Aruna’s Story

26 May 2015
THE death of Aruna Shanbaug, the Mumbai nurse who was viciously assaulted and raped on November 27, 1973, as a consequence of which she slipped into a persistently vegetative state, on May 18 – after 42 years in a comatose state – is being used by the corporate media as a peg for the debate on euthanasia. This is reprehensible and deserves to be squarely condemned.

On the night of November 27, 1973, Aruna, a 25-year-old nurse at Mumbai's King Edward Memorial Hospital, was brutally attacked by a staff of the same hospital, Sohanlal, who strangulated her with a dog chain and sodomised her in an operation theatre in the basement where she had gone to change. He had apparently attacked her because she had accused him of stealing the food of the dogs used in medical experiments and threatened to report him. He left her for dead with the chain around her neck and she was found that way the next morning. Doctors said that the attempted strangulation temporarily cut off oxygen to her brain, causing irreversible brain damage that left her alive but incapable of normal movement or communication. Her involuntary body functions remained intact though.

She spent the rest of her life – over 4 long decades – in a bed at the hospital where she had worked and where she had been raped. Generations of nurses of the hospital took care of her and kept her alive. Meanwhile, Sohanlal who had been sentenced to seven years on charges of attempt to murder and theft (not rape), walked free in 1980, moved to Delhi and began life afresh under an assumed name. No FIR for rape was filed because, firstly, back then the legal definition of rape did not include anal penetration and secondly, Aruna's family and boyfriend wanted to avoid the social stigma associated with sexual assault.

Subsequently, Aruna's biographer Pinki Virani moved Supreme Court seeking mercy killing for Aruna. But the nurses of KEM Hospital did not want her to die. Finally, in March 2011, the court passed a landmark judgment allowing passive euthanasia in principle, but did not grant euthanasia in Aruna's case, citing among other reasons that the hospital nurses who had cared for her over the decades with unflagging devotion wanted her to live.

Now that Aruna Shanbaug has died of natural causes – she had been suffering from severe pneumonia and was on a ventilator – the media has taken it upon itself to portray her as the face of the euthanasia debate.

However, Aruna's story is not the story of right of euthanasia denied. It is the story of a criminal state that would not recognise anal penetration as rape, that never gave recognition to fact that she had been sexually assaulted, a criminal state that tried to suppress the incident as far as possible, a criminal state that certainly did not bend itself backwards to ensure that Aruna had the best medical treatment available, a criminal state that thrives by perpetuating patriarchy and ensuring that women remain the objects of male lust and that a woman remains no more than her reproductive organs.

Aruna's story is also the story of sisterhood and women's solidarity – of the unparalleled example of generations of nurses at the hospital who for decades took care of her as if she were their own flesh and blood, the nurses who asserted that Aruna was very much alive and deserved neither mercy nor killing.

The debate on euthanasia can go on (and be resolved at some point), but not over Aruna's body. Let us remember Aruna for what she was – a fighter who lived for 40-odd years after surviving a most brutal crime, when it certainly would have been convenient to many if she had died young. Indeed, had she succumbed to her injuries shortly after the incident, it might have been just another instance of sexual violence – to be swept under the carpet with the scores others occurring daily – but she lived to haunt our conscience. She became the unwilling symbol of sexual harassment of women in the workplace, other kinds of rape than penetration, and of course the survivor of vile, brutal, ruthless patriarchal system that needs must be smashed. Let us remind the corporate media and the powers-that-be that we are not suggestible and Aruna's story shall not be the backdrop for the debate on euthanasia. Let us carry forward Arun's struggle — the struggle for life and not for death.
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The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.