Remembering Aruna Shanbaug
By Akshi Chawla
29 May, 2015
Aruna Shanbaug, who passed away recently, is best remembered because of the debate on euthanasia that her story triggered. She became the name of a landmark Supreme Court case, Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs. Union of India & Others. Her ordeal pushed many to think about questions of life and living, being and unbeing, and of the right to die. Her life of more than four decades in coma made many shudder, and the care extended to her by the staff of the KEM hospital often inspired awe. We discussed the philosophy, the spirituality, the ethics, the morality and the legality of whether euthanasia should be allowed or not.
As important as the debate on euthanasia is, we must move beyond that in our remembrance of Aruna. While it is a very crucial debate, I would not want to reduce her suffering to such an intellectualization.
Aruna Shanbaug was a young woman of twenty six, at the prime of her youth when she was attacked. An entire life, with all its promises and potentials, was marred down by a certain Sohanlal Walmiki, who like many other men in our society who commit such heinous crimes, probably thought that he was entitled to molest and assault another human being just because she was a woman.
Sohanlal attacked Aruna on the night of November 27, 1973; he strangulated her with a dog chain and sodomized her, causing irreversible damage to in the process. Ever since, she had been in a state of coma and in a persistent vegetative state - in that tormenting zone between life and death.
For me, Aruna’s story is emblematic of a kind of brutality I can neither fathom, nor articulate. A young woman was sexually assaulted and suffocated with a dog chain around her neck. What kind of behaviour is this? What kind of human being does this to any other living being? What explains this terrifying violence which men inflict on women, and often on other men, in this society in such a routine and everyday manner?
I remember the shiver with which I read about the gang-rape, and murder, of a mentally disabled girl in Rohtak in February this year. Her post-mortem reports claimed that some of her organs were missing and objects like stones and blades were found inside her. Every day, a quick scan through newspaper headlines - of the sexual abuse of girls as young as two-three year olds, of fathers raping their own daughters, of acid attacks, of sexual assaults so violent that they kill the woman - leaves my stomach churning. The brutal attack on Aruna evokes a similar nauseating anguish in me.
There is something gut wrenching about the spectacular violence that has become commonplace in our society. A man thought it was okay to strangle a woman with a metal chain around her neck more than four decades ago. In 2015, a group of men in Moga thought it was okay to assault a teenaged girl and throw her off a moving bus, which led to her death. Men around the country have demonstrated that they consider it okay to spill acid on the face of a woman who rejects them, or shoot down a woman who tries to resist their advances. Objects of all kinds – from iron rods to stones to candles – are often inserted inside rape victims, many of whom are children. It is this startling, horrendous, and crass violence which many men consider acceptable and normal that sends a chill down my spine.
Given the limited, legal definition of rape, and the medical report prepared by the hospital, Sohanlal was tried only for assault and robbery and got away with a sentence of seven years in prison – while Aruna lived (or did she?) a life in limbo for almost forty two years. One can’t help but question the very purpose of such disproportionate punishment which let the culprit roam free while the victim continued being a prisoner of her own body.
Now that Aruna has left our world, one can only hope that it is for the better. The very thought of her plight numbs me down. What would these years have been like for her? While medical and cognitive science could only proclaim her brain dead, who knows what kind of emotions she might have gone through. Was her existence painless? Was she haunted by the memory of the incident? What did she want? Her side of the story would always remain buried in silence.
Today, in 2015, there has been much progress in how we approach, at least legally, the question of rape and sexual harassment (in general, and at the workplace). But legal changes aside, much ground is still left to be covered when it comes to actual change in our culture and social conscience. While a few incidents anger us as a nation here and there, there is a normalization of violence against women at large. Victim blaming is still rampant and the legal process, despite improvements, still a prolonged and harassing ordeal.
One wonders if Sohanlal had attacked Aruna today, would she have received a better deal, at least in terms of legal justice, or would he have still gotten away. One also wonders, reluctantly, had the sexual assault not left her in the vegetative state, would she have received a similar degree of care and support as a victim of sexual violence, as she otherwise did? Or even more reluctantly, had Aruna not survived the attack and succumbed that very night in 1973, would we still remember her story?
These are difficult questions that we need to introspect individually and collectively. The Aruna Shanbaug case raised many questions about dying with dignity; one can hope that her story can also push us to question ourselves about our everyday living where violence, especially sexual violence, has reached such troubling frequency and proportions.
Akshi Chawla, currently a Masters' student at the Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments are moderated