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Killing Me Softly: The Right To Die

Author: Priya Sharma

Designation: 4th year, BA.LLB (Hons); University of Petroleum and Energy Studies

Contact: +91-853*******

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Approximately, 800,000 people die by suicide worldwide every year, out of these 135,000 (17%) are residents of India. The number of suicides during the decades (1987 -2007), has recorded increased in the suicide rate from 7.9 to 10.3 per 10,000. In 2012, Tamil Nadu (12.5% of all suicides), Maharashtra (11.9%) and West Bengal (11.0%) had the highest proportion of suicides. Among large population states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala had the highest suicide rates per 100,000 people in 2012. The overall male: female ratio of suicide victims was 2:1. According to WHO data, the age-standardized suicide rate in India is 16.4 per 100,000 for women (6th highest in the world) and 25.8 for men (ranking 22nd).


In India under section 309 of IPC,1860 suicide is a criminal offence. It is a unique offence, you are punished, if you attempt to suicide but if you succeed you are not – hence, you need a successful suicide then, there is no one to punish. Those who abet to suicide can be imprisoned for up to 10yrs and fined under section 306 of the IPC,1860. This is only protective law against the instigation of sati pratha in India.

It has been widely criticized, as early as 1971 the Law Commission of India suggested that the law penalizing suicide attempts a harsh and unjustifiable and need to be deleted. It was constitutionally challenged first time in 1985, Maruti Dubal vs. State of Maharashtra, a police constable of Bombay police attempts to commit suicide by pouring kerosene oil. Before the court decided the case was an attempt to commit suicide, he challenged the section 309 of the IPC, that it is ultra vires and violates article 12 and 14. The court accepted the challenge and agreed that everybody is the master of own body and there is nothing unnatural about desire to die. The constitution provides the right to live; it includes the right not to live. The Bombay high court held that section 309 was ultra vires, unconstitutional and struck it down.

Again, the constitutional validity of section 309of IPC challenged in the supreme court in P. Rathinam vs Union of India court held that an attempt to commit a suicide indicates the psychological problems, not a criminal intention. A psychological treatment is necessary to them rather than as a considered criminal offence. The court followed the Maruti Dubal case and held unconstitutional section 309 of IPC.

To die or not? Is the right to die fall under the ambit of right to live? So many questions arose in the supreme court in Gian Kaur vs State of Punjab where a married coupled appealed against the conviction for abetting suicide under section 306 of IPC. Gian Kaur and her husband Harbans Singh fearlessly poured kerosene on daughter-in-law Kulwant Singh and had a clear intention to see her dead.

They argued that suicide is a personal choice and does not have any religious, moral or social consequences. It does not affect another person’s liberty and does not cause any harm to another person. So, there is no reason to declare it illegal. However, it overruled its earlier judgement in Rathinam case and held that right to life does not include right to die. Section 309 of IPC again becomes constitutional valid.

The court said that:

“right to life” under Article 21 does not include “right to die” or “right to be killed”. The “right to die” is inherently inconsistent with the “right to life” as is “death with life”. “Right to life” is a natural right embodied in Article 21, but suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life and, incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of “right to life”.


Euthanasia is the termination of a very sick person's life in order to relieve them of their suffering. A person who undergo euthanasia are incurable condition where some people want to end their life while in many cases decision made by their relatives. It is surrounded by religious, ethical practices, moral considerations. Should human beings have the right to decide on issues of life and death?

Is there a moral difference between killing someone and letting them die?

The Gian Kaur case is important as it open the window of legalize the euthanasia within the legal framework. Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union of India a landmark judgment legalising euthanasia in India. Aruna Shanbaug was a nurse of KEM hospital while changing her clothes she was assaulted and raped by the hospital sweeper. She never recovered from the accident, after the 40 yrs. She is still in the vegetative state.

Journalist Pinki Virani who closely observed Aruna Shanbaug’s life and wrote a book on her life. She moved to the supreme court appealing to stop feeding her in order to die with peace and dignity. The Bombay Municipal Corporation and dean of KEM Hospital in deponent said that she accepted the food and responded via facial expression or intermittent.

The supreme court set up a team of three doctors to objectively observe Aruna’s condition and report it to the court and allowed video recording of her condition to be screened in the courtroom. Interestingly, the idea of video recording came from the Nuremberg trial in Germany. The result was ironic, the court itself considered her as an inanimate object of examination and overlooked the Aruna right to privacy.

The Supreme court in the judgement held that she should be allowed to die a natural death as court asserted similar to the doctor’s report that she had a very little brain activity, she was not brain dead. The case wrapped here but the supreme court goes beyond its duty by questioning does it permissible at all in India and what circumstances?

The court distinguished between active and passive euthanasia or voluntarily and non-voluntarily euthanasia. Many countries Ireland, Germany, USA allow passive euthanasia while active euthanasia is illegal. In India, the supreme court declared passive euthanasia permissible as an existing legal framework by using the rationale that “failing to save a person could never be considered as a crime”. Active euthanasia is illegal.


Abetment of suicide is highly immoral act should be punishable. But when it comes to criminalising the attempt to suicide my views differ. The person who took such a step to end their life was obviously suffering from mental depression or something unbearable rather than throwing him behind the bars, he should send them to counselling may Rehabilitating him will prove more effective than simply punishing him. As euthanasia is permissible within legal framework but there still question remain to answer that what does one do with cases like Jan Grzesbski, who regained consciousness after 19th yrs. of coma or Dan Cassil who revived from deep coma on hearing favourite TV show shienfield?












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