Author: Bhavesh Khatri, II year of B.A.,LL.B. from BM Law College, Jodhpur, Rajasthan
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution provides for the Right to Life and Personal Liberty as one of the Fundamental Rights provided in the Part III of the Indian Constitution. It provides for the right to live a dignified and a meaningful life and have personal liberty and freedom. But the point of contradiction arises on the question that whether right to life involves within itself the right to die? If a person has the right to live then he should also have the right to end his own life according to his will but this argument within the scope of the Article 21 is contradicted by Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which renders attempt to suicide a punishable offence inviting imprisonment or penalty or both. There have been conflicting opinions and varying judgements of various courts regarding the scope of Article 21 in the above-mentioned issue and the constitutional validity of Section 309, IPC.
Understanding of Article 21
Right to life is a basic human right enjoyed by every human being because of his birth in the human race. It has been granted as a Fundamental Right in Part III of the Indian Constitution. Article 21 states that-
“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is one of the most widely interpreted right in the constitution because right to life does not only mean survival and existence of the one but on the other hand a life of dignity and meaning for an individual where he is able to grow in every field possible. It has been interpreted on several grounds by the Indian Judiciary so as to include within itself various other rights such as Right to Live with Dignity, Right to Privacy, Right to Information, Right to Shelter, Right to Food, Right to Clean Environment, etc. which are some significant rights for the true enjoyment of one’s life.
But whether right to die should be encompassed within the ambit of right to live has always been a debatable topic. Death may be defined as the extinction of one’s life. Now, to exercise one’s right to die, one must voluntarily end his own life or with the assistance of another person bring an end to his own life but this is wrong in moral principle as well as punishable by the law because everyone has a right to live a long and fulfilling life. Everyone has a right to enjoy longevity of life. Therefore, Section 309 of IPC recognizes an attempt to suicide as a punishable offence and Section 306 renders the abetment of suicide as a punishable offence and the abettor being imprisoned for a term which may extend to ten years and shall also be liable for fine. Hence, from time to time in the history of Indian Judiciary, Article 21 has been constantly interpreted regarding the matter of right to die and the constitutional validation of Section 309 of IPC has been inquired which has been discussed in the subsequent segment.
Constitutional Validity of Section 309, IPC
Section 309, IPC 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.]’
Therefore Section 309, IPC renders attempt to suicide as a punishable offence but whether it is valid with the tenets of the Fundamental Rights and the Indian Constitution has always been an intriguing question inviting contrasting opinions.
The question first came up before the Bombay High Court in the Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra1 and the court struck down the Section 309, IPC as it is in contradiction with Article 14 and 21. Article 21 of the constitution provides for the right to life. The ‘right to life’ also includes ‘the right to terminate one’s life’ if one wishes to do so. It was pointed out that the fundamental rights have their positive as well as negative aspects like for example, freedom of speech and expression also means the freedom to be silent and not to speak. Similarly, Article 21 within itself includes the right not to live or right not to be forced to live within itself as well.
There are different mental, social, physical and economic causes which serve the reason for different individuals to commit suicide and the reasons and the ends for commission of suicides by different individuals have nothing in common but Section 309 makes no distinction between these attempts although they have nothing in common, thus making the section arbitrary and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution which provides for the Right to Equality.
Hence, the Court declared Section 309, IPC as ultra vires to the constitution and thus, unconstitutional and held that the same section should be repealed.
In P. Rathiman v. Union of India2, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court upheld the verdict given by the Bombay High Court in the Maruti ShripatiDubal case. A person cannot be forced or asked to enjoy a life which in fact may be disadvantageous or detrimental to him due to the presence of certain special circumstances. Therefore, it arrived at the conclusion that right to life under Article 21 does not and should not mean right to live a forced life. A person should not be punished for an unsuccessful attempt to suicide and should not suffer the agony again due to a failed attempt to suicide. What required for a suicide-prone person is counselling from an able and professional psychiatrist and not an environment with criminals and harsh treatment from the jail authorities. The punishment for attempt to suicide would only worsen the mental suffering of an individual. Hence, the Apex court expressed the opinion that Section 309 should be deleted from the IPC for the purpose of humanisation of the penal law of the country.
The Dictum given in P. Rathiman case was overruled by the court in Gian Singh v. State of Punjab3rendering Section 306 and 309 of IPC constitutional. The court was of the opinion that all fundamental rights are different in their application and different standards should be applied to them for their interpretation. Although, Article 19 possess a negative aspect within it but Article 21 cannot be interpretated in the same way. Therefore, termination of life in an unnatural way could not be treated as a part of the wider right to life. The Constitutional Bench held that the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and to die after living a life with dignity as well as a dignified procedure for death. The right to die with dignity after living a dignified and fulfilling life must not be equated with an unnatural termination of life shortening the natural life span of an individual. Hence, the court held the decision that Section 306 and 309 are not violative of the Article 21 of the constitution and thus, are constitutionally valid. But the court remained silent on the question whether Section 309 should be repealed or continued.
In my opinion, the law made for the purpose of deterrence of suicides by punishing those who attempted to suicide would not be useful and productive because punishment cannot deter a person to commit suicide who has lost interest in life. A mentally ill person who attempted suicide requires psychiatric treatment and not getting locked up in jail which would lead to greater mental adversity. Instead of punishment, what is required is knowledge of conditions and factors which motivated the person committing suicide and providing solutions for such conditions and the mental derangement the person is going through.
And about whether right to die should be a part of the right to live, right to die should not be a part of the right to life because such a statute would serve as an explanation and excuse for the suicides just to efface the hardships of life. Such a provision if acknowledged may lead to an increase in the suicide rate of the country and may serve a counterproductive purpose of state’s duty to protect the lives of the citizens.
However, if the mental or physical condition of an individual is such that it is more awful and unbearable than death, then death would relieve such a person from the greater pain through which he is going. This is called as Euthanasia or Mercy-Killing. In such cases, right to die should be awarded to the individual suffering. And the Judiciaries over the world are now recognising the concept of Euthanasia and various decisions have been given regarding this concept and the concept still rests as an issue for interpretation by the judiciaries all over the world.
1 Maruti ShripatiDubal v. State of Maharashtra, 1987 Cr LJ 743
2 P. Rathiman v. Union of India, AIR 1994 SC 1844
3 Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, AIR 1996 SC 946
The Constitution of India, 1950
The Indian Penal Code, 1860