Long before India was convulsed by the story of ‘Nirbhaya’ – the young student gang-raped on a Delhi bus in December 2012 – the nation’s collective psyche was brutalized by the equally horrific rape of Aruna Shanbaug.
Aruna was a 25-year-old nurse at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital when she was raped by a ward boy on the night of 27 November 1973.
But whilst fate was merciful on ‘Nirbhaya’ – she died from her horrific injuries two weeks after the attack – the vivacious and ambitious Aruna was not so fortunate.
Aruna’s attacker, Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki, pounced as she was changing her clothes at the end of a shift.
He first choked her using a dog collar, then sodomized and robbed her for good measure.
The attack was so violent that the dog collar cut off the oxygen supply to Aruna’s brain resulting in her going blind.
She was also later diagnosed with cerebral contusion – multiple small haemorrhages inside the brain – as well as damage to her cervical cord.
As a result of her injuries, Aruna could see but her brain could not register any images; she was also left unable to speak, use her limbs or control her muscles.
For 42 excruciating years, she remained in a vegetative state and described as “the world’s longest living patient in a vegetative state”.
On Monday, fate finally proved merciful and she passed away after contracting pneumonia.
Pinki Virani, a journalist who wrote a book on Aruna called ‘Aruna’s Story’, told the BBC: “My broken, battered baby bird finally flew away”.
Whilst Aruna served a 42-year sentence, her attacker spent a mere six years in jail.
He was not convicted for Aruna’s rape because he had not attacked her vaginally but anally and anal rape was not, at the time, clearly defined under Indian law.
Police investigators carried out what is ludicrously called – and still widely practiced – “finger test” – inserting two fingers into the victim’s vaginal passage to “establish her virginity”.
Having concluded that she was not raped – according to contemporary laws – Walmiki was only convicted for attempted murder and robbery.
At the time of the attack, Aruna was engaged to a junior doctor at the hospital. In a bid to spare the couple the pain of public disclosure of details of the attack, the head of the hospital did not record the anal rape at the time and Aruna’s fiancé too was urged to not make a complaint of sodomy.
Walmiki was sentenced to seven years – reduced to six for time served – and later moved to Delhi.
Aruna was kept at KEM, fed mashed food and cleaned and bathed by an ‘Ayah’.
Her family effectively abandoned her at the hospital for four decades as they could not spare the time or resources to care for her. Her devastated fiancé married and moved away a few years after her attack.
Virani says Aruna had been an “ambitious” woman who had been planning a nursing business with her husband-to-be when her life was, effectively, snatched away.
Aruna’s predicament sparked a debate about euthanasia in India.
Virani campaigned for Aruna to be put out of her misery prompting India’s Supreme Court to appoint a medical panel to look into Aruna’s case and report back on whether she should be euthanized. Whilst the panel ruled that Aruna was in a vegetative state, the court disallowed euthanasia but in a landmark ruling allowed passive euthanasia in India.
In contrast to “active” euthanasia – which involves the use of lethal substances to kill the person involved – passive euthanasia involves the withdrawal of common treatments such as antibiotics which are required to sustain life.