Article 21 of the Indian Constitution states that no person can be deprived of his life and personal liberty, unless according to a procedure established by law. Time and again, the courts of our country have reiterated the importance of this Article, and how fundamental it is for the existence of human society. A law that takes away the life or liberty of a person on arbitrary and unreasonable grounds is a law against public policy and is violative of basic human rights. The significance of Article 21 extends to the point that even during a situation of national emergency, this Fundamental Right cannot be suspended. In Francis Coralie Mullin v. The Administrator, Bhagwati J stated that Article 21 represents a constitutional value, which is of extreme importance in a democracy. The scope of this Article is supposed to cover all those cases where a person is deprived of his life or liberty without any reasonable justification. But what exactly does this Article preach? What is the right to life? And does it include the right to die? If so, why is an attempt to commit suicide punishable under our criminal law? The right to life and the right to die are two separate points, but somehow, they are interlinked. Where one is permitted, the other is prohibited. The confusion between the two will become apparent once we look into a landmark case on this topic, that is Gian Kaur v State of Punjab.
Background of Gian Kaur v State of Punjab Case
Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code punishes a person who attempts to commit suicide and does any act in furtherance of the same. Essentially, a person who dies by way of suicide cannot be punished, but a person who fails in an attempt to commit suicide will be punished by law. As bizarre as it may sound, the law has prevented many mishaps from occurring, and the courts have acquitted people despite their attempts to break the law. The section, however, has been challenged several times before the courts, on the basis that since Article 21 of the Constitution grants us the right to live and die as per our wish, and Section 309 of the IPC stands in the way of it. It has been questioned on the ground of morality as well as constitutionality.
The first challenge came in the case of Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra, wherein the court struck down the section because it was violative of Article 21 of the Constitution. The court stated that the right to life also included the right to die if one desires to end one’s own life, and the right to life had positive as well as negative aspects. Justice P. B. Sawant then opined that if the section was against those who wished to end their lives, then how is it reasonable to punish those who had made attempts in the same but had failed to achieve so. Those who are suicidal require psychiatric treatment, and not prison cells, whereas those who wish to terminate their life due to a physical illness, old age, disablement etc. require nursing homes. If one does not want to continue to live, be it due to any reason, then this section is of no use in preventing that person, and is actually counter-productive and self-defeating.
In State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia, the Delhi High Court acquitted a young boy when he tried to commit suicide by way of consumption of ‘tik-20’, a bed bug killer, and pressed the urgency of deleting Section 309 from the Indian Penal Code, because it was an ‘anachronism unworthy of a human society like ours’. The boy needed a psychiatric clinic, and instead of sending him there, we were sending him to prison cells, among criminals.
Further, in P. Rathinam v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India upheld the decision of the Maruti Shripati case, and stated that Section 309 IPC was violative of Article 21 of the Constitution, and thus void. The Court went on to say that a person cannot be forced by the state, or anyone, to enjoy his life if he does not wish to do so. The right to life under Article 21 also includes the right not to live, and there is no justification to prosecute those who attempt suicide. But before concluding, the court took notice of various judgements from the courts of Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Bombay, etc. and allowed the section to remain in the Code. Still, various judgements and articles on this issue came out, all condemning the section and asking for it to be declared as unconstitutional. But soon after, the Supreme Court went back on its own decision and overruled it in the case to come.
Facts of Gian Kaur v State of Punjab Case
In the case of Gian Kaur v State of Punjab , Gian Kaur and her husband Harbans Singh were accused of abetment to suicide of their daughter-in-law, Kulwant Singh, since they wanted their son to marry someone else, someone who could bring them dowry. The trial court had convicted them under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, which states the offence of abetment to suicide. Both of them were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment of 7 years, and were also liable to pay a fine of Rs. 2000. In case they defaulted in the payment of fine, they were to be sentenced to further rigorous imprisonment of 9 months. The convicts appealed to the High Court, but it upheld the decision of the trial court. The only change that the High Court made was that it reduced the sentence of Gian Kaur alone from 7 years of rigorous imprisonment to 3 years. The sentence to her husband remained unchanged. Finally, the appellants approached the Supreme Court through a Special Leave Petition. They challenged the constitutional validity of Section 306 of the IPC as being violative of Article 21 of the Constitution. They argued that as held in P. Rathinam, Article 21 includes the right to life as well as the right to end one’s own life. Hence, a person who was convicted of the abetment of suicide was simply assisting the right of a person to take one’s own life.
