The right to live... and die.March 15, 2011
“Nurse Aruna Shanbaug deserves to live”.
That was the decision taken by the Indian Supreme court last week. Nurses at the hospital in Mumbai where she has earlier worked and has been looked after for the past 37 years rejoiced and cursed Pinki for trying to ‘kill their friend’. Pinki Virani, incidentally, was Aruna’s friend and a journalist who had been following the case since 1998 and was appealing for euthanasia to be performed.
The court is wrong. And it has been erring in this case right from 1973.
For those who are unaware of the case, Aruna was a nurse in KEM hospital, Mumbai in 1973. On the night of 27 November 1973, she was attacked by a ward boy in the hospital in the most brutal way. He used a dog chain to choke her and tried to rape her. When he realised she was having her periods, he didn’t stop but instead sodomised her. Due to the asphyxiation, Aruna sustained permanent brain damage and left in a vegetative state for life. The ward boy was caught, but interestingly, was charged with only 2 incidental crimes ( robbery and attempted murder ) under instructions from the Dean of the hospital for decidedly dodgy reasons. He was found guilty for both and was handed 2 seven year sentences. He was released after completing his sentences.
Aruna’s sentence carries on to this day. Her life ended that night in the hospital. In the last 37 years, she has been a vegetable. Her basic needs are taken care of by the sisters of KEM where she still resides. She is fed, bathed and talked to. She doesn’t talk back. She doesn’t say whether the dal is salty, whether she would like to watch a movie or how she likes her hair done.
In short, she is alive but not living a life.
The judgement the court made is not one to celebrate with cake, as the nursing staff in KEM did. “Everyone deserves the right to live” is the common argument given. But the sentence doesn’t end there, does it ?
It should end “Everyone deserves the right to live WITH DIGNITY.”
And that is a basic right that was denied to Aruna. Films like Guzaarish, while trying to portray a noble cause, often falter because we get caught in the beauty of the movie and forgive the discrepancies in the content. The truth is, there is no glamour in being a paraplegic or vegetable. There are no roadtrips to Goa, no radio talk shows or beautiful nurses silently in love with you. It is a life stripped of dignity and filled with suffering and sickness, inspite of the best care. It took more than 3 decades for the Supreme Court to relent to atleast the ‘possibility of passive euthanasia.’ It is a different matter that it will never occur since the final decision on performing passive euthanasia will lie in the hands of the very nurses and staff who celebrated her ‘rebirth’ by distributing sweets.
Pinki was no villain for trying to ‘kill her friend’. She was begging for her friend’s suffering to end. Sadly, she chose the very court of law which had betrayed Aruna decades ago and let her attacker go on lesser charges even after the truth was revealed later. Because, for all the years of Independence we have chalked up, the fact remains that a decision like approving euthanasia needs a bold court and we don’t have one. Rather than treat each case individually, it is far easier to fall back on the time tested stereotypes of ‘evil kid trying to bump off rich parents by removing life support’ or 'God doesn't approve of it'. Our courts thrive on taking 20-30 years to reach a decision on landmark events, looking to pass the responsibility on to the next guy. So it was no surprise to me that a topic as controversial as euthanasia would end like it did in Aruna’s case.
In recent times, there have been a rise in the incidence and nature of horrific crimes against women – the rape of the woman thrown off a train in Kerala, the rape and murder of a 77 year old, point blank murders if proposals were turned down, incidents of molesting by policemen in police stations and hospital staff in hospitals, the demeaning stripping and parading of women in rural areas and honour killings. You can blame a lot of things – new generation, more sex and violence on television, ‘modern dressing’ blah blah... but the fact is that we still live in a society where a criminal can get away with rape. Bail or no bail, the law can be bought, the vital medical documents altered and witnesses and even the victims ( Shiney Ahuja case ? ) paid off. It’s a land where the woman suffers the trauma forever while the man walks the streets seven years later... or even earlier, ironically, for good behaviour.
And that’s where I feel a bold decision must be passed by the court of law. There are no vigilantes coming to help potential victims. More importantly, the one true filmy stereotype remains that the police come only after the crime has been committed. But that isn't enough. Prevention is the need of the hour. We can't keep waking up to such disgusting news every day of the week. Give those who commit such crimes something to be scared of. Simply raising awareness of such incidents when they occur isn’t enough. When the crime is so blatantly premeditated, how can the punishment be so puny ? Naming awareness programmes with mythologically strong feminine names like “Shakti” will not scare away the evil... take concrete steps to show women that they can feel safe in their own motherland.
Presently, the situation is just tragic – women can’t feel safe in their own city ( New Delhi, anyone ? ), court cases on crimes against women drag on forever and get pushed from one court to the next. Most tragically, as in Aruna’s case, when it’s all over and the dust settles... they’ve lost the right to , both, live and die with dignity.