By Amrita Mukherjee
Sixty-six-year-old nurse Aruna Shanbaug has become more famous in India through her death on May 18, than she ever was in life, lying in a bed in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) for the last 42 years at the King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM) in Mumbai.
Since her death two days back, gory details of her life story have suddenly invaded the virtual space and those who had probably never heard of her have swiftly woken up to her four decades of suffering.
While numerous debates have sparked off on the social media on whether Aruna should have been allowed euthanasia or whether her offender, Sohanlal Bharta Valmiki — a sweeper at the hospital, who throttled her on a November night in 1973, with a dog chain and sodomized her because she publicly rebuked him for stealing food kept for the dogs — got off with too light a sentence of seven years for robbery and attempted murder or whether the hospital handled the case irresponsibly, I have realized there are many sides to Aruna Shanbaug’s story that need objective analysis.
Aruna’s medical condition
While perpetrator Sohanlal walked into the sunlight after seven years, Aruna never saw sunlight again and became a permanent patient at Ward No. 4 of KEM Hospital till she breathed her last on May 18.
The brutal assault with the dog chain had cut off the oxygen supply to her brain, leaving her partially blind and in a permanent vegetative state. The nurses at KEM looked after her all these years. Although she had rotting gums and had to be fed with a Ryles tube from 2010, she had no bedsores and was supposedly well looked after. She apparently liked hearing the songs in a radio, often liked egg curry and smiled sometimes.
Journalist Pinki Virani, who wrote the book Aruna’s Story, however, feels that she needed to be given palliative medicines which she was never prescribed, she should have had an annual check-up that was never done and her own efforts to organize one were also turned down by the hospital management.
Virani feels that in Aruna’s state, she had no capacity to recognize people or express her feelings so it was unfair to say she was responding to care or understanding that a birthday cake was being cut in her honor.
Also, Virani questioned why Aruna’s room was always locked. The reason given for this by the hospital nurses was that after Virani published her book, media turned up unannounced creating discomfort for Aruna. Also, on the day Sohanlal was released, some people said that they had seen an unfamiliar man walk into her room and she was found with bite marks on her tongue and in a disheveled state in her bed. Because of these reasons, her room was kept locked.
Sexual harassment in the workplace
The sexual harassment in the workplace act was passed in India in 2013. Aruna Shanbaug was assaulted in 1973, when India had not even woken up to the realization that sexual assault at the workplace is a punishable offense and it is the duty of an employer to provide compensation in case of an assault and also provide a safe working environment for employees.
The hospital authorities never reported Aruna’s rape and reports say that her medical files were also missing from the hospital. On the one hand, the hospital wanted to avoid the negative publicity a rape on its premises would bring. On the other hand, it also wanted to avoid paying compensation to the victim.
Lack of compensation became one of the reasons why Aruna never went home. Her family couldn’t look after her without financial assistance.
Also, apparently the dean of the hospital did not report the rape because he was scared of the social stigma that she would have to live with because she was soon to be wed to a doctor working in the same hospital.
Bombay Municipality Corporation made two attempts to vacate Aruna’s bed in Ward No. 4. But the nurses opposed it — so Aruna stayed. Hence, Aruna didn’t stay on because of the hospital’s altruism or sense of responsibility. It was because of the nurses’ obstinacy. Aruna’s family stopped visiting her soon after the incident.
After the attack, Aruna’s colleagues, the nurses of KEM Hospital, went on a strike asking for better working conditions and better care for Aruna. But little is known about what came about from that strike. But one thing is for sure: It ensured the victim stayed in their care.
So throughout, it has been the nurses who worked with her or, who came in years after the incident, who have taken care of this PVS patient.
The tussle between the nurses and Pinki Virani
Journalist-author Pinki Virani, after writing the book on Aruna’s life, felt that Aruna should be allowed to end her life with dignity through euthanasia so that she did not have to continue a life of pain and indignity in her vegetative state.
In 2009, Pinki Virani filed a petition as Aruna’s “next friend” to allow her to die in dignity. This petition was vehemently opposed by the nurses of KEM, who looked after Aruna. The Supreme Court Judgment in 2011 refused to accept Pinki as “next friend” and instead said the nurses could be called Aruna’s “next friend” since they had an emotional bonding with her and took care of her.
Although Aruna was not allowed to die, the same court judgment made passive euthanasia legal in India. Relatives of a PVS patient could approach the court to take a long-suffering patient off life support.
As Aruna breathed her last and the nurses of KEM paid their last respects to her, Pinki Virani still believes that Aruna should have been allowed to die long before. This is because the cells in the part of Aruna’s brain that feel pain were alive. Through the 42 years of her hospital ordeal, the rape victim suffered excruciating pain.
In an interview with the Indian newspaper The Hindu, Surinder Kaur, head nurse at the cardiac division at KEM, said that she joined the hospital in 1976 and became aware of Aruna Shanbaug’s situation. Since then, she has been looking after her along with the others. “We have been looking after her like our own child. We could not accept the idea of putting her to sleep.”
True. Maybe Pinki Virani was right in her own way, so were the nurses who developed an attachment to this long-suffering soul.
While Aruna Shanbaug gifted passive euthanasia to India, she is also the living example of how women continue to be the victims of a lopsided justice system in India.
Sohanlal was never tried for rape or sodomy. He had probably changed his name after getting his release from the prison. Ward boys in KEM told Pinki he had found a job in a Delhi hospital. There are no photographs of this criminal in police, court or hospital files since it’s been 35 years since his release. So it is unlikely he could be traced now and a case opened against him.
Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com
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