In approximately the time it takes you to read this article, someone in this country will have committed suicide. It has been estimated that in India every seven minutes someone takes his life, and every minute there is a case of attempted suicide.
These statistics add an edge of urgency to the debate on the ethical, societal and religious implications of self-destruction which has been generated by the Supreme Court judgment absolving the act, or its attempt, from legal culpability. While the court’s decision has been hailed as a long-awaited step towards ‘humanising’ the law, concern has been voiced for a need for greater vigilance lest the ‘legal sanction’ be misused to cover up dowry deaths and other criminal acts.
Though economic hardship and insecurity are often adduced as reasons for suicide, figures show that the Scandinavian countries, among the world’s most materially advanced, have an extremely high suicide rate. Hamlet’s soliloquy has archetypal echoes of a dark impulse. A report published in the official journal of the Central Social Welfare Board has shown that in India 60 per cent of people who commit suicide are below 30 years of age and about 40 per cent below 18. Youth is both more prone to despair and less resilient in enduring it. The commonest causes were listed as family disputes, unrequited love, chronic illness, failure in exams, unemployment, ill treatment by in-laws, marital friction, financial insecurity and job-related anxieties.
The incidence of suicide the world over is rising. Even more disturbing is the spread of what is called “chronic suicide”, a long-term pattern of self-destructive behaviour such as alcoholism or drug abuse. Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “nine men out of 10 are suicides” has an ominous relevance today. The erosion of traditional beliefs and value systems has led to a pervasive spiritual accidie, a wasteland of the psyche where bizarre and stunted creeds flourish, such as the cult of the self-styled messiah Jim Jones over 900 of whose followers committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.
The spurious beatitudes of hallucinogenic drugs have for many replaced the tenets of organised religion and faith. If God is dead, as Nietzche proclaimed and Time echoed a 100 years later, “then man’s will, is his own… the supreme assertion of his self-will is to assume God’s function and allot to himself his own death”. Dostoyevsky said in his Diary of a Writer: “(To be) threatened with tomorrow’s zero… is profoundly insulting… I sentence this nature, which has so unceremoniously and impudently brought me into existence… to annihilation… and because I am unable to destroy nature, I am destroying only myself, weary of enduring a tyranny in which there is no guilty one”.
As A Alvarez, himself an unsuccessful suicide, points out in his book, The Savage God, “One of the most remarkable features of the arts in this century has been the sudden, sharp rise in the casualty rate among the artists”: Van Gogh, Modigliani, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane, Mayakovsky and Ernest Hemingway, among others. Plath’s poem reads like an epitaph for this lost and lonely tribe: “Dying/Is an art, like everything else,/I do it exceptionally well,/…I guess you could say I’ve a call.” The seductive siren song betrays the hypnotic attraction of a deadly narcissism.
The legalistic view of suicide as a crime derives from the strictures passed against it by Augustine in the sixth century on the grounds that since life is a gift of God, to take it oneself is to reject divine will. Both self-termination and birth control are ‘politically incorrect’ in the Catholic Church which views them as undermining of its authority.
Other collective establishments, from communalism to capitalism, have tried to deter suicide for similar reasons. A suicide was a felo de se, a “felon of himself”: in the mid-19th century in London a Russian emigre recorded the case of a man who, having failed to kill himself by cutting his throat, had its wound stitched up and was then hanged. CEM Joad commented that in England “you must not commit suicide, on pain of being regarded as a criminal if you fail and a lunatic if you succeed.”
The Indian Penal Code has been severe in cases of attempted suicide, though in 1971 the Law Commission argued that “it is monstrous procedure to inflict further suffering on an individual who has already found life so unbearable, his chances of happiness so slender, that he has been willing to face pain and death in order to cease living.”
The SC ruling should rectify this “monstrous” legal anomaly. But no court can decide on the larger moral problem posed by those who nullify all imposed judgment with the self-defining circle of tomorrow’s zero.
Writer, columnist and author of several books