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Moving in the right direction

The central government on Wednesday announced its decision to repeal Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code from the statute book,  which dropped attempted suicide from a list of crimes punishable by prison time. The decision to drop this section, which we’ve inherited from our erstwhile colonial masters, has received the backing of 22 states and 4 union territories.

The Law Commissions 210th report on ‘Humanisation and Decriminalisation of Attempt to Suicide’ had recommended that Section 309 needed to be removed from the statute book because the provision was inhuman and that attempting suicides was a ‘manifestation of a diseased condition of mind’ that called for treatment rather than punishment. According to a report by the World Health Organisation, Indian accounted for the highest number of suicides in the world, with a rate of 21.1 per 1000,000 people. Although, this may at first seem like a humane decision to treat individuals with mental concerns instead of punishing them, the implications of such a decision has further consequences for our polity at large.

The decision does potentially pave the way for the release of human rights activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on hunger strike for the past 14 years. The human rights activist from Manipur has been on a hunger strike in protest against army atrocities in her state that is under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Under the unamended law, anyone who attempts to kill themselves is liable for a prison term that can be extended to up to one year.

Throughout her fast, Sharmila has been under detention and is force-fed by tubes several times a day. Lodging criminal cases alleging attempt to commit suicide on Sharmila is nothing but a gross misuse of the law for political purposes. The key purpose behind her fast was to put pressure on the government and expose the atrocities committed under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It is interesting to note that even our erstwhile British rulers did not resort to Section 309 against fasting by national leaders and history is full of incidents involving Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom fighters. Besides Sharmila’s case, Section 309 has been misused in other instances against peaceful agitations. However, pending the passage of the Mental Health Care Bill, Section 309 continues to remain on our statute books.
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