Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug , was an 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 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.
Shanbaug died of pneumonia on 18 May 2015 after being in a persistent vegetative state for nearly 42 years.
Aruna Shanbaug was born in 1 June 1948 at Haldipur, Uttar Kannada, Karnataka. She worked as a nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital 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.
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 offense, the last of which could have required him to serve a seven-year sentence by itself.
Journalist and human-rights activist Pinki Virani tried to track down Sohanlal; she was led to believe that Sohanlal had changed his name after leaving prison in 1980 but continued to work in a Delhi hospital, and since neither the King Edward Memorial Hospital nor the court that tried Sohanlal kept a file photo of him, Virani’s search failed. Other reports claimed he had subsequently died of AIDS or tuberculosis.
Shortly after Shanbaug’s death was announced, however, Sohanlal was traced to his father-in-law’s village of Parpa in western Uttar Pradesh, where he was found to be still living, married with a family, and working as a labourer and cleaner in a power station. After his release from prison, he returned to his ancestral village of Dadupur in western Uttar Pradesh before moving to Parpa in the late 1980s. He is described as deeply regretful and tired of life, and reportedly views his subsequent life as “penance”, blaming his “mistake” for his daughter’s death while he was in prison, maintaining a vegetarian diet, not smoking or drinking, and not touching his wife for many years after leaving prison.
Sohanlal said he only learned of Shanbaug’s death after Mumbai based journalist Dnyanesh Chavan from Marathi daily Sakal came looking for him earlier that week.
When interviewed, Sohanlal described his version of the assault, claiming it had been committed in a “fit of rage” and that he had no clear recollection of when it had taken place or what he may have done, though he denied raping her and said that it “must have been someone else”. Prior to that night, Sohanlal, then a hospital janitor, had had a difficult relationship with Shanbaug, his superior. He says that “there was an argument and a physical fight” when Shanbaug refused to give him leave to visit his ill mother-in-law and said that she would write him up for poor work.
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 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.
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”.On 7 March 2011, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement, issued a set of broad guidelines legalizing passive euthanasia in India. These guidelines for passive euthanesia—i.e. the decision to withdraw treatment, nutrition, or water—establish that the decision to discontinue life support must be taken by parents, spouse, or other close relatives, or in the absence of them, by a “next friend”. This decision requires approval from the concerned High Court.
In its judgement, the court declined to recognize Virani as the “next friend” of Aruna Shanbaug, and instead treated the KEM hospital staff as the “next friend.”
We do not mean to decry or disparage what Ms. Pinky Virani has done. Rather, we wish to express our appreciation of the splendid social spirit she has shown. We have seen on the internet that she has been espousing many social causes, and we hold her in high esteem. All that we wish to say is that however much her interest in Aruna Shanbaug may be it cannot match the involvement of the KEM hospital staff who have been taking care of Aruna day and night for 38 years.
Since the KEM Hospital staff wished that Aruna Shanbaug be allowed to live, Virani’s petition to withdraw life support was declined. However, the court further stipulated that the KEM hospital staff, with the approval of the Bombay High Court, had the option of withdrawing life support if they changed their mind:
However, assuming that the KEM hospital staff at some future time changes its mind, in our opinion in such a situation the KEM hospital would have to apply to the Bombay High Court for approval of the decision to withdraw life support.
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 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 novelist Harkisan Mehta in 1985 based on Aruna Shanbaug’s case. Anumol played Aruna in the 2014 Malayalam film Maram Peyyumbol. Aruna’s story was also portrayed in the Crime Patrol series of Sony TV.