Jiah Khan case: If suicide is a mental health problem, should abetment really be a crime?

Jiah Khan case: If suicide is a mental health problem, should abetment really be a crime?
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Two-and-a-half years after Bollywood actor Jiah Khan hanged herself from the ceiling of her Mumbai home, her boyfriend Sooraj Pancholi has been charged, for the second time, with abetting her suicide.

On December 9, the Central Bureau of Investigation – which took over the case from the Mumbai police in July 2014 – filed a chargesheet in a Special Court in the city, claiming that Pancholi’s “wilful conduct” drove 25-year-old Khan to kill herself on June 3, 2013. In January last year, the Mumbai police had drawn up a similar chargesheet, booking the young actor for abetment of suicide on the basis of investigations and a three-page note in which Khan allegedly spoke of Pancholi being physically and emotionally abusive towards her.

Neither of the chargesheets have supported claims by Khan’s mother, Rabiya Khan, that her daughter was murdered. The CBI chargesheet, however, lists numerous reasons for identifying Pancholi as an abettor of the suicide. Citing letters and text conversations between the couple, it alleges that Pancholi had promised to get engaged to Khan and had pushed her to get an abortion when she got pregnant in January 2013. Hours before Khan killed herself, Pancholi also allegedlysent her abusive text messages.

Legally, these are sufficient reasons to book a person for abetment of suicide under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code. In general, the law defines “abetment” as the act of instigating a person to do a certain thing.

However, suicide is an act committed by an individual. According to mental health professionals, while most suicides are committed because of depression or any other form of mental illness, they are, nonetheless, the decision of an individual.

At what point, then, can another person – Sooraj Pancholi in this case – be held criminally culpable for abetting or triggering an individual’s mental instability? At a time when the Central government is considering the decriminalisation of attempted suicide, should abetment still be seen as a crime?

The idea of abetment

For psychiatrists such as Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla, the distinction between the legal and medical views on abetting of suicide is perfectly clear.

“In legal parlance, abetment is recognised,” said Matcheswalla, who practises in Mumbai. “But it is depression that leads to 90% of suicides, and we look at depression as a psychiatric disorder that may be biochemical, neurological, hereditary or affected by similar factors. As psychiatrists, we cannot fully accept the idea of somebody abetting the act.”

This is not to say that other people – lovers, spouses, parents, in-laws – have nothing to do with the condition of a depressed person’s mind.

“Our environment and the people in it have a huge influence on the way we act,” said Deepak Kashyap, a psychologist from Mumbai. “But they do not make us act. There is no causation between the two, but there may be a high correlation.”

Making choices and decisions about one’s behaviour can be extremely difficult for someone who is depressive or bipolar and in this situation, a third person could, at most, be blamed for making the environment hostile.

“An abusive boyfriend can be accused of creating a hostile environment, of being the trigger for a suicide. And there may be social shame attached to it,” said Kashyap.

There are, in fact, other Indian laws that deal with accusations of abuse and physical harassment from husbands or boyfriends. But the moment you try to bring justice and law into suicides, said Kashyap, it gets very complicated. “By making that other person criminally liable for being the trigger, you are taking away the responsibility of the deed from the doer.”

No generalisations

Legal professionals, however, differ slightly in their views. Several women’s rights lawyers, for instance, point out that many women turn depressive and are driven to kill themselves because they face physical, mental and emotional torture from their husbands and in-laws, and no support from anyone else.

According to retired Justice R Sodhi, no generalisations are possible in a matter as complex as suicide. “An abetment case has to be rationalised properly, because if one individual is over-sensitive, another person cannot be held accountable for it,” said Justice Sodhi. “A suicide can be abetted only if another person has been actively goading the individual to do something like that – every fight or act of speaking harshly does not necessarily imply goading.”

Even while judging suicide cases involving physical abuse, said Sodhi, the case can remain complicated. “One would have to ask, what is the exact nature of the abuse? Has there been an attempt to break the spirit of the weaker person?”

Kashyap, however, believes legalities are best kept out of what is essentially a mental health issue. “Whether you are the depressed or the hostile partner, it is necessary and important to get help from a third, uninvolved, professional party,” he said. “If help is sought in time, beautiful lives like Jiah Khan’s could be saved.”