Aruna Shanbaug case
|Born||Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug
1 June 1948
Haldipur, Karnataka, India
|Died||18 May 2015
KEM Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Cause of death
Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug (1 June 1948 – 18 May 2015), alternatively spelled Shanbhag, was an Indian nurse who was at the centre of attention in a court case on euthanasia after spending 42 years in a vegetative state as a result of sexual assault.
In 1973, while working as a junior nurse at King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai, Shanbaug was sexually assaulted by a ward boy, Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki, and remained in a vegetative state following the assault. On 24 January 2011, after she had been in this state for 37 years, the Supreme Court of India responded to the plea for euthanasia filed by Aruna's friend, journalist Pinki Virani, by setting up a medical panel to examine her. The court rejected the petition on 7 March 2011. However, in its landmark opinion, it allowed passive euthanasia in India.
Aruna Shanbaug was born in 1948 at Haldipur, Uttar Kannada, Karnataka. She worked as a nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM) in Mumbai. At the time of the attack, she was engaged to a doctor at the same hospital.
On the night of 27 November 1973, Shanbaug was sexually assaulted by Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki, a sweeper on contract at the King Edward Memorial Hospital. Sohanlal attacked her while she was changing clothes in the hospital basement. He choked her with a dog chain and sodomized her. The asphyxiation cut off oxygen to her brain, resulting in brain stem contusion injury, cervical cord injury, and cortical blindness. She was discovered with blood splattered around her at 7:45 am the next morning by a cleaner.
The police case was registered as a case of robbery and attempted murder because of the concealment of anal rape by the doctors under the instructions of the Dean of KEM, Dr. Deshpande, perhaps to prevent Shanbaug from being socially rejected or to avoid effects on her impending marriage.
Sohanlal was caught and convicted for assault and robbery, and he served two concurrent seven-year sentences. He was not convicted of rape, sexual molestation, or unnatural sexual offence, the last of which could have required him to serve a seven-year sentence by itself.
Journalist and human-rights activist Pinki Virani has since tried to track down Sohanlal; she was led to believe that Sohanlal had changed his name after leaving prison but continues to work in a Delhi hospital. Since neither the King Edward Memorial Hospital nor the court that tried Sohanlal kept a file photo of him, Virani's search has so far failed.
Following the attack, nurses in Mumbai went on strike demanding improved conditions for Shanbaug and better working conditions for themselves. In the 1980s, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (BMC) made two attempts to move Shanbaug outside the KEM Hospital to free the bed she had been occupying for seven years. KEM nurses launched a protest, and the BMC abandoned the plan.
Supreme Court case
Shanbaug remained in a vegetative state from 1973 until her death in 2015.
On 17 December 2010, the Supreme Court, while admitting the plea to end the life made by activist-journalist Pinki Virani, sought a report on Shanbaug's medical condition from the hospital in Mumbai and the government of Maharashtra. On 24 January 2011, the Supreme Court of India responded to the plea for euthanasia filed by Aruna's friend, journalist Pinki Virani, by setting up a medical panel to examine her. A three-member medical panel was established under the Supreme Court's directive. After examining Shanbaug, the panel concluded that she met "most of the criteria of being in a permanent vegetative state".
While it turned down the mercy killing petition on 7 March 2011, the court, in a landmark decision, allowed passive euthanasia in India. While rejecting Pinki Virani's plea for Shanbaug's euthanasia, the court laid out guidelines for passive euthanasia. According to these guidelines, passive euthanasia involves the withdrawing of treatment or food that would allow the patient to continue living.
On 25 February 2014, while hearing a PIL filed by NGO Common Cause, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India said that the prior opinion in the Aruna Shanubaug case was based on a wrong interpretation of the Constitution Bench's opinion in Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab. The court also determined that the opinion was internally inconsistent because although it held that euthanasia can be allowed only by an act of the legislature, it then proceeded to judicially establish euthanasia guidelines. The court referred the issue to a larger Constitution Bench for resolution, writing:
In view of the inconsistent opinions rendered in Aruna Shanbaug (supra) and also considering the important question of law involved which needs to be reflected in the light of social, legal, medical and constitutional perspective, it becomes extremely important to have a clear enunciation of law. Thus, in our cogent opinion, the question of law involved requires careful consideration by a Constitution Bench of this Court for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
Following the Supreme Court decision rejecting the plea, the nursing staff at the hospital—who had opposed the petition and had been looking after Shanbaug since she had lapsed into a vegetative state—distributed sweets and cut a cake to celebrate what they termed her "rebirth". A senior nurse at the hospital later said, "We have to tend to her just like a small child at home. She only keeps aging like any of us, does not create any problems for us. We take turns looking after her and we love to care for her. How can anybody think of taking her life?"
Pinki Virani's lawyer, Shubhangi Tulli, decided not to file an appeal, saying "the two-judge ruling was final till the SC decided to constitute a larger bench to re-examine the issue." Pinki Virani said, "Because of this woman who has never received justice, no other person in a similar position will have to suffer for more than three and a half decades."
A few days before her death, Shanbaug was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was moved to the medical intensive care unit (MICU) of the hospital and put on a ventilator. She died the morning of 18 May 2015. Her funeral was performed by the hospital nurses and other staff members.
In popular culture
A non-fiction book titled Aruna's Story was written about the case by Pinki Virani in 1998. Duttakumar Desai wrote the Marathi play Katha Arunachi in 1994–95, which was performed at college level and subsequently staged by Vinay Apte in 2002.
A Gujarati fiction novel, Jad Chetan, was written by popular author Harkisan Mehta in 1985 based on Aruna Shanbaug's case.
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- Aruna's Story was also portrayed in the Crime Patrol Series of Sony TV
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