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Whose life is it anyway?

This week, 25 states in India, except Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Sikkim, agreed to repeal Sec 309 of the Indian Penal Code that makes suicide a crime, which, if survived, is punishable by a year of prison and/or a fine.


Illustration/ Jishu Dev Malakar

The Law commission report on the matter, argued that suicide is the "manifestation of a diseased condition of mind" -- the response it seeks is counselling and care, rather than censure and punishment.

The law criminalising suicide is based on older colonial laws, in turn based on religious ideas that only God has the right to decide when your life can end.

Suicide is a mortal sin in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. However, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism permit suicide -- although in very particular circumstances and by certain methods only.

Integral to most tenets governing suicide in these religious philosophies, is non- violence. One must not kill oneself if it is by an act of violence against life (even one's own) or if one has responsibilities towards another, or is still somehow capable of desire and ambition -- by implication, it is understood if the elderly feel they have served their purpose in life, they may decide their time on Earth is done. Starving oneself to death is permissible.

I imagine -- with no scriptural substantiation -- that perhaps starving oneself to death, allows for the idea that you might know what you are doing and have time to decide whether you really do or don't want to do it. Rather than the abrupt act of ending life, it is a gradual, considered leaving life perhaps.

Most people love to exclaim that "suicide is cowardice" as if it were some weakness that can be overcome with adventure sports or cold baths. Integral to this is the strange disregard we have for mental health matters in our society.

We are curiously insensitive to the pain and mental or emotional debilitations that those depressed or disturbed must struggle with every moment.

A suggestion that someone should seek therapy is regarded as an accusation or insult either by the sufferer, or relatives. The mental health care system in our country, elegantly put, sucks, so, who knows, maybe they're smart to avoid it after all.

But surely, suicide is the strongest accusation of all, a sign that we failed someone among us. Maybe no one is brave enough to look that in the eye. Embedded in the position that attempted suicide is wrong, hence illegal, is also the idea that the State gets to decide whether you can take your life - not you.

Many decisions about these things seem arbitrary. So, if you join the army or sign up to fight in a war, an act which we might technically describe as tending to suicide - that's alright, because it is for the 'country'.

Or if certain types of leaders decide to fast unto death, they may not immediately be arrested for attempted suicide because it's for a larger cause, hence beyond law in a sense. However somehow it's not alright for Irom Sharmilla to fast unto death for the repeal of the AFSPA, though that's for a larger cause too.

Who would not choose to live if they could? In decriminalising suicide, in this understanding of the choice to die, there is compassion and humility -- not something we can frequently accuse the government of!

There is a facing up to the fact that suicide is not a failure on the part of the person who chooses it. It is often a failure of this world, and the way we run it, to help make different lives worth living.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at http://www.parodevi.com/.

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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