Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Of Suicides and Protests

This post was first published at Huffington Post India on 18/12/2015.

The Minister of State for Home Affairs, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary announced in the Parliament on Wednesday that the central government is planning to give effect to the 210th Report of the Law Commission of India by decriminalising 'attempt to commit suicide'. This decision shall undoubtedly be controversial since many believe that section 309 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises 'attempt to commit suicide' is infact a provision that helps to uphold the dignity of life since it discourages taking of one's own life. While there already are debates raging regarding the morality of the move, the ramifications of the move on the culture of suicides during agitations and protests in India seem to have been ignored.

Hungerstrikes and Self Immolations
Ever since the pre-independence era, a 'fast-onto-death' has been a popular tool of protesting government actions and demanding a roll back. More violent protesters have also adopted the method of attempting self-immolation to draw attention to their demands.

Such protests are infact frighteningly common in India. Just over the past two years, there have been self-immolations for issues ranging from Telangana agitation, protest against the visit of Chinese President and even to protest the conviction of Jayalalitha, CM of Tamil Nadu.

Government decision shall render the police helpless
Most of such self-immolation protests lead to unnecessary deaths of misguided youth and rarely if ever achieve any significant objectives. The police forces' most preferred way of getting rid of such protestors is to simply arrest them for 'attempt to commit suicide' when the police get winds of their plans to self-immolate. Following the move to decriminalise it, this tool shall be no longer available to the police.

Due to the decriminalisation of suicide, the police are going to be deprived of their power to stop such protests. Police shall also not be able to prevent death of non-violent actitivists during the course of hunger-strikes and fasts-onto-death with such events only leading to further law and order problems sparked by outrage amongst the dead activists' supporters.

The Iron Lady of Manipur
The greatest impact of this shall probably be seen in Manipur where Irom Sharmila has been on a hunger-strike for ten long years. The Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize winning activist began a fast on 2nd November 2000, when Assam Rifles personnel killed ten civilians at a bus stop in Malom, Manipur. Her demand is that Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) -- a law that in effect provides military and para-military forces immunity from prosecution for their actions -- be repealed. She was arrested for attempting to commit suicide a mere 3 days after her protest began and has been force fed by the police ever since. She is arrested for the same offence again when she continues her hunger-strike even after being released every time at the end of her one year sentence.

The government should be prepared for a volatile situation in Manipur if 'attempt to commit suicide' is decriminalised because the Iron Lady has made it clear that she would rather die than give up her cause. The death of such a prominent activist shall promptly bring the issue of Manipur and AFSPA into ever sharper focus and is likely to lead to much unrest.

Thus while the government decision to decriminalise 'attempt to suicide' is rightly being studied from a moral and philosophical perspective, it would also be wise to analyse its implications from a practical standpoint of powers of police in relation to protests and agitations. It shall be an undoubtedly regressive move if it completely takes away the powers of the police to prevent unnecessary deaths and the government should find a way around this problem before going ahead with decriminalisation of 'attempt to commit suicide'.

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