NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A 66-year-old Indian nurse, who was sexually assaulted and left in a vegetative state for more than 40 years, died on Monday, in a case that sparked national debate over the legalization of euthanasia.
In November 1973, Aruna Shanbaug was attacked by a ward attendant at the King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital in Mumbai as the 26-year-old nurse was finishing her night-shift.
Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki, who was later convicted and jailed, sodomized and strangled her with a dog chain - cutting off the oxygen supply to her brain and leaving her in a coma.
“She (Shanbaug) passed away at 8.30 a.m. She had been diagnosed with pneumonia and had been on ventilator for the past few days,” said Medical Superintendent Pravin Bangar at KEM hospital, where her colleagues had cared for Shanbaug for the past 42 years.
The case came to national attention in 2009 when activist and author Pinki Virani, who had written a book about Shanbaug, appealed to India’s top court for passive euthanasia.
Virani argued Shanbaug’s “continued vegetative existence devoid of any human dignity” was not life at all and “putting mashed food in her mouth only amounts to violation of human dignity.”
But KEM hospital’s present and former staff opposed the motion.
The Supreme Court in 2011 rejected Virani’s plea, saying what KEM hospital had done for Shanbaug was “marvelous” by feeding, washing and caring for her, day and night, year after year.
Tributes from politicians, celebrities and ordinary Indian citizens to Shanbaug and the staff at KEM hospital flooded social networking sites with her name trending on Twitter.
“My deepest condolences on the sad demise of Aruna Shanbaug. It was painful to see her suffering. I salute the humanity shown by KEM nurses,” tweeted Devendra Fadnavis, Chief Minister of Maharashtra state, the capital of which is Mumbai.
Walmiki attacked her in the hospital’s basement as she was changing before leaving for home.
Her bloodied body was discovered 11 hours later, the iron chain still wrapped around her neck.
Walmiki served a seven-year jail term for assault and robbery - but was never convicted of sexual assault as sodomy was not considered rape at that time.
Reporting by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz