Waiting for Decriminalization of Suicide in India: 153 Years and Still Counting

For the first time in over three and a half decades, a bill created by the Indian federal government seeks to decriminalize suicide, but the bill must be approved by the Indian Parliament before the law can be adopted. Health professionals should pay attention to this bill.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) came into force in British-ruled India in 1862. Section 309 makes attempted suicide a penal offence. The United Kingdom itself decriminalized suicide in 1961; however, suicide attempts remain punishable under India’s laws even after 68 years of independence. Now, there is hope that this piece of colonial era legislation will go. The question is, how soon?

Following appeals for decriminalization of suicide from many quarters since 1978, including from the Supreme Court of India, and based on the recommendation of the Law Commission of India, the central government announced on 10th December, 2014 that it had decided to drop Section 309 from the IPC with overwhelming support from a majority of the Indian States. A Cabinet Note on the IPC Amendment Bill was circulated by the Union Home Ministry among other ministries such as Law and Health. 

However, to become law, the Indian Parliament has to legislate on the issue. Despite the government’s show of intent, a year has passed and the Bill has not yet been taken up in Parliament. It is instructive to remember that the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Indian Parliament) passed a similar Bill in 1978, but the Bill lapsed as the Lok Sabha (the Lower House) was dissolved in 1979. The current bill constitutes the government’s first serious engagement with this issue after about 36 years. For this reason, health professionals must pay particular attention to the bill and its progress now.

Apart from raising awareness to ensure that the Government’s resolution bears fruit in terms of the required amendment of the law via parliament, the Indian health fraternity should also take this opportunity to re-evaluate its position with regard to suicide, for example on issues related to reporting, confidentiality and long-term care. In addition, we should advocate for a broad-based public health approach towards prevention and management of suicide.