Finally she has faded away, gently into the night, leaving behind her mangled limbs curled into the foetal position with their overgrown nails and her vacant eyes which had remained transfixed over time, and hopefully entered a heaven of sublime peace and tranquillity where she will no longer groan in pain and howl in terror. No longer will there be any need to nasal feed her, to keep alive the flickering flame in her body for no other purpose except to prove a point. After living in this state of gradual decay for 42 years, she is gone, leaving behind a legacy.
I closely followed Aruna Shanbaug’s legal case and shared journalist-activist Pinky Virani’s anxious moments over the outcome of her litigation. Ms Virani wanted to be declared as “next friend” of Aruna to be able to provide her the best medical treatment at her own cost. And, if this didn’t work, then ensure for her the right of passive euthanasia by introducing within Indian jurispruden-ce the principle that the right to live a dignified life includes the right not to live an undignified life. Well, Ms Virani won the case and the principle gained legitimacy for future cases, but not for Aruna. Aruna’s destiny was entrusted to the medical authorities of King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital for whom, by now, she had become a trophy. For, after all, they had provided her a bed and kept her body free of bed sores!
Apart from the legal case, I share a strange affinity with Aruna because I am of the same age and come from the same coastal Karnataka region. I share the same language, culture and cuisine — fish curry-rice and mangoes in summer.
I also shared Ms Virani’s pain and cringed when photographs of Aruna’s mangled body were projected on the screen in the hallowed precincts of the Supreme Court, brimming with curious litigants, lawyers and reporters, stripping her of her privacy and dignity; and when a team of doctors conducted some tests as per the directions of the apex court and declared that Aruna had a flicker of life still left in her and, hence, medically she could not be declared to be in a comatose state! So she had to live for another four years, during which her teeth fell off her rotten gums and finally her muscles gave up the will to even soak the liquid diet. In this state she was a display for pro-life religious leaders. Through her lifeless existence, Aruna had become a symbol of different ideological positions, for those opposing and supporting the right to a dignified death.
In 1973, when Aruna was brutally sodomised and strangled with a dog chain and left to die by a hospital ward boy, rape as an issue had not entered the public discourse. That happened later, after the adverse ruling of the Supreme Court in the Mathura rape case where two policemen had raped a 16-year-old tribal girl in the police station. The public protests gave birth to the women’s movement in the country and resulted in the first amendment to the rape law in 1983.
The concept of safety of women at workplace and the obligation upon the employer to ensure it had also not evolved. That happened in 1997 with Justice Verma’s famous Vishakha judgement after an NGO had approached the Supreme Court following the brutal gangrape of Banwari Devi, a dalit woman, by five men from the upper-caste Thakur community in a village in Rajasthan. The guidelines were transformed into a statute only in 2013.
Even the concept of state support and compensation for the victim were not in place. These were introduced after public protests in the recent Delhi gangrape case when, through a public display of concern, the government airlifted the victim on her death bed, along with her immediate family members to a foreign country, to diffuse tension on the domestic front by claiming to provide for her world-class medical care.
By the time Ms Virani transformed herself from a journalist to a legal activist and approached the court to be appointed her “next friend”, and claim the right to provide Aruna quality treatment using advanced medical technology, which had moved far ahead in the 30 years or so she had been at the KEM Hospital, it was too late. By then the hospital authorities, having provided her with a bed and minimum of care, were in a commanding position to claim that they knew best what was good for Aruna and shifting her out even in the best equipped ambulance would cause her distress.
The legacy Aruna has left behind is that our rape laws have included the term “causing permanent vegetative state” as a special category along with causing death for the purpose of punishment. But we are yet to evolve in our approach to sexual crimes from a conviction driven one to a victim-centric one. The case is a reminder of criminal negligence by authorities in providing advanced medical treatment, failure to provide financial support not just to the victim but also to her immediate family as a basic fundamental right, and the responsibility of the employers to provide a safe working environment for women.
The writer is a women’s rights lawyer