Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug (1 June 1948 – 18 May 2015), alternatively spelled Shanbhag, was an Indian nurse who was at the centre of a court case on euthanasia for the coma she suffered as a result of sexual assault.
In 1973, while working as a junior nurse at King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai, she 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 status for 37 years, 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.
On the night of the 27th of 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 and cervical cord injury, apart from leaving her cortically blind. She was discovered the next morning at 7:45 am by a cleaner, who found her lying on the floor unconscious, with blood splattered all over.
After the brutal assault, Shanbaug – who belonged to Haldipur in Karnataka – did not have many visitors. Even her relatives stopped visiting after some years. Her sister Shanta Nayak, the only relative in Mumbai, died in September 2013.
In March 2011, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by author Pinki Virani seeking mercy killing for Shanbaug. Virani also wrote a book on Shanbaug. The hospital’s management and nursing staff had opposed the petition.
Ms Shanbaug’s parents died many years ago and other relatives had not maintained contact with her, Ms Virani said. She wanted the court to issue instructions to the hospital to stop feeding Ms Shanbaug.
But hospital authorities told the court that Ms Shanbaug “accepts food… and responds by facial expressions” and responds to “commands intermittently by making sounds”.
Although the Supreme Court rejected Ms Virani’s plea, the case resulted in India easing some restrictions on euthanasia after the court’s landmark ruling that life support could be legally removed for some terminally ill patients in exceptional circumstances, providing the request was from family and supervised by doctors and the courts. Doctors say patients in a vegetative state are awake, not in a coma, but have no awareness because of severe brain damage.
Sohanlal was caught and convicted, and served two concurrent seven-year sentences for assault and robbery, neither for rape or sexual molestation, nor for the “unnatural sexual offence” (which could have got him a ten-year sentence by itself).
Journalist and human-rights activist Pinki Virani has since tried to track down Sohanlal; she was led to believe that Sohanlal had changed his name after leaving prison but continues to work in a Delhi hospital. Since neither the King Edward Memorial Hospital or the court that tried Sohanlal kept a file photo of him, Virani’s search has so far failed