Mercy death sought for rape victim

Mercy death sought for rape victim



Aruna Shanbaug turned a vegetable 36 years ago after suffering brutal sexual assault and strangulation that cut off the oxygen supply to her brain.

Then 24 and working as a nurse at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital, Shanbaug was incapacitated by the grievous injuries inflicted upon her by her rapist, a KEM ward boy Sohanlal Walmiki.

The ward boy forced anal sex on her in an act of vengeance because Aruna would threaten she would report him to the hospital authorities for stealing milk meant for patients. The prosecution could not prove the rape charges, so Sohanlal was let off after six years of imprisonment for robbery.

Today, at 62, a petition has been moved on Aruna’s behalf in the Supreme Court, praying that feeding be stopped for a day, effectively seeking assisted death. The petition has brought into the public realm her painful, private struggle.

Nurses attending to her say that although Aruna’s vision and hearing are unimpaired, she cannot speak. Her body has assumed a grotesque shape: her limbs are turned inwards and her fingers twisted.

Pinki Virani, a former journalist who chronicled Shanbaug’s nightmare and struggle in “Aruna’s Story”, recently moved a petition through an advocate, which came up for hearing before a bench headed by Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan on Wednesday. The bench issued notice to the Centre to file its reply.

Assisted death

The petition has not sought euthanasia, but prayed that Aruna not be fed for a day. In other words, Virani has raised the issue of assisted death, a subject which underscores the legal and social controversies in a longstanding debate not only in the West but now in India.

Virani’s lawyer said since Aruna can neither speak nor move, to die without pain and torture was a fundamental right. But KEM dean Dr Sanjay Oak took strong exception to Virani’s petition. “Who is Virani to decide whether Aruna should be fed or not?” he shot back, when asked for his views on the prayer made before the apex court. Dr Oak is the seventh KEM dean since Aruna’s hospitalisation there.

“It is a tradition that has been passed on to the nurses who take care of Aruna. And they really take good care of her,” Dr Oak said. Unable to check his anger, a fuming Dr Oak said: “Who are we to decide whether some body should die. Has euthanasia been legalised in India?”

Aruna has been kept in a room inside ward number 4. The curtains always remain drawn and the room locked, though nurses and other paramedics say that strange cries emanate from it.

The nurses bathe her in the room and sometimes take her out on a wheel chair. The nurses’ devotion to duty has often moved Aruna to smiles. She was a vegetarian, but she has taken to non-vegetarian food and is given eggs twice a week and chicken thrice a week.

“We take care of her like a child," a sister was quoted recently. And Dr Oak said that “KEM is committed to taking care of Aruna till the natural time of her demise. We will continue to feed her. Let the Supreme Court ask me to stop feeding her”.

The physician believes that Virani’s petition, if admitted and heard by the Supreme Court, will have disastrous social consequences. "There are thousands of people who are suffering from intractable diseases. They too will ask for the same remedy. Are we going to allow that?" the KEM dean asked.

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