Right to Dignified Death – A Paradox

The night of November 27th, 1973, changed her life forever. She woke up that morning, which didn’t seem any different from the others, but nevertheless was filled with hope and dreams of a bright future ahead. She was to proceed on wedding leave the next day. What could possibly go wrong?

Unaware was she that she was to be shadowed by the most loathsome act humanly possible. Aruna Shanbaug, a beautiful twenty five year old nurse at King Edward Memorial Hospital, was sodomised by a sweeper in the hospital, after he tied a dog chain around her neck to make sure she doesn’t move. The very nature of this crime reflects such brutality that it is shocking to know such levels of inhumanity even exists.  She was lying there, covered in a pool of blood, till a ward boy found her the following morning. But the question is did he find her dead or alive?

Yes, her heart was still beating. But the asphyxiation cut off oxygen supply to her brain resulting in brain stem contusion injury and cervical cord injury apart from leaving her cortically blind. She cannot move, think, feel or communicate. She is neither aware of herself nor her surroundings. She has been in this vegetative state for the last thirty seven years, abandoned by her own family. It is as if life, lying motionless on an iron bed, is mocking at all those who thought they could define it.

Author and journalist Pinki Viran’s petition for euthanasia on behalf of Aruna Shanbaug (as a next friend) was rejected by the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court in its landmark judgement on  March 7, 2011, legalised passive euthanasia in India. This was a huge step and a very bold judgement passed by the Supreme Court of India, making our country one of the very few that has legalised some form of mercy killing. I am proud that we have taken a major step towards right to a dignified death. But legalising euthanasia is like having a nuclear power plant in your backyard, which is probably why active euthanasia is still illegal.

There is a constant threat of potential misuse. Pain and endurance are very relativistic and depend on the person’s level of tolerance. In fact, the definition of “life” itself differs from person to person, which is probably why the nurses at KEM hospital welcomed the SC’s judgement and celebrated it as Aruna’s “rebirth”. It is very humbling that they are taking care of Aruna for the last 37 years, ensuring she doesn’t even have bed sores. But is this what Aruna wants? She hasn’t seen sunlight in all these years. She screams when she hears a male voice in the room, indicating that maybe what happened that night is still fresh in her memory. Is lying in a foetal position on the same bed of a hospital room, being partially brain dead, called ‘living’? They love her enough to keep her alive and take care of her. But do they love her enough to end her misery and let go of her?

This case has been hitting headlines with debates over whether mercy killing is ‘mercy’ or ‘killing’. But no one seems to be troubled by the fact that a criminal is walking free out there. A living evidence of how justice was denied to an innocent woman; a reminder of how nobody came forward to be a complainant and testify that she was anally raped; a reminder of how the court disregarded sexual assault just because her hymen was intact. Sohanlal Bharta Walmiki served a mere seven years in prison, for assault and robbery as well, after which he walked free. He is said to be working as a ward boy at a hospital in Delhi under an assumed identity. It is justice delayed and justice denied. And everybody who buried the truth then and never came forward with it, including her family, friends, co workers, especially the then HOD of the hospital are equally responsible for this.

In this entire episode, neither has the victim been given justice nor has the convict been brought to justice. Pinki Virani’s petition was declined because she was not family. But her own family stopped visiting her ages ago. The fact that there has been hospital politics ever since the incident took place is irrefutable. Yes, there are people willing to take care of her. But they are not the ones lying on a bed in a persistent vegetative state for thirty seven years with no hope of even a miracle. Should right to euthanasia be based on whether there are people to take care of you or based on whether there is any use being taken care of?

In Pinki Virani’s words “Because of this woman (Aruna Shanbaug), who has never received justice, no other person in a similar position will have to suffer for more than three and a half-decades.” Such is the travesty of life.

Deepashri Varadarajan