Lessons Aruna Left Us With

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They deal with the definition of ‘right to life’ as much as the scourge of sexual assault on women

Aruna_ShanbaugIt is painful. Very painful. The trauma of a victim of rape, aggravated by irreparable physical damage, cannot be fathomed by a sympathizer. All we can do is shed a tear for the late Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug, and strengthen our resolve to fight the scourge of rape and other forms of assault on women in India, notwithstanding international statistics of the crimes. Shanbaug’s case will also be remembered forever for the plea for euthanasia by journalist-activist Pinki Virani, which was eventually turned down by the Supreme Court and yet that led to permission for passive mercy ‘killing’ for patients in a vegetative state. This means that ending the life of a patient in this condition by means of a lethal injection is still not allowed, but the medical support systems that sustain the patient can be withdrawn when there is no hope of her recovery. In absence of this permission, Shanbaug lived a traumatic 42 years lying in a bed of the King Edward Memorial Hospital where she was attacked by ward boy Sohanlal Bharatha Walmiki in the night of 27 November 1973. The case, unlike few others, exposed psychological and systemic flaws of our society and justice delivery system respectively. If rape had not been associated with end of one’s honour, Dean Dr Deshpande might not have suppressed the fact that the victim was sexually assaulted as well. The charges of robbery and attempt to murder that the perpetrator was convicted for, making him serve two concurrent — not separate and consecutive — jail terms of seven years each, sparing him another 10 years in prison for rape, sexual assault and unnatural sexual offence, were not merely inadequate. It exposed potential victims, as it was suspected that Walmiki had disappeared in thin air after serving the jail term and was working in some hospital in Delhi. Condemning the callousness of the KEM Hospital management and the court that tried the culprit but did not take or retain his photograph, while necessary, does not secure the lives of women he could target. The insensitivity of administrators who are responsible for governing the people was, in the meantime, betrayed when the Bombay Municipal Corporation made two attempts to vacate the bed Shanbaug was lying in. Thanks to the nurses who went on strike protesting the decision, the municipality relented.

It is time our society looked for an end to the blight of rape. If it has not been possible anywhere in the world, it does not make a solution impossible. Sick and depraved minds exist everywhere; educating the males about the dignity and rights of their female counterparts would only lead to marginal improvements in the ghastly statistics. Better policing by the state, constant vigil by society and utmost precaution by every individual are, hence, unexceptionable.

As for euthanasia, there are several philosophical issues the modern Indian society and nation-state have not deliberated upon enough. Why the right to one’s life should not include the right to end it is one such question. While foul play (for usurping property, exacting revenge etc) is a dangerous possibility, we are not dealing with patients in a vegetative state alone. The matter is linked to attempts to suicide being considered a crime in the country. An already beleaguered person is harassed further by law if the attempt to bring an end to his life’s agony fails. This cannot be ethically acceptable even though medical, psychological and spiritual attempts must be made to extricate a depressed individual from despondency. Finally, the legislature must address critical issues raised by experts of a subject with expediency without politicking endlessly over them in Parliament, especially when things are less complicated because they deal with rights of individual citizens and not dynamics of society as a whole.