-by Aadya Bansal
In 2013, Sooraj Pancholi was arrested on charges of abetment to suicide of Jiah Khan on account of a suicide note left by the deceased. In 2018, Arnab Goswami was charged with abetment to suicide, once again, based on a suicide note. Presently, on July 25, 2020, the father of Sushant Singh Rajput, submitted a complaint against Rhea Chakraborty and others, alleging they were guilty of abetment to suicide. In the popular sense, abetment to suicide is usually linked to suicide notes. However, the unfortunate death of Sushant Singh Rajput did not feature a note. Thus, this raises the question of what exactly is the scope of Indian law on abetment to suicide? Is it restricted to instances featuring a suicide note?
In the present article, the author attempts to answer these questions and more. The author in this prefatory note will firstly, present a view of what abetment to suicide under Indian law means and constitutes; secondly, address whether a suicide note conclusively indicates abetment to suicide; thirdly, analyse the stance of other countries on it, and lastly, suggest what changes need to be made to the law.
Abetment to suicide under Indian Law
‘Sui’ means ‘self’ and ‘cide’ means ‘killing’, thus implying an act of self-killing. ‘Abet’ means to aid, to assist or to give aid, to command, or to counsel, to encourage, or to set another one to commit. Abetment to suicide thus is the instigating of an individual or intentionally helping a person in taking his life.
The offence has been codified under Section 306, Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’), which states that if a person commits suicide, the one who has abetted the commission of the same, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. It is based on a reasonable public policy to prevent another’s involvement in terminating one’s life and thus has been upheld as constitutionally valid. Thus, even if Section 309, IPC which aims to criminalise an attempt to commit suicide is declared unconstitutional or not, Section 306 can survive independent of it.
Additionally, this offence causes the death of another with the intention to cause it and seems evocative of the IPC definition of murder. As per the Supreme Court, the only difference between the two is who commits the final ‘act’. This alone speaks volumes of the gravity of the offence. Suicides tend to have a vastly detrimental effect on the society as a whole because aside from the obvious reasons, as per the Wether effect, suicides are contagious and each suicide promotes more. Thus, to prevent such instances, the punishment under Section 306 must be increased appropriately in order to induce fear and consecutively, deterrence in offenders.
Abetment to suicide has two ingredients, firstly, the commission of suicide by the deceased, and secondly, instigation by the accused.
Commission of suicide
It has been well established that abetment to commit suicide does constitute an offence. However, is the commission a must? The Supreme Court has held that only in instances of the commission of suicide would there be a punishment, calling penalising abetment to mere attempts to commit suicide preposterous. However, Section 116 IPC punishes for abetment to an offence punishable with imprisonment if the offence is not committed and thus, on reading the Sections together, under IPC, both the abetment to a committed and attempted suicide should be punishable.
Additionally, in Satvir Singh And Ors vs State Of Punjab , the Court was asked whether there can be an abetment to abetment to suicide. If C abets B to abet A to commit suicide, will C be liable? The Court answered in negative. However, Explanation-4, Section 108 IPC provides for the same, reading as, the abetment of an offence being an offence, the abetment of such an abetment is also an offence. A constitutional bench has held that “No decision by any court could be read in a manner to nullify the express provisions of an Act.” Thus, as per the provisions of IPC, this should be punishable under the Act.
Instigation by accused
Contiguity, continuity, culpability and complicity of the indictable acts or omission are the concomitant indices of abetment. Merely because a person has been so named in the suicide note or had told another to ‘go and die’, or used a slur, we cannot immediately assume that Section 306 applies. To attract the ingredients of abetment, the intention (mens rea) of the accused to aid, instigate, or abet the deceased to commit suicide, along with a positive move towards influencing the victim to take his own life is necessary. Additionally, such abetment must satisfy Section 107 IPC, which lays down the requirements for abetment. There must be instigation, or urge, or assistance in its commission. In order to render a person liable as an abettor, there should be some live link, between the act of the accused and the act of committing suicide. It matters not what the deceased ‘felt’, but what the accused ‘intended’.
However, while deciding upon a case under Section 306 IPC, the facts and circumstances of that particular instance cannot be ignored. Each person’s suicidality pattern is different from the other, and there is no specific yardstick or theorem to assess the same. The court should observe if a victim committing suicide was hypersensitive to ordinary petulance, discord and differences in domestic life quite common to the society to which the victim belonged.
As can be reasonably concluded, it is very difficult to meet the threshold of Section 306. In fact, the Central Bureau of Investigation, India (CBI) boasts of a conviction rate of 65-70 per cent, but till date, the CBI has not gotten one conviction for Section 306. This reflects the ease with which the guilty can get away with this gruesome offence, solely due to the semantics. Thus, it is suggested that the law be appropriately amended; the terms could be made more flexible, the threshold lowered, and clarity bestowed.
The Indian law on the nature of suicide notes is distinctly different from other countries where only the statements which directly relate to the cause of death are admissible. In India, it has been held that it is necessary to ensure that the declaration was made or the note was written by a person of a sound mental condition. Furthermore, if it is found that the capacity of the maker was impaired, then the court may in the absence of corroborating evidence, set aside such note. Thus, the judgement fundamentally reiterates what the A.R. Madhav Rao judgement said-
“If a lover commits suicide due to love failure, if a student commits suicide because of his poor performance in the examination, a client commits suicide because his case is dismissed, the lady, examiner, lawyer respectively cannot be held to have abetted the commission of suicide.”
Law in other jurisdictions
Several countries and jurisdictions around the world like Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Kuwait, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda and Singapore have stringent laws regarding the offence of suicide which can be attempted suicide also. For instance, the English Suicide Act of 1961 imputes criminal liability for complicity in another’s suicide and makes the abettor liable for the imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years. Furthermore, in Gambia, Botswana, and Ghana, abetting the suicide of another has a stipulated punishment of life imprisonment, which is reflective of their strict stance on the subject.
While many countries across the globe have commonly prescribed paramount punishment of life imprisonment for it, India seems to be on the backfoot with its mere 10 years’ sentence and needs to amend its laws accordingly.
As the perennial change in society transpires, there is a call for new and amended laws, as the enacted ones fall short of their purpose. For instance, during the present times of the Coronavirus pandemic, suicide has been the leading cause of over 300 deaths in the country. With the rising number of suicides, there is a concurrent rise in the number of abetment of suicide cases. It can be observed that the current definition of abetment to suicide falls short. For example, recently, an intimate TikTok video was said to cause it. As the interconnectivity of social media with our lives becomes more prominent, such prominence needs to be incorporated into our statutes as well. Next, in India, there is a paucity of studies regarding psychological autopsy of suicide victims, as compared to others, and they must be dutifully conducted to understand the act and additionally, there must be mandatory assistance of a qualified forensic psychologist, leading to a prompt determination of the cause of suicide. Furthermore, it has been observed that a large number of cases of abetment involve suicides by women. Measures should be taken to prevent that, and the law and order machinery should constitute responsible people who take in the seriousness of this offence and play the role of a watchdog. In the administration of criminal justice, this duty should not be relegated to the backseat or the boot of the judicial caravan. Lastly, suicide is a psychological crime and is of such an exceptional character that both the accused and the victim are the same person itself. Therefore, its criterion should be made more specific, the punishment made more stringent and the enforcement stricter.
About the Author
Aadya Bansal is a third year student of law at National Law Institute University, Bhopal and Senior Editor at ELSR.
Image credits: Law Times Journal.