Suicide’s No Crime, and You Can’t Drive Someone to It

Kalikho Pul, who split the Congress party and manipulated a friendly governor to become chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh last February, committed suicide earlier this month. The Supreme Court had struck down the governor’s actions, ousting Pul. Finding the humiliation and hurt unbearable, he killed himself.

In India, suicide is a crime. That makes Pul a criminal. This defies common sense. It is crazy to have a law punishing somebody who is already dead. Those committing suicide merit sympathy, not criminalization. Indeed, many states give cash compensation to the families of those committing suicide. Logically, it follows that suicide must be removed from the list of crimes.

Having made suicide a crime, the law also makes abetment to suicide a crime. The dictionary tells you that “abetment” means assistance. If a doctor gives deadly pills to help somebody commit suicide, that is abetment. I believe humans have a right to take their own lives, and that assisting such unfortunates should not be called criminal.

However, one rarely hears of such persons being arrested. What’s common is for policemen and judges to interpret “abetment” to mean “driving people to suicide”. This phrase is loved by the media but is too diffuse and ambiguous to have a place in the laws of most countries.

In India, when somebody commits suicide, relatives and friends can often obtain the arrest of those accused of mental anguish that caused the death. For instance, six sadhus were recently arrested in Nashik for driving to suicide a follower who was not doing enough for their cause. A female AAP worker accused a male colleague of harassment in a suicide note, and he was arrested. A male student in Chennai was arrested after a female colleague he had quarrelled with killed herself.

To call such demands and quarrels “abetment to suicide” is to twist the English vocabulary out of shape. Millions of couples and colleagues have quarrels. In a tiny percentage of cases, this may lead to suicide. Yet humans surely have the right to disagree, quarrel and make demands on one another, provided no criminal demands or acts are involved. Even if you want to drive somebody to suicide you cannot achieve it through harassment, because 99.99% of people will not commit suicide under any circumstances. Three million people died of starvation in the most horrible conditions in the 1943 Bengal famine, but didn’t commit suicide.

On average, only 0.01% of people commit suicide in countries across the globe. They do so not because harassment is commoner in their cases but because of mental illness and depression. Women are surely harassed more than men, yet the male suicide rate is typically thrice the female rate globally, because men are more depression-prone.

Rich US and poor India have similar suicide rates of around 11 per lakh people. Regional cultural factors matter. Puducherry has India’s highest suicide rate, with Kerala and Tamil Nadu typically coming next. A study by Anuradha Bose in The Lancet in 2004 found that the suicide rate among Tamil girls aged 10-19 years was 148 per lakh people, ten times the global average. Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala have among the best economic and social indicators in India. Their high suicide rates could reflect local cultural factors.

Kalikho Pul killed himself because the Supreme Court ruled against him. The causality is clear. His relatives could say that the judges “drove him to suicide”. Given their behaviour in other cases, consistency would require the police to arrest the honourable judges for “abetment”. If spouses and colleagues can be arrested for abetment in cases where the causality is less clear, why exempt Supreme Court judges? The answer is that the entire concept of “driving to suicide” is ill-founded, and should be junked.

Thousands of students commit suicide because they have done badly in exams. Should their teachers be arrested for “abetment” through tough exam papers? Should their parents be arrested for “abetment” by having high expectations of their children?

There are surely cases where violence, blackmail and criminal intimidation lead suicide-prone people to commit suicide. But in all such cases the harassers should be prosecuted for the relevant crime — violence, blackmail, intimidation and so on. Why invent an additional crime called abetment to suicide?

The focus needs to shift to the 0.01% of people who suffer from mental problems that make them suicide prone. They need medical care, counselling and sympathy. They must not be dubbed criminals.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.