Did you know suicide was a criminal offence in India? Know what our law thinks of mental health

Sushant Singh Rajput’s untimely demise is being ruled out as suicide. Investigations are still underway and many, including his maternal uncle, suspect it to be a homicide in the guise of suicide.

Sushant Singh Rajput

With condolences pouring in from all directions, people are raking up the much-needed discussion around mental health that often ushers one to the rope, or the blade, or the balcony railing, or the terrace, leading one ultimate extreme: suicide.

A fresh debate sprung up over the use of “commit suicide” after it was pointed out by a journalist, and then retweeted by actress, Deepika Padukone. The word “commit”, though translates to “carrying out”, does have a hint of negativity tailing along, as it is mostly used for an act of crime, mischief, or mistake.

Did you know that suicide in India, till the year 2017-18 was punishable? A suicide survivor could be made to undergo a trial at the court or penalised legally for a failed attempt at taking his or her own life.

Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code stated, “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”.

In other words, the prevalent law criminalised attempted suicide and suicide assistance. Though the law, we assume, was implemented to serve as a deterrent to discourage such attempts, it failed to consider the accused’s background and empathise with the severe mental stress that could have abetted the act.

To improvise on the prevailing obsolete law, the Mental Health Care Act 2017 was passed in April 2017 and came into effect from July 2018.

  • As per the newly introduced Act, the government will be liable to provide care, rehabilitation, and treatment to the suicide survivor who perhaps still suffers from severe stress. This would reduce the risk of a repeated suicide attempt stemming from the failure and stigma of the first one.

  • If the individual recuperating mental illness is living below the poverty line or is homeless, his treatment and rehabilitation would be on the government. This would hold true even in the absence of a BPL card. He will be attended free of any cost at government-run or government-funded mental health establishments.

  • Defining mental illness, the 2017 Act replaces the Mental Health Act 1987. Introduced to harmonise the country’s existing laws with the “Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol,” the greater cause it aspires for is transforming India’s mental healthcare regime.

  • Article 20(1) of the Act 2017 asserts, 'every person with mental illness shall have a right to live with dignity', stressing that there will be no discrimination against any individual on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, faith, culture, caste, class, social or political leanings, or physical disabilities. It strives to bring the mental illness at par with the physical disabilities and provide people with mental illness a provision of healthcare services alike.

  • Exposing children to electric shocks and sterilisation of adults as a form of treatment for mental illness has been barred. Electric shocks could be given to adults with mental illness, but following muscle relaxants and anaesthesia. Mentally ill patients shall no longer be chained in treatment establishments.

But, that the act doesn’t totally scrape off criminalising of the act of “committing suicide” offends many experts including a renowned psychiatrist and member of  WHO’s Network on Suicide Research and Prevention, Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar who laments that though the Mental Healthcare Act (MCHA), 2017, renders IPC Section 309 redundant, the obsolete law still remains in the book of the law.