Judgement of Gian Kaur Case
The question that came before the court was that if the offence of an attempt to commit suicide is unconstitutional as per the earlier judgements, then how is the abetment of the same offence valid? A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court overruled the case of P. Rathinam. The bench held that the right to life as under Article 21 did not include the right to die or the right to be killed. The right to life stands in the context of the right to live with human dignity and the existence of life until natural death arrives. The aspect of death under the right to life is to die with dignity, and it should not be confused with unnatural death of a person, resulting in the early termination of life. The contention that the petitioners put forward of attempt to suicide being unconstitutional cannot be acknowledged.
Furthermore, the Court stated that acts of abetment to suicide and attempt to suicide are made penal for legitimate reasons in the interests of the public. In case such provisions were absent, it would become very easy for a person to lead someone to their own death. Abetment to suicide is a penal provision in countries even where an attempt to suicide is not made punishable. Abetment and attempt to suicide are independent of each other and the plea of assisting the suicide of a person just for the benefit of that person cannot be maintainable.
Thus, Sections 306 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code were made constitutionally valid and were held as not being violative of Article 21 or 14 of the Indian Constitution.
The Court also differentiated between euthanasia and the right to die. Euthanasia is an act whereby a person’s life is taken intentionally because he is felt to be not worth living. The Court stated that euthanasia cannot be a determining factor of the right to live and the right to die under Article 21.
Aftermath of the Case
After Gian Kaur v State of Punjab case, the right to die has not been accepted by the Indian courts. Another landmark case in this regard was that of Aruna Shanbaug v. Union of India, where the victim underwent a permanent vegetative state for 37 years after being brutally sexually assaulted. The hospital and the family were allowed to practice passive euthanasia subject to certain conditions and approval from the High Court. The court allowed non-voluntary passive euthanasia, since the victim was not in a state to give consent for the same. The court also said that active euthanasia could not be used to take the life of someone, whereas passive euthanasia simply meant that the person was not being saved by the doctors; they were not actually killing her.
In March 2018, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in Common Cause v. Union of India, unanimously held that the right to die with dignity is a fundamental right. Apparently, the case overruled Gian Kaur, but it did not strike down any law from the Indian Penal Code.
Overview of Gian Kaur v State of Punjab Case
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has never been free of controversy, because it encompasses several essential rights required for a decent standard of human life. Mere animal existence does not imply the application of the right to life, it is much more than that.
The right to die needs more speculation in order to be clear and certain. Provisions in the law that are not easy to grasp in one go can often be misused by offenders and can allow them a chance to escape punishment. The case of Gian Kaur brought to light the activism of the Supreme Court: instead of relying on earlier judgements, it approached the issue with a fresh start and overruled the existing debatable judgements. However, the laws need more interpretation and certain procedural changes that may simplify the concept of the right to die.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which case was overruled by Gian Kaur v State of Punjab?
The case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India was overruled by the decision of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, where the court had stated that section 309 of the Indian Penal Code was violative of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, and thus, was void.
What is the difference between attempt to suicide and abetment to suicide?
Attempt to suicide is usually done by the person who wants to take his/her own life, whereas abetment to suicide is chiefly an act to assist the attempt to suicide. Abetment is done by a person other than the person attempting suicide, but both are punishable by law.
What reason did the court give to uphold Sections 306 and 309 of the IPC?
The Supreme Court stated that the right to life as under Article 21 did not include the right to die or the right to be killed. The right to life stands in the context of the right to live with human dignity and the existence of life until natural death arrives. The aspect of death under the right to life is to die with dignity, and it should not be confused with unnatural death of a person, resulting in the early termination of life. Also, the Court stated that acts of abetment to suicide and attempt to suicide are made penal for legitimate reasons in the interests of the public. In case such provisions were absent, it would become very easy for a person to lead someone to their own death. Abetment to suicide is a penal provision in countries even where attempt to suicide is not punishable. Abetment and attempt to suicide are independent of each other
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 Supra note 3.
 Supra note 2.
 Supra note 5.
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 Supra note 2.