At the risk of reductionism, I am tempted to engage with an irony — we are now simultaneously a state that awards death to an individual keen on living, and forces life upon an individual keen on dying. We are one of the few civilised states still practising capital punishment, and one of the many still shirking the right to die.
We have been negotiating the decriminalisation of attempt to suicide since 2013. In February, the ministry of home affairs decided to accept the recommendation of the Law Commission of India to delete Section 309 from the IPC, and drafted a proposal. We are still waiting. We now remain one of the last countries in the world where, if you don’t die successfully, you’ll go to jail for trying. My partner tells me that can make for a good film.
The fundamental function of the state is to guarantee sustenance, equality and complete civil liberty, while balancing it with checks to ensure one individual’s liberty does not violate another’s rights. It is to negotiate social contracts, warn against violation and compensate for a breach. The state builds infrastructure and systems to fulfil its fundamental promises, and protects property, owned individually, commonly or collectively.
So how do we resolve a conflict between the state’s guarantee of the citizen’s wellbeing and a citizen’s demand for self-annihilation? By establishing a simple inviolable boundary — the landscape of the individual. The individual (an informed, sound-minded consenting adult) is the sole owner of the self, entirely responsible for the self, and not state property. The state’s duty is limited to protecting the citizen from external threats. The state, in its traditional paternalism, should not forget it has limited powers and responsibilities in individuals’ choices affecting their own selves.
The state must educate, inform and caution the citizen, but it must not mistake pedagogy for paternity. For example, smoking. The state directs cigarette companies to warn consumers, without ambiguity, against the risks smoking poses to their health. The state is even free to carry out educational campaigns enlightening citizens of such risks. Warned against potential fatality, the individual is still free to smoke. Not everywhere though — the state has to now step in to prevent the individual’s action from harming others, and may do so by banning smoking in public spaces, even creating smoking booths where smokers are welcome to injure and pleasure themselves.
Now, when the law fines a citizen for not wearing a seatbelt or a helmet, the only ethical explanation for such punishment is that it’s a deterrent created to lessen the public health burden caused by the incidence of accident-related fatalities. (There have been arguments about smokers having to register themselves, which will limit their healthcare rights if they develop lung cancer, but such a recommendation is bound to conflict with the other fundamental rights of the citizen).
I will engage in some self-labelling here — I am an atheist and I am assertively irreligious to the extent that I am convinced that most religious and ancient philosophical systems of the world are well intended, but under-updated, vestigial, stagnant and flawed, inspired at times, yet misinformed. I am not an advocate of freedom of religious expression if it violates the fundamental rights of another individual (including of non-humans). In that, I like to think of myself as a humanist, a rationalist and a utilitarian.
In furtive didacticism, the character of Maitreya in my film, Ship of Theseus, often mouths my personal beliefs. One such is, “All ethics should be arrived at in isolation of religious beliefs.” It was important to me that a monk say this. I wanted to make sure that the central philosophical debate about identity, self and violence didn’t get embroiled in religious politics, social practice and contemporary law. So, I hypothesised the situation within the framework of a fictitious religion, the basic principles of which were inspired by the two Sramana traditions, Jainism and Buddhism. Similarly, I suggest we step away from religion to examine the discourse around Sallekhana.
At a time when we have decoded the human genome, plunged deep into the brain, deconstructed every emotion and instinct to its original evolutionary function, we have little need to fall back on ancient institutions to find moral solutions. We can do that using contemporary tools of enlightenment and inquiry. (We might however, in some cases, want to dust over usable parts of intuitions and ideas from ancient wisdom.) In building a case for the right to die and Santhara, I recommend that we do not let the defence get overpowered by a singular conversation around religious freedom. There is something bigger at stake here.
Bodily integrity and individual sovereignty are inalienable rights of the modern citizen. These rights are even more fundamental than the right to religious expression, and it is primarily these rights that are being challenged by the Rajasthan High Court ban on Sallekhana, which has been stayed by the apex court. We have to accept and establish that the law has no moral right whatsoever to legally interfere with the lifestyle, sexual, reproductive, death choices of informed, consenting adults, even if they are beyond the understanding of presumably well-intentioned state representatives.
The right to religious expression follows, and can be rephrased as the right to define and manifest the self, as an extension of the worldview that guides an individual’s life. How the individual sees the self — as a sum total of all past causes, as an evolving biochemical organism with an accumulated meaning and free will, as a wave in an ocean, as a meaningful creation of a hyper-intelligent entity, as a meaningless accident, as a notion, as a machine hosting a ghost, as a step towards ascension, as transient, as permanent or as an atom carrying the universe — will have to be allowed, however unacceptable it may seem to the rest of us. The individual has the right to construct their own meaning of life and interpret life and death in light of that meaning. This worldview can be negotiated with, argued with, transformed and informed, but not legally regulated. Not for a while, at least.
However, it will be puerile to brush the nuances of the dilemma under the carpet. While there is greater unanimity over a terminally ill patient’s right to die, the debate is really within the space of a physically healthy individual’s choice to terminate their life, as it raises questions of mental wellbeing and informed consent. Is it a stable choice, achieved after due deliberation and profound consideration of the consequences, or is it an impulsive decision, made out of mental instability or a falsely perceived absence of choices? Can we establish coercion? Is it the concerned individual making the choice, or is it a guardian or caretaker? These questions will need more inquiry and deliberation.
Meanwhile, as far as informed, sound-minded, consenting adults are concerned, it’s high time the state stops criminalising their sexual and aesthetic choices, their media consumption, their personal expression, how they live, and how they die.
Gandhi, 34, is a filmmaker and director, most recently, of ‘Ship of Theseus’