The right to live... and die.

Dr Roshan Radhakrishnan

“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.  

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Let me know what you think.

  1. a diff blog from you dis time . . ..

    u made a point when u said that there was no glamor wid being in a vegetative state . . true, . . . even i never knew the efforts taken by the staff of KEM hospital for so many years. . . . hats of to them. . .
    But as put in indian express, out country is not grown up enough to allow euthanasi. I agree wid it v much. . surely the act will misused. no doubt in that
    usually when we finish reading ur blogs it ll be wid a smile. . .but dis time .......:) keep bloging doc :)

  2. i read that article too vivek... And i totally agree with you on the point you mention - they have to be commended for the efforts they've taken to look after her for more than 3 decades... Not even one's own flesh and blood would have done that much.

    And yes, i know the law will be open for abuse if they were to allow euthanasia as a legal means, but in my eyes, this definitely fell in the category of 'rarest of rare' cases for which i felt a more active decision shd have been taken. Der were no previous similar cases to use as benchmark... I just wished she could have got the dignity to die after losing the dignity to life.

  3. Justice Krishna Iyer said that "procedure" in article 21 means FAIR AND NOT formal procedure law is THE reasonable law.

    Now it is settled that article 21 confers positive rights to life and liberty.

    The word life in article 21 means a life of dignity and not just mere ANIMAL SURVIVAL (Vegetative state et al. as in the present case).

    This was also upheld in the case of Francis caralie{(1993)1 scc 645 AND MANY MANY MANY MORE!

    The procedure of depriving a person of his life and liberty must be reasonable. And the instant case, as observed is not even close to the peri pheri of reasonability - for a woman who cant talk, cant laugh, who knows, if she can feel the air she breathes in at all!

    The tragedy is that the judiciary is one of the three pillars on which the democracy rests and hence any observation (even if true) that might have the potential to impinge the competency of the judiciary may amount to contempt of court.

    I respect couple of more authors who write in the same genre as this blogpost of urs... they have been an example through which the courts have shown, well, how seriously they take the "contempt of court" issue. Shashi Tharoor and Arundhati Roy.

    Ironically, the seriousness with which the spirit of Art 21 needs to be deciphered has not filtered in!

    I, personally beleive that there must be a remedy to all disease, all traumas, that all must live - go on living, for they ARE special to someone; but that is too much too ask. Medical Science has its limitations while the cruelty of the traits of these human carnivores remain boundless!

    Maybe, when the medical science gives up (in certain cases), the law must learn to give in!

  4. Have been following the same too.. ended up in a post during one of those ventures...

    Good post do.. but how I wish that law against such crimes were more stringent...

  5. v nice blog.... i remember reading the article and ending with tears in my eyes....The nurses taking care of Aruna need to be commended because 37 years is a real long time...It hurts to think that there might be cases where such people have been abandoned.
    Its high time our judicial system needs to be amended.
    With more education we expect the society to improve and these kind of atrocities to go down...
    we now have teenagers involved in attempt rape cases and I simply cannot imagine what their mindsets are..
    Sometimes I feel the "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" kinda solution needs to be applied in India esp in cases involving Rape, Honour Killing (what kinda honour is murder is something beyond any sense), though I know this is not the solution at all...
    Sadly in our country MONEY is the key factor and NOT JUSTICE.
    I am in support for Euthanasia to be legalized in India IF AND ONLY IF it can be controlled and monitored by an efficient Judicial system.

  6. you got a point here bro. Interesting is that as you go through the above 5 comments you get the answer to your thoughts .. mixed emotions and opinion . it's always a tough call ..

  7. Ankita, thats exactly the point... there is a limit to all medical modalities... beyond that, the court must take a stand. As Moushmi said, there should be an efficient judicial system to monitor each case based on its merits and decide... if there is any doubt as to the motives, so be it... but in this case, what possible motives were there

  8. Meety, read that article... just as horrifying in its portrayal , especially of the events.
    The truth is we feel the anger... but it makes no difference... those upholding the law go by an outdated book.

    Moushmi, I've given up pretense that education will improve our basic nature. The events in recent times involves uneducated folk and college grads alike... it is a deeper baser evil within that arises.. but yes, I otally agree with u. Even though no court would allow it, I would definitely support "an eye for an eye" under such circumstances... Gandhi doesn't work everytime... sometimes you need a Dexter ( the vigilante serial killer in Star World )

  9. Shine, I know. You're absolutely right. There are reservations even within this miniature sample of the population, isn't there ? Thats why euthanasia is such a difficult subject.. but I feel it should be decided on a case to case basis personally..
    Incidentally, I feel the same about the other stuff too ( rape, honour killing etc ).. only there i want it to be BAD, WORSE, WORST for the guilty.

  10. It also could be that if euthanasia is allowed for this woman there are chances that others may misuse the court decision. May be thats why the court has rejected the plea for mercy killing of Aruna.
    But I was also thinking...what if the court had seen this as equivalent to a murder case and punished the ward boy accordingly ? In fact it is worse than a murder..right? what is 7 years in jail to 37 years of horrendous miserable vegetative state in a hospital room? That guy who did this to her must have probably forgotten about a life that was entitled to suffer because of him...

