Author: Hardik Baid, NLU Delhi
MARUTI SHRIPATI DUBAL V. STATE OF MAHARASHTRA
In the following article, the readers will create an exhaustive knowledge base with respect to the Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 that penalizes the attempt to commit suicide with one year of simple imprisonment or fine or both. The constitutionality of the section has been a debated topic and seeks validity in the epoch where similar methods of terminating one’s life i.e. euthanasia, mercy killing, etc. have seen validation as a global trend. The article will analyze the landmark case of Maruti Shripat Dubal v. State of Maharashtra, in which the Bombay High Court struck down the section for it was violative of Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. Later in the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India struck down the section considering it ultra-vires of Article 14 and 21. However, in the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court reversed its judgment and held that Section 309, IPC is constitutionally valid.
The petitioner was a police constable who developed the mental illness after a road accident. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered from several mental depression and instability. On one occasion he poured kerosene on his body, tried to light a match, and himself on fire before he was stopped by the police. He was booked under section 309 IPC for an attempt to suicide. The case came before the Bombay High Court where the constitutionality of the section was challenged.
- Whether section 309 of IPC criminalizing attempt to suicide is constitutionally valid or not?
- Whether the petitioner is liable under the section for an attempt to suicide?
The court held that Section 309 IPC was violative of Article 14, 19 and 21 of the constitution and thus declared the section as ultra-vires of the constitution. The following was the reasoning of the court.
- The section is violative of Article 19 since
As in the case of Maneka Gandhi v. UOI, Kharak Singh v. State of UP and Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration – the right to life though is expressed in a negative connotation, it provides and confers the right to personal liberty and protection of life. Article 19 and Article 21 are to be construed harmoniously and read in relation to each other.
The ambit of the right to life is not limited and extended in the jurisprudence to include various essential elements such as the right to livelihood (in Olga Tellis v. BMC). The cases provide that article 21 spells out positive rights to enable an individual to live life with human dignity.
Fundamental rights include negative aspects along with their positive aspects. For instance, the right to freedom to speech and expression also includes the right not to speak or the right to remain silent. The right to freedom of movement also includes the right not to move anywhere. Hence, a logical deduction of the same is that the right to life also includes the right not to live. To put it positively, it would include the right to die or terminate one’s life.
The court reiterated its reasoning on the point that terminating one’s life cannot be equated with ending one’s life unnaturally since the person might have exhausted out of a desire to live and that is not unnatural. To end one’s life is the act of living and has to be considered with respect to circumstances of the individual that urge him to terminate his life which needs to be considered as natural.
Section 309 is in violation of Article 14 since the term ‘suicide’ has not been defined by the statute anywhere. There is a lot of uncertainty with the definition since different communities have different meanings of suicide. Also, under religions, while some suicides are eulogized some are condemned.
The lack of plausible and certain definitions further poses the problem that the section does not differentiate between the attempts to suicide. While some attempts might be serious, others may be non-serious. Though the same can be inferred from the intentions of a person, it is dubious since the acts might be done not necessarily to end one’s life. This makes the section arbitrary.
Also Read, Olga Tellis v. Mumbai Municipal Corporation
Second, it treats all attempts to commit suicide equally without considering the situation in which they are made. Different mental, physical, and social situations might lead individuals to commit suicide and the section makes no difference between them.
The section is arbitrary since it makes an individual who tries to escape his cruel and depressing lifestyle undergoes punishment instead of trying to treat the individual and make arrangements for the same. Further, the section cannot emphasize the need for deterrence to such individuals who have lost interest in life. Thus the section is self-defeating and counter-productive.
Based on the following reasoning, the court struck down section 309 IPC being violative of Article 19, 21, and 14 of the Constitution. The court, therefore, struck aside the prosecution of the petitioner and held him not liable under section 309 IPC.
This case was overruled in the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab which held that s. 309 is constitutional and not violative of Article 21 and Article 14. The court held that the right to life cannot be equated with the right to freedom, right to business, right to movement, etc. as equated to the extent that the latter rights are positive rights and include negative aspects while the right to life enshrined under Article 21 is a negative right and protects from any intrusion and thus cannot be compared to include positive aspect.
Article 21 confers the right to life and by any stretch, the same cannot be said to include the right to die. The right to life is a natural right but suicide is an unnatural ending of one’s life and therefore incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of the right to life. Any termination or extinguishing of life cannot be read with the right to protection of liberty and life.
Further, the severity of the punishment prescribed under the section is mitigated by the fact that there is a lot of discretion with respect to awarding punishments. The punishments are mitigated by the fact that there is no minimum punishment required and imprisonment is also not required. Hence the section is not violative of Article 14.
Since section 309 of IPC does not violate Article 21 and Article 14 of the Constitution, it is intra-vires of it i.e. constitutionally valid. After this case, State of Maharashtra v. Maruti Shripati Dubal was considered once again. In 1996, the court quashed the criminal prosecution against the constable considering the exceptional circumstances of the case and the mental illness of him. It held the respondent does not deserve to be subject to trial after 11 years of the instance and that even if the prosecution is proved beyond a reasonable doubt he deserves the lenient sentence of nominal fine.
With the advent of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 that struck down section 309 IPC thus decriminalizing attempt to suicide the legal positioning is re-established to the reasoning and judgment in the case of Maruti Dabal. Considering the aspect where the court has emphasized on the point of instead of providing solace and treatment to the persons suffering from mental illness and committing suicide, the law is throwing them into prison that not only infringes their personal liberty but also deteriorates their conditions further. Though it seems rather absurd and inconsistent to include right to die with the right to life, however right to persona liberty and life would have complete meaning only when read with a broad spectrum that is inclusive of the right to terminate one’s life. Further, the author believes that validating suicide would have negative repercussions as well since the individual life is comprised of social cost as well which is lost with the unnatural death of that individual through suicide. Also, since there is wide discretion with respect to the punishment awarded under the section, which ultimately is awarded contemplating the circumstances of a particular case as in the 1996 Maruti Shripati Dabal the section is not violative of Article 14 considering unequal punishment or no punishment is given in unequal cases. To put it in a nutshell the judgment was a progressive judgment that expanded the meaning of the right to life and protected the persons suffering from mental, physical, and social depression from entrenches of the vicious law and would have augmented their suffering and condition.
 1987 Cri LJ 743
 P. Rathinam v. Union of India MANU/SC/0433/1994
 AIR 1996 SC 1257
 1978 1 SCC 248
 AIR 1963 SC 1295
 1978 4 SCC 494
 AIR 1986 SC 180
 1996 6 SCC 42