Madras High Court's Comments On Suicide Betray A Lack Of Empathy

Madras High Court Bench Calls Suicide "Act Of Cowardice"

13/07/2016 1:23 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
Munish Sharma / Reuters
Malkit Kaur, mother of Kuldeep Singh, a cotton farmer who committed suicide, holds his portrait as Kuldeep's father Thana Singh (R), his brother Hardeep Singh (2nd R) and his widow Bhinder Kaur (L) sit on a cot at their residence on the outskirts of Bhatinda in Punjab, India, October 28, 2015.

Would it surprise anyone living in India or, for that matter, those familiar with the country's social, political and economic structures, to learn that it has one of the highest suicide rates in the world?

According to a report published by the World Health Organisation in 2012, 258,075 Indians killed themselves that year. Of these, 99,977 were women, 158,098 were men -- which means 21.1 out of every 100,000 people committed suicide in one year.

In 2013, 32,325 people took their lives due to "family problems", the most common cause of suicide in India, the National Crime Records Bureau pointed out. The next year, the country recorded 12,360 farmer suicides, largely caused by bankruptcy and farming-related troubles, while more than 20,000 housewives took their lives, once again triggered mostly by "changing expectations concerning social roles, especially in marriage", as an expert put it.

Pause for a moment on these statistics and allow yourself to absorb the enormity of the human tragedy lurking behind these numbers. Then consider this statement made by Justice P. Devadass, a member of the Madras High Court Bench, in a recent ruling in a case of suicide: "For the wrong decision taken by a coward, fool, idiot, a man of weak mentality and a man of frail mentality, another person cannot be blamed for having abetted the suicide."

Justice Devadass, who, in another instance, had described a woman's suicide as a "foolish act", made this remark while acquitting a man accused of driving a young woman to end her life in Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu. He recommended that the contents of a suicide note, along with other attending circumstances of the death, have to be examined carefully to ensure that the cause of death "is abetment within the meaning of section 306 (abetment of suicide) read with 107 (abetment) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)". Only after this procedure has been followed with satisfaction can an accused be booked under these sections of the IPC.

While the principle of caution exercised by the judge is well taken, his view of suicide as "an act of cowardice" and the severe condemnation of those who succumb to it are bound to leave many deeply uneasy. To blatantly dismiss an extreme step like suicide as an individual's failure of courage is to disregard the moral dilemma and complex circumstances that usually provoke such an action. Such a reaction may be common among those lacking the intellectual wherewithal and empathy required to grapple with a phenomenon as disturbing as suicide. One certainly doesn't expect it from a high court judge.

Although suicide is still a stigma in Indian society rather than a mental health problem, the National Democratic Government (NDA) took a major step in 2014 when it decriminalised it by deleting Section 309 from the IPC. Under this section, a person attempting suicide could be punished with a monetary penalty and/or a term of imprisonment. A woman coerced into taking her life by her in-laws could, for instance, be fated to suffer a double ignominy, at home and at the hands of the State, if she managed to survive in the end.

While the majority of the states and Union territories supported the move to scrap this section, a chorus of dissent was also raised by many others.

What, for instance, would this change make of suicide bombers or criminals who try to kill themselves under duress? Such cases, the home ministry explained, would still be treated under the purview of the Prevention of Unlawful Activities Act.

States like Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Sikkim were worried about those threatening to fast unto death, like Irom Sharmila of Manipur who is protesting against the misuse of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in her state for years, or those attempting self-immolation as a gesture of rebellion. In spite of these dissenting views, the government decided to stand by the Law Commission's recommendation for suicide to be seen as a manifestation of a diseased mind, deserving treatment and care, rather than punishment.

If the government's view of suicide being a mental health crisis was progressive, it was also profoundly ironic. For it made the State as culpable as any other individual, or external agency, for instigating a suicide. A farmer in debt who left behind a note blaming failed economic reforms for his decision to consume poison would be putting the blame, indirectly, on the government for pushing him over the edge. How would the State extend care to such a victim of a system perpetuated by it?

When it comes to the treatment of mental health problems, the Indian State's intentions has been less than honourable and riddled with double standards. In a society where members of various minority communities, women, LGBTI people and those belonging to the lower castes are routinely harassed, intimated, tortured, traumatised and inadequately protected by law, it is no wonder that depression is endemic and recourse to suicide is often seen as the only form of redress.

In his ruling, Justice Devadass also brought attention to another vulnerable segment of the population, especially prone to suicide. "On his failure in examinations, a student may commit suicide. They are weak-minded and persons of frail mentality. For their foolish mentality/decision, another person cannot be blamed," he said. Not only does such a comment put the blame for suicide entirely on the victim, but it also pardons every other arm of society that must have pushed them into taking such a desperate step.

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