  11. Everyone deserves the right to live and also die with dignity.....
    You understand it better being a doc...

    I lost my doc father to neurogenic sarcoma. My views are personal and painful I would not like to share but each case merits a diff response.

  12. Very emotional post!

    You think our courts have the time to deal with these kinda 'insignificant' cases, when they are busy with our 'babus' making deals?!

    And... White font on black background is lil difficult to read. May be it is time to get my eyes tested! However, I suggest, u go back to your white / light background.


  13. it's the saddest of things i've heard in recent times Roshan..makes you wonder at and count your wrong day and you are doomed.
    it makes me shudder to think what she must be thinking lying there by herself all these years and unable to express her misery and anguish...

    euthanasia is something that needs more consideration and i too wish we had bolder courts instead of the present timid ones...
    the post left me with a tinge of sadness all over again...

    let's hope for dignity for all

  14. Anita, it is indeed a fate worse than death from where I see it.

  15. Alka, sorry for your loss... but yes, I know very well from innumerable first hand experiences the suffering of the living and the dying.

    Shalini, ok, back to white background..

    Suruchi, exactly. I dont know whats worse.. keeping alive someone who cant understand her surroundings or someone who actually can but is stuck in that body...

  16. I agree with you....Poor Aruna only exists, does not live. I had 4 of written about this some 5 years ago when I was in Ward 4 of KEM and saw the keys labelled "Aruna's keys" along with a bunch of many others.

    You cannot have a blanket law for euthanasia I agree, but each case deserves to be individually reviewed.

    I applaud the sisters though who have cared for her for 37 years in a busy government setup....

  17. I agree.
    The court can take the specific circumstances into consideration while going for or against euthanasia.
    It does while deliberating in murder and other atrocities. Then why not for euthanasia?
    But then again, like you rightly pointed out, it gets swayed. And many a time, justice is compromised...

    Very poignant post.

    I shared this post in my blog. Hope you do not mind.
    Keep blogging.

  18. Varsha, thats true. You cant have a blanket law for euthanasia and this for me was a definite reason for euthanasia... I didnt know you were in KEM ?

    Choco, i doubt if the courts were compromised here.. it was just a case of not taking action or having the heart to make a big decision.

    And her, send me the link to the blog too.. cant access it from here.

  19. Oh sorry... Here you go:

  20. Okay, respect your views but 'killing her' will make it a dignified death for Aruna?

  21. I read your post Sanjana... and I've replied there.. I can appreciate your point of view too .. I just don't personally agree with it :)

  22. READERS will find this interesting:

    more opinions... more views

  23. when i saw it was 82 percent in favour of euthanasia.. And frankly, even the 18 percents arguments were weak... 'god doesnt allow us to take life', 'every life has a purpose'... Esp in her case, what was the purpose.. To see heights of human suffering ?

  24. Roshan, I came back to this post 5 times before i could finally comment on this. Firstly, this one is a very differrent post from you.

    You have addressed two major concerns - one which is very close to my heart, and the other one which has always rendered me confused.

    I am from Delhi, and that speaks volumes why women safety issues cause me to see red. The sad part is that this mean streak of violence against women is prevalent in a minority, but a considerably large minority - disturbing. Even things like eve teasing, or touching/fondling in crowded areas are mean.... and the minute we ignore these, we are creating future monsters.

    The other, more confusing issue is that of euthanasia .... and frankly, we have lived by our reputation here. We become self-righteous, suspicious and selfish when we have to take tough decisions - as has been proved yet again!!

    Oops!! written a lecture here, sorry :-)

  25. meena, no need to apologise.. The idea of commenting is to get the message across.. The longer the reply the better :)

    frankly, though, i must admit, i have very little respect for Delhi where safety for women are concerned.. I hope the cases are indeed a minority, but a decade of observing over the news leaves me sceptical of that. It does say a lot though of the attitude where not just the ruffians but even educated men feel they can escape the law with their behaviour.

    As for euthanasia.. It needs more than this kind of ambigiuous verdict and i doubt if any court here is capable of that

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. since , as you maintain,that it should be on a case to case basis..there is one set of fact that has arisen and that has caught quite some attention..aruna responds positivley (she smiles) when administered a chicken soup( facts establish that she likes it). is it some odd coincidence that should be shoved away or does it mean something? does it signal to some life left in her otherwise damaged brain ?not saying that it can support a healthy or a dignified living,but does it not establish something?

  28. 4TWC, I havent read that fact earlier but I will agree it shows she has enough capacity to like.. which leads to the next point : is there anyway she would 'like' to lead such a life trapped in a broken body, incapable of speaking her mind or taking care of her basic needs... for 37 YEARS ?

    It comes to back to what I said earlier... at some level, I actually wished she couldn't be capable of liking and disliking.. because it heightens the impressions of a broken but thinking mind trapped inside a broken body for me..

  29. After about one hour of reading some mindless blogs in my blog surfing time ( post 9PM about twice a week!) I cam across your blog. Really nice! I have read Aruna's story written by Pinki Virani and I agree with what she says - Death with dignity and the right to die are basic human rights. AFter all let us not take moral positions on life..!

  30. Meera, thats what I'm saying too.. I cant get how people can pass moral judgement on her life saying she may want to live like that... is there anyone on Earth who would want to trade places with what this lady has gone through ?

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