18 states and 4 Union Territories backed the recommendation (file photo: Reuters)
India has finally dropped attempted suicide from the list of crimes punishable by prison, acting on a 2008 recommendation of the Law Commission that deemed the suicide law "anachronistic" and "undesirable".
The government informed parliament of its decision in a written reply from the home ministry on Wednesday. Minister of state for home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary said Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) was dropped from the Indian Penal Code (IPC) after 18 states and 4 Union Territories backed the recommendation of the government panel for legal reform.
This is the second time that the Law Commission has recommended the repeal of Section 309. The first was in 1971, following which a bill to amend the IPC was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 1978. Unfortunately, before it could be passed by the Lok Sabha, the Lok Sabha itself was dissolved and the bill lapsed. It took another 36 years for attempted suicide to be decriminalized.
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists India as one of the countries with the highest suicide rates: 21.1 per 100,000 people in 2012.
The government said 134,799 people committed suicide in 2013, a rise of 11.9 percent over the previous year. There was no data available on the number of attempted suicides.
Welcoming the decision, BJP MP from Bihar and former Union home secretary RK Singh said it was "the right step taken by the government".
"People with suicidal tendencies deserve counselling, not legal action," he told reporters.
Section 309 was a law enacted under British colonial rule, under which anyone attempting to kill himself could be jailed for one year. Only a handful of countries in Asia still retain this colonial era law, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore. All countries in Europe and North America have already decriminalized attempted suicide.
According to Reuters, the decision by the government potentially paves the way for the release of human rights activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on hunger strike for the past 14 years in protest against alleged army atrocities in Manipur.
Sharmila has been under detention throughout her fast, and is force-fed by tubes several times a day.