Should Aruna Live?

Feb 27, 2011

When life is woe,
And hope is dumb,
The World says, “Go!”
The Grave says, “Come!”
 - Arthur Guiterman.
Life, which all creatures love and strive to keep
Wonderful, dear and pleasant unto each,
Even to the meanest; yea, a boon to all.
- Edwin Arnold.
The conflict between pro-life and pro-death  as also the quality (or lack of it) of life are starkly brought out in the case of Aruna who has been in a state of living dead for the last 37 years. Now the judgment time has come with the Supreme Court of India set to resume final hearing of a case, filed in December 2009, on March 2, 2011. But, first the background facts.
As Anuradha Raman notes in a moving article, aptly titled Comma, Period? in Outlook (28-2-11), in a room strictly off bounds for all except those attending on her, Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, now 60, lies alone. Her eyes are open and staring vacantly into space. She has been lying in this vegetative way, in the twilight zone between life and death, since the night of November 27, 1973, when she was attacked by a ward boy who tied a dog chain around her neck, cutting off air supply to parts of her brain, and sodomised her in the basement  of Mumbai’s sprawling King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, Parel, where she worked as a nurse. It is said that due to strangulation by the chain, the cortex was damaged and she also had brain stem contusion injury associated with cervical cord injury. Aruna is unable to speak, see, walk or even move voluntarily, though she could still feel the pain. She has been lying in this state with twisted form, rotting teeth and nails growing into her clenched palms, kept alive by mashed food which she automatically swallows.
The Supreme Court admitted Aruna’s petition through her ‘next friend’, Pinki Virani, the journalist-activist, who first brought Aruna’s cruel fate to light through a book on her and has since kept her in the public domain. Her petition in the Supreme Court, being heard by a Bench comprising Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra, argues that since Aruna had consistently been denied the right guaranteed in Article 21, she asked the Court to define ‘life with dignity’ and that her face-feeding to be stopped. Her petition highlights Aruna’s “persistent vegetative state” for the last 37 years and states that there is no possibility of improvement in her condition. It points out that she “lives in sub-human conditions” and is “lying in a hospital bed like a dead animal”. It goes on to argue that to keep her in this state by feeding her “violates the right to live with dignity” guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. The petition also says that there is no up- to- date medical records of her condition and that no scans have been done to ascertain what medicines can be administered to make her comfortable.
When the Court asked KEM Hospital, its Dean, Sanjay Oak, brazenly responded with some PR-type insensitive statement claiming that Aruna ‘accepted food in the normal course’ and is ‘led’ to the toilet by nurses when she makes indicative sounds. He said: “It is our foremost duty to take care of her. The way she has been taken care of also speaks volumes about the nursing at the hospital. She is really precious. Unless the ailing person himself or herself expresses such a desire, who are we to decide that he or she should no longer live?” KEM has issued a factual  affidavit stating, among other things, that Aruna is ‘haemodynamically stable’, ‘her blood pressure, pulse rate are normal’ and that she is in the hospital care because her relatives refused to look after her.
It is at this stage that the Supreme Court, in January 2011, appointed a three-member medical team comprising Dr. JV Divatia, Dr. Roop Gurshani and Dr. Nilesh Shah with direction to examine the patient and submit a report. The team submitted its report, along with a CD, on February 17. On perusing these, the Bench said: “We have noted that there are many technical terms which a non-medical man would find it difficult to understand. We, therefore, request the doctors to submit a supplementary report by the next date of hearing (by e-mailing a copy two days before the hearing) in which the meaning of these technical terms is also explained”. The Bench has asked the government to make air travel, staying, conveyance and other arrangement for the team for its appearance in the Court on March 2.
Apart from Dr. Sanjay Oak, his colleague in KMC, Dr. Ravi Bapat, who was the first doctor to attend on Aruna after she was molested, asks: “Why don’t you leave her alone?…The million dollar question is whose wish, whose pity, who decides and who puts the person to death? Who is to label anyone terminally ill? Medicine is not a mathematical science where 2+2=4. How much inner joy we have of saving human life? Don’t take it away from us. Hope these proponents do not want death clinics to mushroom.” Others of his ilk ask as to how doctors can reconcile mercy killing with the Hippocratic oath they take: “I’ll give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suffer any such counsel”.
There are others who stand for mercy killing or euthanasia. For instance, Dr. Ravindra Dhelia, a member of the Society for the Right to Die with Dignity, which pleads for assisted death for individuals who wish to die after all medical help has failed them, fully agrees with Pinki Virani’s arguments. He says: “Voluntary euthanasia is not about ending a life but it is about ending a deadened survival. As far as Aruna is concerned, mercy killing is a dignified exit.”
Mercy killing or euthanasia petitions have hitherto been filed in High Courts and the President – with no consent granted. This is the first time that the Supreme Court has admitted such a petition. Among other things pro-life lobby has been harping at is the locus standi of Pinki Virami who has filed the petition as ‘next friend’. In most cases, the  terminal patients are beyond making a rational choice. The Supreme Court has to rule on euthanasia per se and also who can sponsor euthanasia and under what safeguards so that this exit route is not abused – say to grab the assets of the mercy-killed. In Aruna’s case, because of the wide media interest, the Court might declare it as ‘a rarest of rare’ case -  as it uses the expression to justify death sentences.

