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When Bollywood actress Jiah Khan committed suicide, police accused her boyfriend of "abetting" her death. When does being a bastard become a crime?
NEW DELHI, India — You've heard of assisted suicide. What about “abetment of suicide?”
That's right. In the wake of the suicide of up-and-coming British-Indian Bollywood actress Jiah Khan on June 3, the young star's boyfriend was taken into police custody on Tuesday for alleged “abetment of suicide.” But was he Dr. Death, or just a bad boyfriend?
According to Indian law, and the dictionary, abetment means aiding or encouraging. But Indian boyfriends frequently face criminal charges just for being, well, bastards—just as they are sometimes charged with rape because they don't follow through on promises of marriage.
Breaking up is hard to do, but illegal? What do young Indians think?
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“It does make sense, because in her [suicide] letter she has specifically said that she has gone through a very bad time—she also had an abortion—just because of her boyfriend,” said Hemant Jain, a 20-year-old college student.
“He promised her that they would get married and sent her a bouquet saying that he wanted to break up. That's not right, na?”
The boyfriend in question, 22-year-old Sooraj Pancholi, was remanded to police custody until June 13 by a Mumbai court. According to the prosecution, his detention was necessary to interrogate him about allegations that he threatened, assaulted and raped Khan, contained in a suicide note that was discovered three days after the actress hanged herself.
“I guess the family, at least, deserves to know,” said Shreya Krishna, a 19-year-old college student. “If that calls for blaming the boyfriend, I guess it's OK. [Whether a crime took place] is for the police and the courts to decide.”
“I don't think anyone can be charged for something like this,” said Devika, a 25-year-old artist, who asked that her surname not be published.
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“You do have a responsibility, but I don't know if it can be charged as a criminal offense, because you don't know what that person [who killed herself] was going through internally.”
Mumbai prosecutors think you can—though India's Supreme Court has ruled that to convict someone for abetment the state must prove both intent and a direct act on the part of the accused that led the deceased to commit suicide.
“Under Section 306 of the Indian penal code, the essential ingredient of abetment [of suicide] is the intention of the person accused of the crime,” said Rajinder Singh, a criminal lawyer affiliated with the Delhi High Court. “It is a very serious offense, with a punishment of up to ten years also.”
The case touches on several new realities of Indian life.
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Even as more and more young people are dating, having sex and living together without getting married, in both the city and the village there remains tremendous social pressure on women to conform to traditional notions of propriety. Just last week nine brides were thrown out of a government-sponsored mass marriage in the state of Madhya Pradesh after they “failed” a pregnancy test.
And the rapid social changes may be taking a heavy toll, as suicide is now the second-most common cause of death among Indians between 15 and 29 years old, according to a study published in the Lancet.
However, the real question shouldn't be whether Pancholi was a bad boyfriend, but rather whether he actively encouraged Jiah to kill herself or aided her in some way. Otherwise, his so-called crime derives from an action taken by his victim, rather than anything he did.
Say what you want about a guy who (allegedly) promises to marry his girlfriend, beats her up, gets her pregnant, and then dumps her. But you can't say he's any worse, or deserves any more jail time, than another guy who does the exact same thing, just because one girlfriend killed herself and another did not.
Except in India.