Smt. Gian Kaur v. The State of Punjab

In this landmark judgement, a five-judge bench of the Apex Court held the Sections 306 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code to be constitutionally valid and held that right to life does not include right to die.
CITATION1996 AIR 946
COURTSupreme Court of India
JUDGES/CORAMJustice Jagdish Saran Verman, Justice G.N. Ray, Justice N.P. Singh, Justice FaizanUddin and Justice G.T. Nanavati
DATE OF JUDGEMENT21.03.1996

Introduction

Gian Kaur vs. State of Punjab is a five-judge Constitutional Bench decision delivered by the Apex Court on March 21, 1996. The judgment deals with the Constitutional validity of Sections 306 (Abetment of suicide) and 309 (Attempt to commit suicide) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter IPC) vis-à-vis Articles 14 (Right to Equality) and 21 (Right to life and Personal Liberty) of the Indian Constitution.

Facts

The facts of the case are as follows: The appellants Gian Kaur and her husband Harbans Singh were charged with abetment of suicide of their daughter-in-law Kulwant Kaur by pouring kerosene over her.

Issues

The main issue in the case was: Constitutional validity of Sections 306 and 309 of IPC with respect to Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

Summary of court decision and judgment

The matter was first heard by the Trial Court that convicted the appellants for abetment of suicide of Kulwant Kaur and sentenced them to a rigorous imprisonment of six years along with a fine of Rs. 2000/- including a rigorous imprisonment of nine months in case of default.

The matter was subsequently heard on appeal by the High Court that upheld the conviction while reducing the sentence of Smt. Gian Kaur to rigorous imprisonment of three years. As a result, the appellants filed the Special Leave Petition as appeals before the Division Bench of the Apex Court. Since the matter involved a substantial question of law with respect to the constitutional validity of the impugned Sections of IPC vis-à-vis the interpretation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the same was referred to a Constitution Bench of the Apex Court.

The Constitution Bench upheld the constitutional validity of the impugned Sections and convicted the appellants for abetment of suicide. The court rejected the analogy drawn with Article 19(1)(a) wherein right to speak includes the right not to speak by holding that the same is a mere omission. While, the right to die involves an active overt act of taking life using unnatural means which cannot be included under Article 21. The court further upheld the sanctity of life to state that the unnatural taking away of life cannot be justified in any way. Thus, the Court convicted the appellants for abetment of suicide of Kulwant Kaur under Section 306 of IPC.

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Analysis

Section 309 of IPC punishes a person for attempt to commit suicide with a simple imprisonment of one year along with a fine. On the other hand, Section 306 of IPC punishes a person for abetment of suicide with ten years imprisonment and a fine. The two provisions have often been labelled as barbarous and draconian. In fact, they have been repeatedly challenged on moral and constitutional grounds in the courts of law.

Perhaps, the first such challenge came up in 1985 in the case of State v. Sanjaya Kumar Bhatia[1]. The Delhi High Court strongly advocated for the removal of Section 309 and held that the Defendant instead be sent to a Medical Clinic. This was closely followed by Maruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra[2] wherein the mentally ill Petitioner tried to end his life by pouring kerosene over him and lighting a matchstick. The Division Bench of the Bombay High Court in 1986 held Section 309 IPC to be ultra vires of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The court was of the opinion that the right to life includes the right to end one’s life. It further drew the analogy of positive and negative freedoms enshrined under Part III (Fundamental Rights) of the Indian Constitution by stating that right to speak under Article 19(1)(a) i.e. Freedom of Speech and Expression automatically involves the right not to speak. The court further rejected the argument that Section 309 of IPC acts as deterrence to further acts of attempt to suicide and held that such persons instead need psychiatric treatment. 

However, the Division Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in Chenna Jagadishwar v. State of A.P.[3], for the first time upheld the validity of Section 309 on the anvil of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. Finally, the Division Bench of the Supreme Court in P. Rathinam v. the Union of India[4] tried to lay the controversy to rest by holding Section 309 to be violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The court reasoned by stating that the act of suicide or its attempt thereof did not harm the society at large and hence, the state’s interference was uncalled for. It further expanded the scope of Article 21 by holding that right to life also included the right not to live a forced life.

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This was subsequently overruled by a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court in the present case. The court was largely of the view that right to life includes right to live with human dignity but, up to the natural lifespan of the individual and in no case will include the right to die. Moreover, it held that Section 306 entails a distinct offence and can exist independently of Section 309.

On the whole, it seems that the court’s reasoning is based on sound principles accompanied by cogent reasons. However, considering the importance of the issue at hand, a nuanced reading of the judgment is necessary as the same might have grave policy implications especially for the law relating to euthanasia in India. It can be said that the court meticulously rebutted the analogy of negative and positive aspects of freedoms enshrined under the Fundamental Rights that has been wrongfully used by all the precedents. The court correctly holds that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution stands on a different footing and all other Fundamental Freedoms are derived from it. Thus, the analogy stands on the flawed footing as pointed out by the court. Moreover, the court rightly dissected Article 21 to hold that in order to attempt suicide certain overt acts need to be undertaken and the same cannot be traced back to right to life under Article 21.

However, it can be said that the court seemed to have exercised judicial restraint and shied away from taking an activist stance. While the decision of the court in the particular facts scenario seems completely sound, yet, as a policy directive, the same might need an overlook as is proved by subsequent decisions on the issue. As, in the current scenario, the question is more about the act of abetment done by the appellants which cannot be justified in any manner. It is argued that all human beings are equal and no one can have an authority to decide question of someone else’s life and death. Even in the cases of euthanasia, the court relies on the skill and judgment of the physician owing to his profession. However, the court could have taken an activist stance and delivered its opinion on the general restrictive nature of Section 309 of IPC vis-à-vis terminally ill patients or other cases of euthanasia. Also, while the court held that right to life includes a dignified life, the same cannot include physician assisted suicide of terminally ill patients. The merit of this argument can only be understood in the light of the meaning of a “dignified life”. Since, the court failed to defined “dignified”, it cannot be conclusively held that a terminally ill patient is/is not leading a dignified life.

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Conclusion

While the judgment in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab might not be relevant in the existing socio-political scenario wherein rights have been given an ever expanding interpretation, yet, the judgment is crucial for laying out a path for the future discourse on right to life and more particularly euthanasia. In fact, the recent developments in the area have taken the discourse on the right to life to an advanced level.

The Law Commission in its 196th Report published in 2006 regarding terminally ill patients recommended that policy directives should protect the people opting for passive euthanasia from Section 309. It also sought immunity under Section 306 for physicians assisting the patients. It suggested the enactment of The Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients, Medical Practitioners) Act for the same. Moreover, the act contained sufficient safeguards to prevent its misuse. For example, a doctor could only withdraw medical treatment after the opinion of the board of experts consisting of three medical practitioners. The decision of the board/doctor, as the case may be, can be further challenged in the court of law by the family members of the patients. Two years later, in 2008, the Law Commission in its 210th Report on the decriminalization of Attempt to suicide held the act to be a condition of a diseased state of mind that deserved care and not punishment.


[1] (1985) Cr LJ 931 (Del).

[2] 1986 Mah LJ 913.

[3] (1988) Cr LJ 549 (AP).

[4] AIR 1994 SC 1844.