It is apt to conclude with John Dryden:

Death in itself is nothing; but we fear
To be we know not what, we know not where.
For Aruna, in her present state, it won’t make a difference.
John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).

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Comment on this article

  • Richard N. Cote', Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, USA

    Tue, Mar 08 2011

    I would like to thank this newspaper and all those who have offered their viewpoints on the tragic case of Aryuna Shanbaug. I am writing about her fate in my forthcoming book, In Search of Gentle Death: The Fight for Your Right to Die With Dignity (, which will be published in the summer of 2011. Contact with fellow journalists and writers throughout India will be welcomed at dickcote (at)

  • Johnn Kenedy, Bmvr - Bahrain

    Sun, Mar 06 2011

    About Aruna As long as there are people around her to take care of her no one has right to think about her death. She is innocent victim, let us pray for her and the people who render their service and may God bless them

  • Joe M, Barkur/USA

    Sat, Mar 05 2011

    Yes, John Let her live. Long live Aruna. She is not on life support for others to judge.
    Everyone lives on medications, and some of us live on fistfull of throat choking tablets, and spoonful of food and wise philosophy to preach.

    Viva re Viva, Show some Karuna on Aruna....

    What's justice? What's truth? Truth was crucified 2000 years ago. Resurrected, but truth ascended to Heaven to show mercy.

    Even a faithful dog bites you if you try to take away its food. Why there are job related shootings. They burnt a supervisor...

    Why are YOU asking this question?
    Does she bother you? Sorry I asked..

  • Shilpa, Mangalore

    Thu, Mar 03 2011

    If Aruna can swallow her food herself then she cannot be labelled as brain dead.
    In Mangalore there are cases where life of patients on ventilators have been snuffed by switching off the ventilator because the relatives wanted it.I want to know if this is within the law or ethical.

  • Rakesh Sharma, Bajegoli/Karkala

    Thu, Mar 03 2011

    God bless one and all whoever is caring Ms.Aruna from last thirty eight years..It was finally left to the nameless nurses and staffers of KEM Hospital to claim Aruna as their own. “With every new batch of entrants, the student nurses are introduced to her and they are told 'Aruna' was one of us and she continues to be one of us”.

    If we looks from another angle what court decided is absolutely right.. tommorow anybody will use same process to inherit other's property..Lastly final decision of God only..

