Is Irom Sharmila attempting suicide? — Part I

ImageA criminal court in Delhi is hearing arguments in a case against Irom Sharmila for allegedly attempting to commit suicide (which under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 is punishable with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or fine, or both.)

Sharmila is a human rights activist from Manipur (India). On November 2, 2000, Assam Rifles, a sub-division of Indian Army, massacred 10 civilians standing at a bus-stop in what came to be known as “Malom Massacre”. Since that day, Irom Sharmila has been on fast and is only fed through nasogastric intubation to keep her alive. Her primary demand to the Indian government is that it repeals the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This legislation allows the central and the state governments to declare certain areas as ‘disturbed areas’ where army would have practically untrammelled powers of search and seizure, arresting, detaining, injuring and even killing people. AFSPA has been enforced primarily in Jammu and Kashmir and in the North-eastern states which have been troubled by cross-border terrorism and/or internal insurgency.

The question before the court is this: Whether Irom Sharmila by undertaking a fast unto death and persisting with the same and showing a relentless resolve of not abandoning it till the Central Government abolishes AFSPA has attempted to commit suicide?

However, this question involves an antecedent question: what suicide is? Are all acts involving putting oneself in a position risking death, an attempt to commit suicide? If not, then on what principle should the demarcation happen? These questions are important because fasting, particularly in India, has had a tradition of being used as a powerful medium of protest. Gandhi popularized it in the freedom struggle. In a more recent manifestation, we saw anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare using the similar strategy. Many of these fasts were instrumental in galvanizing people, bolstering a non-violent revolution and compelling the government to reconsider its laws and policies.

Can the demarcation happen along the lines of ‘dying for a cause’? But if it is only about that, what do we have to say where a person, outraged by a government for almost reneging on its promise of carving an autonomous smaller province from a larger one, dies by hanging himself? How should we understand self-immolations in Tibet against the Chinese rule or by a medical student protesting against quotas in higher education? What about the farmers who were compelled to kill themselves because they were neck-deep in the liabilities, witnessed a drought, failed crop season and meeting the ends of the days itself became a struggle? Was that a sign of protest or a resignation to misfortune? But merely ‘protest’ may also be an insufficient parameter. For example, suppose in my protest against increasing animality among the males in Delhi, I shudder to associate myself with that culture and community and decide to kill myself. It is only after we answer these question can we arrive at any answer for the preceding question.

Of course one may say that this inquiry may be avoided by simply saying that criminal law requires intention and thus ‘intent to die’ is a sufficient test. But we know that knowledge of the probability of an act resulting into a crime is also punishable. By that logic, the knowledge that an act puts one under a serious risk of losing life can also be likewise brought within the conspectus of attempt to commit suicide. That surely would be an incorrect view if generalized to a level of principle. For example, a soldier employed in armed forces patrolling borders also puts himself at a grave risk of death, particularly if it is in the hostile terrains like Siachen Glacier where hundreds of soldiers from both India and Pakistan have lost lives due to extreme weather conditions. Or for that matter, people involved in high-action and extreme adventure sports put their lives to grave risk. In fact, as many as 212 people have died in 1920-2006 in a bid to scale Mt. Everest. But surely they are not attempting suicide despite the high probability of their acts posing great risk to their lives.

Whether location of the cause, internal or external, to the suicide is a principled distinction? The answer to this ought to be in the negative. It was reported that 20 persons committed suicide in Tamil Nadu distressed by the prolonged illness of their Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran! Durkheim, in his masterpiece Suicide, also rejects the approach of finding the cause internal to a person. Instead, he classifies suicides into various types and argues for locating the causes externally to the social factors. In fact, Durkheim correctly notes that, suicide statistics could be unreliable. For example, they fail to record accidents which could potentially have been suicides. For example, if someone drives in an inebriated condition and rams her/his car into a tree and dies, it most certainly would be deemed to be an accident and person who miraculously survives it would most surely be treated in a hospital than tried for a suicide attempt.

The Indian Supreme Court has given two judgments on the question of constitutional validity of the provision relating to attempt to commit suicide in the Indian Penal Code, 1860. In P. Rathinam v. Union of India, (1994) 3 SCC 394, the court held the section to be ultra vires Article 21 (Right to life and personal liberty) observing that right to die is implicit in right to life. In Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, (1996) 2 SCC 648, the court overruled Rathinam and restored the impugned provisions. Unfortunately, none of the judgments delved on the abovementioned dilemmas en route their judicial voyage.

The next part would be an attempt to arrive at a principle to see more clearly what act can really be understood as suicide and from that attempt to suicide. I believe there is a merit in this inquiry before abandoning the ‘attempt to commit suicide’ wholesale like Rathinam did. We may disagree with the idea of imprisonment and fines, but it is consistent with our ethical self-understanding of a social community that suicides ought to be prevented and the action in this regard needs to be taken both at the socio-political as well as individual level. And while we do that, I am sure we would be able to discern the fallacy in prosecuting Irom Sharmila for attempting suicide as she continues her valiant crusade against a draconian law.