Why deny an individual’s right to die?

India is currently witnessing a great battle seeking to redefine the idea of ‘being Indian’. How we regard life itself is a very good example. Thus, suicide, euthanasia and Santhara — the very heart of any society’s ideological construct — are being debated as never before.

Trying to find a pragmatic balance between these conflicting self-identities is the Supreme Court of India, an institution conceptually designed to uphold the rule of law, not evolve new national ideologies. Confusion clouds our thoughts as the battle unfolds.

As the law stands today, trying to commit suicide is still a crime, but for how long? At the top of the pending legislative business list is the Mental Health Care Bill 2013, which seeks to convert an attempted suicide into a mental health issue triggered by “a presumption of severe stress”.

Meanwhile, the Minister of State for Health has stated that the government plans to delete Section 309, which criminalises suicide attempts. At one stroke it seems, the Judeo-Christian idea that our life is not ours to lose, is being jettisoned out the window.

Many moralities

To be fair, the Judeo-Christian ideological construct was never coercively enforced on people whose religious beliefs clearly differed. The Jains, for instance, have fasted unto death for several thousand years without interference.

This changed on August 10, 2015, when the Rajasthan High Court decided in Nikhil Soni v. Union of India that the Jain practice of Santhara was illegal. In effect, the court held that you are free to believe what you will, just so long as it is consistent with the Judeo-Christian moral framework.

If you stop to think about it, at the heart of the controversy lies the issue: what is this ‘morality’ to which my right to practice religion is subject? Is it Hindu morality, Jain morality, Judeo-Christian morality, or some other?

This is the question the Supreme Court has taken upon itself to decide when it stayed the orders of the Rajasthan High Court on August 31, 2015.

The issues raised in the appeal dramatically personify the ideological disconnect. The Akhil Bharat Varshiya Digambar Jain Parishad has claimed a distinction between suicide and a vow intended to purify the soul.

It has pleaded that “this vow is not taken either in passion or in anger, deceit, etc. It is a conscious process of spiritual purification where one does not desire death but seeks to live his life, whatever is left of it, in a manner so as to reduce the influx of karmas”.

It argues that “Suicide is undertaken by a person in severe bouts of passion in anger, depression or hatred — antithetical to the concept of peaceful and joyous renunciation which is the basis of Sallekhana or Santhara”. The Jains claim as sacred what others consider criminally profane.

Matters of belief

No doubt, it will be many years before the Supreme Court decides these issues. Nevertheless, the Court appears to have been motivated by a simple reluctance to engage in adjudicating on countervailing religious beliefs.

Thus it is that the very next month, on September 28, 2015, the Supreme Court declined to interfere with religious practices once again, stating that it would not ban the centuries old tradition of animal sacrifice by various communities. It observed: “We cannot shut our eyes to centuries-old traditions. We cannot start examining the relevance of animal sacrifice in each religion…”

Personally, I would not read too much into the court’s observation. I suspect Raja Ram Mohan Roy would have had as much success in persuading the Supreme Court to ban sati as he did with Bengal’s Governor William Bentinck. Indian courts appear increasingly unwilling to allow religious practices that offend its fairly modern outlook.

That still leaves open the question whether we should treat our lives as belonging not to us, but mainly to God, and then to the local police station. Crudely put, aren’t there circumstances in which some people are better off dead, even by the most humanitarian standards? Nothing brings this central dilemma into focus as does the problem of euthanasia.

We have struggled long and hard over the fate of Aruna Shanbag who, as we know, was strangled while being raped and remained in coma for 36 years. Eventually, in Aruna Shanbaug v Union of India , the Supreme Court refused to accept ‘active euthanasia’ as legal but tried to mould a solution suitable to ‘Indian conditions’ (whatever that meant) by which some people would be ‘permitted to die’.

It laid down tight conditions in which ‘passive euthanasia’ may be implemented so long as it was bona fide and in the best interest of the patient.

To get there, it prescribed that the subject, or its next of kin, must approach a High Court, have a team of doctors appointed (comprising a neurologist, a psychiatrist and a physician) to report to the court, issue notices to government as well as close relatives of the patients and hear them all before allowing the euthanasia plea to be implemented.

I was severely under-whelmed by this decision. When death goes from being a natural process to a ‘legal procedure’ requiring the services of a lawyer to facilitate, it does seem odd.

A question of life

There is something unreal about adding additional burdens on courts already buried under the weight of cases that have no hope of being decided within one’s lifetime.

When most people do not survive without water for longer than five days, the distinction between active and passive euthanasia becomes hard to understand.

We are already at a point where medical sciences can prolong life indefinitely without offering an acceptable quality of life.

Life then means a person who may not function very much beyond the digestive system, end to end. What this person’s family suffers as a result requires no comment.

At the end of the day, however delicately you may want to put it, to insist that we must all live for as long as technology makes it possible for us to do so, is to argue that we must live for as long as we have money to pay bills generated by the intensive care units of hospitals.

How did the value we place upon human life so seamlessly transform into shareholders’ value?

Even more disturbing is the idea that while others may in circumstances take these decisions for us after we have become incoherent and dysfunctional, we cannot be permitted to opt for a dignified end to our lives at a time of our choosing.

Whose life is it anyway?

Originally Published on November 17, 2015 in Hindu Business Line


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