  • Clara Lewis, Mangalore/Dubai

    Thu, Mar 03 2011

    @agnello and amrit rodrigues please define the term 'death with dignity' that you are throwing about. death with dignity is defined as dying naturally without life support systems which she is not on so your argument is pointless. her life is not being extended artificially but you are supporting that her life end prematurely.
    further, how are you so certain that she's living in pain? i thought she couldn't talk so this pain is an assumption. are we going to kill someone based on an assumption?
    to those who say she isn't living a dignified/complete life, i ask you to do the same... define a dignified life. there are so many people who sit at home, doing nothing everyday, probably on the couch watching tv, eating and then off to bed, contributing nothing to society and taking our tax money in unemployment benefits-is that a dignified life? what about disabled people, kids with downs syndrome, the aged with Alzheimer's disease? nurses are taking care of them too. should we kill them as well?

    By (mercy) killing Aruna Shanbaug, we are violating her basic human rights her right to live, her right to health care and her right to not be forced to do something she doesn't want to do.

  • Clara Lewis, Kemmannu/Dubai

    Thu, Mar 03 2011

    Aruna is not un-concious, nor she on medication,also she is not in pain, she require only basic care like feeding, bathing and changing, she opens her mouth to eat her food, she bite,chew and sollow her food by herself , she feel the touch and she make the sounds, she constantly move arond the bed, being bedridden such a long time she never developed any bed sores, The nurses and servants at K.E.M hospital loves her and take care of her, she has the right to live till her call comes from God to leave this world. Few years back when the Hospital authorities tried to move her away from the hospital to orphanage the K.E.M hospital nurses gone on strike and demanded to keep her in the hospital till her death. Now by force to take her life away then why 37 years kept her alive by giving such a good care. People who take care don't have any problem then why the on-lookers should bother so much, if the human life is so easy to take away why at missioneries and at orphanges people dedicate their whole life to take care of such people.

  • Felix F.,, India/Ksa

    Tue, Mar 01 2011

    Mr.Agnello, Mangalore/Muscat, It appears you either did not understand the gist of my comments, or you dont belive in the options I do.

    My belief is that, life of a person, ends by the WILL of God, as per the way, God has WILLED for that person.

    Meaning some may die due to old age, some accidents, some sickness, some the life may be prolonged, the right way you have said, by medical facilities, like in the case of Aruna.

    Ultimately, I feel the life ends as per the way it is WILLED, and not because of the decision by the humans.

  • Dalia Hartman, Mumbai/US

    Mon, Feb 28 2011

    A very tragic situation. There are two aspects to the situation - physical and spiritual. On a physical must keep in mind (from what I read) that she is not fed intravenously. "She is give food orally and she swallows." If she is brain dead, how can she swallow? What makes her swallow? A will to stay alive or a reflexive action? On a spiritual note...if she was meant to die, she would have been long gone by now and no human hand would have been able to save her.

    She is alive for a reason. We can only hope she wakes up one day and tells us why. As for the perpetrator of the crime, he should have been made to care for her day in day out...the only reparation in a situation like this. Supervised and monitored, of course, to make sure he does not harm her..and with the added carrot of the death penalty if he did...perfect justice. Now if only we lived in a perfect world...

  • Dr S kamath, Mumbai

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    It is Really a Heart breaking and Tear shedding fact in the History of woman in India .The Hon Court had convicted the Accused ward boy and he has served a Life term Now working again as a ward boy in some other hospital .He has underwent full life sentence .Now as the whether Aruna should Live or not should not be Judged by anybody even the relatives.She should be given maximum Comfort ,The Effort should be made to get to know what she wants as her wish.In case she Voluntarily wants Death and she is in agonising Pain The Hon Court should allow for Euthanasia

  • Agnello, Mangalore/Muscat

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    Felix, If a healthy human being with good pedigree genes were to be strapped on a bed in disease free environment, fed medically approved diet, made to exercise strapped to exercise machines and monitored and treated medically at onset of slight symptoms would be kept alive perhaps till 150 years?
    Would anyone want to volunteer?

