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Aruna gifted nation a historic law

Aruna gifted nation a historic law
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Highlights

Aruna gifted nation a historic law. One moment of murderous lust by a hospital contract sweeper consigned a young woman looking forward to her impending marriage to over four decades of a vegetative half-life.

Vesting the power of choice in the hands of the individual, over government, medical or religious control, the Supreme Court specified guidelines for passive euthanasia, including withdrawal of medical treatment or food that would allow the patient to survive

One moment of murderous lust by a hospital contract sweeper consigned a young woman looking forward to her impending marriage to over four decades of a vegetative half-life. But Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug's plight attracted attentive devotion of her sister nurses, touched millions of Indians and led to the apex court's intervention to change the country's euthanasia laws.

It was the night of November 27, 1973, in the dimly-lit basement of Asian's biggest public hospital, the BMC-run KEM Hospital that Aruna's life changed. Ending her shift and changing before returning home, the 25-year-old was all excited as she was proceeding on long leave - to prepare for her upcoming marriage with a doctor - Sandeep Sardesai. But the five-feet-tall, petite nurse was suddenly attacked from behind by a man, who pinned her down and choked her with a dog leash.

Before she could even let out a whimper for help, the assailant, later identified as Sohanlal B.Walmiki, sexually assaulted her, and abandoned her on the floor, gasping for breath, bleeding, writhing in pain and totally helpless. The attack snapped the oxygen supply to her brain, resulting in a brain stem and cervical cord injury leaving her near-total blind and in a permanent vegetative state. Aruna remained in this condition until a fortnight before her 68th birthday (June 1) when she breathed her last.

Police registered a case of robbery and attempt to murder as the hospital authorities allegedly suppressed information of her rape to avoid her social ostracism and since she was planning to get married soon. Walmiki was subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to serve two concurrent seven years sentence. Released later, he is believed to be settled in Delhi.

Aruna meanwhile remained in a coma in Ward 4 A of KEM but did not lack support. "Contrary to perceptions, her fiance did not desert her. He dedicatedly looked after her and awaited a miracle to continue their broken lives for over two years. But later, social and other commitments compelled him to move on in life," says author-journalist Pinki Virani, who penned the best-seller biography "Aruna's Story" in 1998.

As the years passed with little hopes of Aruna's revival, the nurses in KEM took on her care as their personal responsibility. The nurses' unprecedented commitment earned admiration even from the Supreme Court, and the hospital authorities, but time was not kind to Aruna - leaving her body shrivelled into a ghostly shadow of her former robust self, hair greying and falling, teeth lost. Moved by her lamentable plight, Virani in December 2009 filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking "mercy killing" for Aruna.

But the nurses were aghast. "We take turns to tend to her just like any small child. She keeps aging like all of, but does not create any problems for anybody. We love to take care of her. How could anybody think of ending her life?" said one. A year after Virani's petition, the apex court sought a report on Aruna's health status from the hospital and Maharashtra government and a three-member medical panel concluded that she met "most of the criteria of being in a permanent vegetative state.”

Rejecting Virani's plea for mercy killing, the Supreme Court in March 2011, in a historic judgment, allowed "passive euthanasia" for the first time in India. Vesting the power of choice in the hands of the individual, over government, medical or religious control, the Supreme Court specified guidelines for passive euthanasia, including withdrawal of medical treatment or food that would allow the patient to survive. The term "passive euthanasia" used by the Supreme Court in its verdict on Aruna Shanbaug's case is defined as the withdrawal of medical treatment with the deliberate intention to hasten a terminally ill-patient's death.

The rulings were greeted with much cheer, cutting cakes and distributing sweets at the KEM hospital with nurses terming the outcome as a "rebirth for Aruna.” "All these were ratified by the government last year. Though Aruna failed to get justice in her lifetime, she has given such a big gift to the nation," Virani told IANS. Aruna's story also influenced Marathi writer Dattakumar Desai, who penned a play "Katha Arunachi" about her. It was staged in 2002.

By Q Najmi

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