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 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 from pneumonia on 18 May 2015 after being in a persistent vegetative state for nearly 42 years.
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 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 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 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 and married with a family. 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 found employment as a labourer and cleaner at a power station 25 kilometers from the village. Still working in his late sixties (or early seventies) when he was rediscovered, Sohanlal lives with his wife and two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren in a two-room house; he continues to travel to his job at the power station by bicycle, earning a daily wage of Rs. 261. His sons, also labourers, earn Rs 200-300 a day. One of his two daughters is married and lives elsewhere. He reportedly views his subsequent life as "penance." "I gave up non-vegetarian food, bad habits like smoking bidis and drinking. I had a daughter before I was sentenced, and she died while I was in jail. She died because I made a mistake. For many years after my release, I didn't touch my wife. A son was born 14 years after I left jail." He said, "Mujhe bahut pachchtava hai. Main unse aur apne bhagwan se maafi maangna chahata hun." ("I have deep regret, I want to seek forgiveness from her and God").
Sohanlal said he only learnt of Shanbaug's death after Mumbai based journalist Dnyanesh Chavan from marathi daily Sakal came looking for him earlier that week. The television in their two-room house was not working at the time due to power cuts and the family does not read newspapers. "I leave home at 6 am for work and return by 8 pm. I have to cycle nearly 25 km to work. Where is the time to read newspapers?" Sohanlal said. "I could barely sleep for 10 years after the incident. How was it possible for anyone to go back to the hospital after such a thing? I left Mumbai, why would I go back to the hospital to see her?"
Described as deeply regretful and tired of life, Sohanlal was quoted as saying "I wish I had died. My sons would have taken care of her [my wife]. I am tired of the memories, I want to die now."
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. Prior to that night, Sohanlal, then a hospital janitor, had had a difficult relationship with Shanbaug, his superior and then working with the hospital's animal experimentation unit. "Aruna didiji (Sister Aruna) was always picking on me. She knew I was scared of dogs… there were other sweepers, but she picked me each time the dogs had to be fed or their cages swept. I told the doctor in charge and my supervisor to transfer me, I complained about her but no one listened. Who listens to a chamadar (sweeper)?"
"Everything happened in a fit of rage. There was a fight, it was dark, and I panicked. We both hit each other, I may have pulled the ornaments they said I stole during the scuffle. There was no rape… they beat me up in the police station and kept saying it was rape. I did not rape her, it must have been someone else. That night I had gone to ask Aruna didiji for leave for a few days. My wife's mother, who then lived in the house where I now live, was very ill. My wife wanted to visit her but Aruna didiji refused. She said if I took leave, she would complain about me in writing, saying I did no work, that I stole dog food, and still wanted leave," he said.
"I had not done any such thing. I was scared of dogs, so how could I steal their food?… I had seen Aruna didiji playing cards with ward boys and other nurses during duty hours. When she threatened to complain and not give me leave, I told her I would tell her supervisor about her. After that, there was an argument and a physical fight. I don't know what I did in rage."
Eldest son Kishan says that four years ago, he told his father about the rejection of the euthanasia plea on behalf of Shanbaug. "My father prays twice a day, but that day after I told him, he prayed five-six times. I told him what the papers said, that her family was gone, that she had been living in the hospital. He was agitated and began trembling. When the Supreme Court rejected the plea, he became stable again."
Sohanlal's elder son Kishan said his father, "does not talk about the case, and we don't feel comfortable asking him. In our culture, you cannot ask a father what he did to a woman. But my uncles have told me so many times how he destroyed our lives. We could have lived in Mumbai…" His younger son Ravindra said his mother told him about the case when he was 12. "She told me I should forgive my father, that the papers were exaggerating his crime. She said my brother was angry with my father but I should love him because he had made a mistake. But he never even sent me to school. I cannot even write my name, how do I forgive him?"
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 novelist Harkisan Mehta in 1985 based on Aruna Shanbaug's case.
Anumol played Aruna in the 2014 Malayalam film Maram Peyyumbol.