  • Francis (joe) Martis, Barkur/USA

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    Should Aruna Live, this is a million dollar question, there is no straight answer to it. Everyone will have a different opinion about it. Now wonder!! In the modern world, after taking into account several matters, issues and circumstances, I am of the opinion that, her wish must be granted by Supreme count. It is not a law, there is no law made as such. Supreme Court must look into this subject as subject of different nature and grant wish of the applicant, since there is no gain to applicant, but relief.

  • Felix F., India/Ksa

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    Should Aruna Live, is the dumbest question. Until her time comes to go to the creator, no one can take her life.

    This can be understood from the fact that she has been living in a state of living dead for the last 37 years, while billions of healthy/sick people have died and gone to dust in those 37 years

  • Salim, Udupi

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    For such an inhuman crime that devil is set free who brought her to this stage.what court and what law?India is a corrupt country and this is the best example of inhumanity.He must be put in a standing cell and allowed to bear the pain each day that she is going through.But one thing is clear that god has kept worst for him at his last days.

  • amrit rodrigues, BLR

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    our judiciary lives in a Utopian world, filled with Utopian morals chained justice system, when i first read about aruna i was in class 4, she was engaged to be married, when just a while before, the brute ward boy strangled her in the basement, its been over 17 years now, i moved on in life.... and i still see this lady suffering.... the judicial system is made of fagots, not only in india, else where too... its easy to pass a judgement.... but its only the one who is judged that knows the pain of the judgement, nobody can bring back her life, her dreams and her aspirations.... atleast let us be a sane merciful society an give her that dignity in death, she needs to sleep... in peace at last

  • geetanjali, mangalore

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    To live being betrayed by someone wants one to end one's life,imagine what she feels being betrayed by life its will get the answer.God show her mercy!!!!

  • Agnello, Mangalore/Muscat

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    Giving someone extreme pain slowly without killing him is called torture. This is no different.
    God did not create humans to be kept alive arificially by medical means in extreme physical and mental trauma. Aruna deserves to die a dignified death.

  • m.castelino, Barkur

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    If we want one second to keep one person alive more it is not posible time comes no body can stop, inthat case how can we stop somebodys life.what right we have to decide. we pray that god give her peaceful death.

  • shiva, kota/dubai

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    Jasmine. you are right .In arunas case doctors and nursed are willing to care for her. Imagine if no body is there or anybody of her relative wants to take care how long he would suffer alongwith aurana or how would can afford to take care.
    Yes, Geeta. its in almighty hand. can anybody suffer like this ? we can not spend even 2 days weekend without going out.
    I srongly feel if a person is in a vegetative condition and can not lead a social life and if sole wish is not to live longer, there must be mercy killing. Same in case of aruna.
    imagine if aruna is concious and can talk and still be in vegetative condition, will she not appeal for mercy killing? no matter hospital people take care still? that is all.

  • Lydia Lobo, Kadri

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    What right do we have to take away Aruna's life ? The man who caused this misery to her is out after serving the sentence. If Aruna has no opportunity to lead a normal life, so shouldn't have this man. The law should have confined him to
    hard labour in jail till Aruna continued to breathe. Why wasn't the condition of Aruna checked before releasing him ?

    Let Aruna live till destiny has it for her. We owe it to her.

  • Rakesh Sharma, Bajegoli/Karkala

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    Ms.Jasmine, Mumbai/Mangalore/Qatar...what you said is 100% right.
    Do you the people from Aruna's family suffer from last 38 years..did u visualise that?..Keep away all beliefs..and give her relief..that's the best way..and treat this as a special case..Person who is involved with such cases are better know suffering than others..

  • Jasmine, Mumbai/Mangalore/Qatar

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    No one has the right to take away her life. Aruna is cared for even in her present state. How can you fight to take away her life when there are doctors and nurses who are willing to care for her.

  • Geetha Mathias, USA

    Sun, Feb 27 2011

    This is very critical issue to give any suggestion especially for who believe and fear in god the creator. Personally I believe life and death is in Almighty's hand.

  • MP, mumbai

    Sat, Feb 26 2011

    lady deserves a graceful stop to this vegetative life. Doctors need to step into her shoes before talking crap.

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