishingly, this is the only offense where the accused is also the victim.
The main purpose of the legislation is always to diminish the mischief caused by the act or omission which is designated as an offense; so, if the offense attempt-to-commit-suicide is not diminishing the attempts and if the offense is not proving helpful in the prevention of this crime, then is it not indispensable to review the law and to legislate it in accordance with socio-economic and phycological scenario of our society.
Firstly, the vires of this legislation were discussed by the Bombay High Court in Maruti Shri Pati Dubal Vs State of Maharashtra, 1987 and held section 309 of Indian Penal Code (which is similar to section 325 of Pakistan Penal Code) unconstitutional on the grounds that: “If the purpose of the prescribed punishment is to prevent the prospective suicides by deterrence, it is difficult to understand how the same can be achieved by punishing those who have made the attempts. Those who make the suicide attempt on account of mental disorders require psychiatric treatment and not confinement in the person’s cells where their condition is bound to worsen leading to further mental derangement.
Read more: 3 Pakistani students in Australia commit suicide
Those on the other hand who make the suicide attempt on account of acute physical ailments, incurable diseases, torture, or decrepit physical state induced by old age or disablement need nursing homes and not prisons to prevent them from making the attempts again. No deterrence is further going to hold back those who want to die for a social or political cause or to leave the world either because of the loss of interest in life or for self-deliverance. Thus, in no case, the punishment serves the purpose, and in some cases, it is bound to prove self-defeating and counter-productive”
How laws are tackling suicide?
Then, the Indian Supreme Court in P. Rathinam vs Union of India, 1994 held the same to be unconstitutional by observing in conclusion “that Section 309 of the Penal Code deserves to be effaced from the statute book to humanize our penal laws. It is a cruel and irrational provision, and it may result in punishing a person again (doubly) who has suffered agony and would be undergoing ignominy because of his failure to commit suicide”. The court also referred to two leading countries in its judgment: the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
“At English Common Law suicide was taken as a felony as much so that a person who had met his end after committing suicide was not allowed Christian burial… and the property of the person concerned used to get forfeited to the Crown…but times changed, notions changed and presently, even attempt to commit suicide is not a criminal offence, as would appear from Suicide Act, 1961”.
Read more: Three Indian soldiers commit suicide in Kashmir
As per above-referred judgment, “in the United States by early 1970s comparatively small number of States (9) listed suicide as a crime, although no penalties were exacted”. And then the court referred, “the latest American position as it had been mentioned at p. 348 of Columbia Law Review, 1986:Suicide is not a crime under the statutes of any State in the United States. Nor does any State, by statute, makes attempting suicide a crime…”
Taking help from the example of recent cases
Although P. Rathinam’s case was not approved by the full bench of the Indian Supreme Court, i.e., Smt. Gian Kaur VS the State of Punjab in 1996; despite the grounds and reasoning referred by the court in P. Rathinam’s case deserves much legal appreciation.
Be that as it may, in India, under section 115 of Mental Health Care Act, 2017 presumption of severe stress in case of attempt to commit suicide was provided to the accused. It provides that “Notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code”.
However, In Pakistan, although Mental Health Ordinance, 2001’ssection 49 states that “a person who attempts suicide shall be assessed by an approved psychiatrist and if found to be suffering from a mental disorder shall be treated appropriately under the provisions of this ordinance”. Yet it does not diminish the aftermaths of the arrest of the victim-cum-accused under section 325 of PPC.
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Therefore, it is high time that necessary amendments in penal and procedural laws regarding the attempt to commit suicide to be made because it is a more medical, psychiatric, and sociological issue than crime. It is also indispensable because, in criminal law, offences must always have justifications. And what justification could be there for punishing a person suffering from mental and phycological illness or with socio-economic issues, which are beyond his control.
The writer is an Assistant District Public Prosecutor, got the first position in competitive exams, and writes on various topics. He can be reached at Khokhar.email@example.com. His articles can be accessed on hmazeem.blospot.com. He holds an LL.M. from the Punjab University and teaches law. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.