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Live and Let Die

Some years ago, around the time that an American doctor, Jack Kevorkian, administered a lethal injection to a terminally-ill patient and sparked a huge row, three senior citizens in Kerala, South India, caused a flutter of their own. They went to court demanding the right to die.

Kevorkian, who had until then put 130 of his patients to "sleep", earned the sinister nickname Dr. Death and a jail sentence for his efforts to advance the cause of mercy killing. In Kerala, the three writs filed before the high court were summarily dismissed.

But Kevorkian and his three sympathisers halfway across the globe have managed to open a debate on the individual's right over his life. C.A. Thomas Master (80), Mukundan Pillai (71) and John Daniel (58) argued in their petitions before the high court that the right to plan one's death, like that of one's life, is an inalienable right of a citizen. The court held that all artificial death, be it voluntary or involuntary, should be construed as suicide, which at the moment is disallowed by law. The court relied on the Supreme Court of India constitutional bench verdict in the matter.

The petitioners differ with this view. They argue that Anglo-saxon jurisprudence followed in India does not understand or take into account ancient Indian customs and cultural practices such as Samadhi and Nirvana. Merely because these words do not exist in the English dictionary does not mean they did not exist for the people of India. Samadhi is practised even today by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain monks. The petitioners were only asking that recognition be accorded to Indian customs and practices.

The Supreme Court of India, in the 1994 Gyan Kaur Vs State of Punjab case, has declared both suicide and abetment to suicide illegal. According to the court, the right to life does not include the right to terminate life. Consequently, suicide and abetment to suicide remain offences under sections 306 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code.

The petitioners have no quarrel with these provisions. They do not support suicide. The crux of their argument is to draw the distinction between suicide and voluntary death. That is, suicide and voluntary death may co-exist under law. Suicide is an impulsive act done under severe emotional stress, whereas voluntary death is the consequence of a well-considered decision taken by an individual in full possession of his or her faculties.

But the apex court equates the two and treats them on the same footing. The petitioners seek to delink suicide from voluntary death, buttressing their argument with copious references drawn from ancient Indian scriptures. Historically in India, unlike in the West, the practice of abandoning life at a particular stage was very much in vogue. It is integral to Indian heritage.

The core argument of the right-to-die lobby is that voluntary death is not suicide and that Indian jurisprudence - which embodies influences exerted upon it by myth, scripture and custom - ought to be given precedence over Anglo-saxon law while deciding the issue.

The three senior citizens argue that they have the right to plan their exit from life, to avoid the trauma of disability and dependence on others. To beef up this argument, they quote the Manu Smriti, which says: "When a householder sees that he is wrinkled and grey, and when he sees the children of his children, then he should take himself to the wilderness."

It even prescribes the route to be taken:

"The householder should set out in a north-easterly direction and walk straight ahead, diligently engaged in eating nothing but water and air, until the body collapses."

The petitioners argue that such ancient texts must have the sanction of law because they are a potential source of Indian jurisprudence. Heritage and tradition should play a role in interpreting the law.

Does this argument include euthanasia or mercy killing? Mercy killing does not qualify as voluntary death because it involves a decision taken by a third party (either a doctor or relative). Euthanasia appears to be the guiding principle for two of the petitioners.

Mukundan Pillai, a retired head master from Kollam, says he began pondering the issue of an individual's right over his body and the merits of mercy killing after he saw the plight of some of his elderly friends who were invalid and bedridden. "They were lying in a state of utter neglect. The room stank of urine and faeces. I realised that I did not wish to be in that position when I too grow old and ill. I did not want to be a burden on my family," Pillai contends.

In another corner of Kollam, John Daniel was driven by similar compulsions. A bachelor, Daniel is plagued by multiple health disorders and sees no point in prolonging the struggle by artificial means. "When doctors prescribe pain killers, I tell them either to kill the pain for good or allow me to kill myself," he says." When the body is in decline and affects every area of your life, what is there to live for?"

Significantly, both men appear to lead contented lives and are not in any hurry to die. Pillai lives with his wife, daughter and two granddaughters and spends his time tending the garden. Daniel runs a cycle repair shop that does modest business. At home, he has a nephew for company. He looks back on the burdens of the past - which include attending on an invalid sister - with a sense of accomplishment. His desire to exercise dominion over his own body is, as in the case of Pillai, borne out of a need to preserve his self-respect to the very end. The right to live in dignity presupposes the right to die in dignity.

Thomas Master of Trissur does not wish to wait till his body gives way to sickness or disease. He believes a man has the right to die when he chooses. The three men- who filed independent petitions - are united by a common belief: none of them believes in God. They have no faith in religion and entertain no suggestions of an after-life.

On a general plane, their petitions bring into sharp focus the problems faced by a growing population of the elderly. In Kerala, according to the 1991 census, 10 per cent of the 30-million population is above 60 years. It is estimated to reach 20 per cent very soon.

Changing values and substandard old age care are driving a burgeoning geriatric population to desperation and despair. The three senior citizens fighting for the right to end their lives may be articulating the collective plea of elderly people everywhere.

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