‘Rage rage against the dying of the light.
Do not go gentle into that good night.’
Dylan Thomas’ famous lines aptly describe the struggle and the crusade of a sexually assaulted nurse who had been rendered comatose for 42 years before she breathed her last on 18 May 2015. Yes, I am talking of the famous occupant of ward number 4 of KEM Hospital-Aruna Shanbaug who was sodomized and raped in 1973 by a certain sweeper employed on a contract basis in King Edward Memorial Hospital. She was asphyxiated using a dog chain while changing clothes in a hospital room at night. The 25-year-old was brutally raped and her mutilated body was discovered in the morning by a cleaner. What followed was a hush-hush FIR which mentioned robbery and attempted murder as the motive instead of the gory details of anal rape, under the instructions of the hospital’s Dean to apparently save her from social stigma as she was about to get married to a doctor of the same hospital. The horrific attack left her cortically blind and she lost her ability to speak. She also suffered cervical cord injury and brain stem contusion because of the cutting off of the blood supply to her brain. She was scarred for life, literally. She stayed in a semi-conscious vegetative state for 42 years being cared for by nurses of KEM hospital.
Her case gave rise to vehement protests by a coterie of nurses who demanded better protection and better working conditions. The most landmark effect of the blood-curdling mishap was that the Supreme Court passed a law allowing passive euthanasia in India.
Shanbaug’s journalist friend, Pinki Virani fought tooth and nail for justice to be meted out to her friend. Despite the legalization of passive euthanasia, Shanbaug did not meet the eligibility criteria and hence, was left in a limbo for 42 long years.
Youth abruptly cut short. Dreams left unrealized. And yet Aruna fought on.
Biographies were written and films made. But was adequate justice delivered to her? Her subordinate, the man who perpetrated the shameful act was imprisoned for 7 years on charges of robbery and attempted murder. No mention of sexual assault or rape was found in the court judgement. The Lady of Justice delivered a blind verdict again. Pinki Virani tried fruitlessly to search for the criminal because neither court nor the hospital had any photograph of the man. It was assumed that he had changed his name and was working in a Delhi hospital. Such is the play of fate that while criminals enjoy freedom, the victims languish in disrepair and degradation.
Born just a year after the year of India’s independence, Aruna Shanbaug however did not enjoy freedom for long. The incarceration of her faculties and her confinement to a hospital bed was a cruel play of destiny that rewarded the malefactor sweeper with the prize of anonymity and the sweet delight of freedom after a mere seven years in prison, which is insignificant with respect to the heinous nature of his crime.
It has been 42 years and yet the status of crimes especially those falling in the bracket of rapes and assaults against women has only been regressive. Women are still discriminated against and grotesque chilling accounts of sexual crimes against women still haunt us. The bar only goes higher with the Nirbhaya case and the Kolkata nun rape case. And justice eludes them just the same today as it did then.