India is confronted by the ultimate question in all its forms. While the Law Commission has recommended the revocation of the death penalty for all offences barring terrorism, the case of Nikhil Soni versus Union of India, concerning the Jain practice of santhara, has drawn attention to the legality of suicide. In staying the order of the Rajasthan High Court criminalising the practice, the Supreme Court has shown commendable reluctance to summarily intrude upon the personal domain. However, the case presents yet another opportunity to examine end of life issues, which are insufficiently clarified in the Constitution. Article 21 only guarantees the right to life, and the penal code divides death into two categories — natural and unnatural. As humanity rejects destiny and strives for free will and control over nature — including the “natural” span of a human life — such a blunt approach will be increasingly unsatisfactory.
Earlier, the muscular treatment the state meted out to Irom Sharmila had starkly outlined the vintage of the law on suicide. This is the old “cat and mouse” game by which the UK had vainly tried to hold off the suffragette movement. Women protesters were arrested for going on hunger strike, force fed and released, whereupon they again went on hunger strike, initiating yet another phase of an endless cycle. Modern societies are expected to develop more sophisticated means to engage with public demands, and the practice of santhara is one form of the “willing death”, which is not at all unusual in South Asian cultures and which has been historically valued as the ethically correct conclusion to a life well lived.
It is time to reconsider the legal, moral and societal status of suicide, on two counts. One, while medical science is expected to see extraordinary developments in the prolongation of human life, forcible extension at the expense of quality of life may be unethical. And two, since civilisation has chosen the path of individualism based on free will, the standing of the will to die must be re-examined. This debate must include the difficult question of assisted suicide, where the fear of rampant misuse for financial gain is not at all misplaced. But then, the anguish of hopelessly waiting to die is real, too. Last year, the Law Commission had recommended decriminalisation of attempted suicide. It is now time to consider the question in its widest sense, as a matter of life and death.