To Die or Not to Die, is the Question

By Pragya Dhoundiyal, Law Center-1, Faculty of Law, Delhi University.

Right to Life is a right of wide import. This right has always been a bone of contention because defining its limits and the ingredients of this particular right depends on the interpretation and understanding of life of the person who is analyzing it.

A question that is still debated upon is, whether right to die comes under the ambit of Right to Life or not. The 1994 judgment of Ratinam v. Union of India, made it clear that right to life means right to live with dignity and does not indicate leading a life of continued tragedy. However, this aspect again came under scrutiny in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, that makes “attempt to suicide” an offence. In that case the ruling was based on the fact that Article 21 of the Constitution of India being a natural right cannot be intended to have included suicide which is an unnatural act of extinction of life.

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Going a little deeper into the philosophy of the Indian Penal Code that was drafted by a Christian, will help us understand Section 309 better. Christians believe that life is a gift given by God, and hence it would be a crime if we try to kill ourselves against his will, which is nothing less than disrespecting his command. On the other end, we have the Jains, who have a completely different outlook, they consider a person’s body to be a trapping and just another transitory object in our possession, which needs to be gotten rid of in order to attain a higher degree of peace and so they have been practicing ‘Santhara’, in which a person starves himself/herself to death. It is only people who are suffering from an incurable disease, disability or someone whose days are numbered who are allowed to observe such a fast.

Jainism is one of the most peace loving religious groups that practices non-violence to the maximum extent possible. This tradition of ‘Santhara’ is not thrust down anybody’s throat and only those willing can come forward. Jains have objected to the use of the term ‘suicide’ for this pious surrender of oneself. Suicide as defined in Merriam-Webster dictionary is ‘the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind’ and ‘Santhara’ can very well fall within its ambit. The motivation of the act in both cases may be different but end result is the same, and in criminal law, motivation is generally considered redundant if you have an intention to do a particular act; it does not even justify the act of a poor boy who steals food because of hunger. So, I fail to understand where the ambiguity lies in this case.

Amidst all these discussions what really struck me was that how passionately everyone was arguing on ideological lines. These metaphysical aspects with no tangible form can be debated till eternity, what must be taken into consideration is the existing life and protection of it, not because it is a gift but because it is something that is of value not only to the ‘State’ but also the people around.

As for people who are suffering gravely we already have the means of ‘passive euthanasia’ as approved by the honourable Supreme Court in Aruna Shanbaug case. Though being an optimistic person, I would like to believe that what if there is a breakthrough and we find a cure to that ailment, but yes seeing somebody suffer helplessly can be painful for not only the person suffering but also for the people who have to see the sufferings of the person. ‘Passive euthanasia’ and ‘Santhara’ are almost on similar lines, where there is a complete withdrawal of life support system. The last ground on which ‘Santhara’ may be allowed is, when the person is ‘nearing his/her death’. This is one ambiguous ground which I feel cannot be decided with certainty and is hence redundant. Age is just a number, is not a rhetoric but a truth which can be seen in reality when you meet some lively 80-90 years old people who have a much more positive and productive life than the younger lot. So can one say that they are ‘nearing their end’? There can be no mathematical formula and with scientific advancements the life expectancy and longevity is on a rise. Some might argue that it is not the age but when the responsibilities are over that the person is said to be on the ‘nearing his end’. Since our discussions are all based on hypothetical instances, I think I can take the liberty to raise another hypothetical situation where one’s grandchildren may become orphans after their grandparents observed Santhara that is their parents die after their grandparents. They would be rendered destitute who if their grandparents were alive would have had someone to fall back on, and this is not such an extraordinary situation that is not foreseeable and it cannot be said that the grandchildren are not their grandparent’s responsibility. I fail to see how one can define who and more specifically when can a person be said to be nearing death.

More so, I do not know how comfortable would the family members be, seeing their beloved gradually diminishing into vacuum, a fragile frame starving to death, the bony structure becoming so vivid with a pale skin sticking tautly to it, but all one can do is wait in apprehension knowing the certainty of death lurking on the person’s head. This apprehension and uncertainty of the certainty can be no less traumatising, so how can it be called non-violent?

In the end I would just like to conclude by saying that it is better to live in the world with the reality that we can see, instead of basing our acts on mere assumptions of going to heaven after death. Where is this heaven? How does it look like? Is starving a ticket to the place called heaven? There is a lot of suffering in this world already, it would be better to use one’s life productively till the last minute possible, helping others on this very ‘Earth’ and maybe then proceeding to the next world and continuing with these compassionate deeds even there, if it exists at all.

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