Should Aruna Shanbaug be allowed to die? The Supreme Court will today decide on the fate of the nurse who has been lying in a vegetative state for the last 37 years at a government hospital after being sexually assaulted by a sweeper there.
The apex court will hear the plea of activist Pinki Virani that feeding of the nurse should be stopped immediately. Virani, who compiled Aruna's biography, contends that the victim can't see or speak properly and thus keeping her alive violates her right to live with dignity.
''We have asked the court to give directions to stop her nutrition. Stop feeding her...I mean she is virtually dead. She cannot see, she cannot hear. The court has appointed a team of doctors to examine her. They say she meets most of the criteria of being in persistent vegetative state", said Shubhangi Tuli, Virani's lawyer.
Virani's contention has been backed by a doctor on the panel who told NDTV that Aruna's condition won't improve.
But, nurses at the King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, where Aruna worked and met with the gruesome incident, still take care of her willingly. Unless that changes, experts contend that a decision on Aruna would not be fair as she herself would not be able to participate in the decision-making.
Justifying the point, Dr Pragna Pai, Former Dean, KEM Hospital said, "She is not on life support system. She is breathing on her own. Her heart is beating, her brain is not dead."
Aruna's tragedy dates back to November 27, 1973. She was at the basement, readying to go home in the evening after finishing her shift.
Lying in wait there with a dog chain was hospital sweeper Sohanlal Walmiki who Aruna had pulled up a few times for stealing food meant for hospital animals.
Walmiki choked Aruna with the chain and then sodomised her.
Aruna was found lying unconscious the next morning. The chain around her neck had cut off oxygen supply to her brain, damaging vital functions like sight, memory and normal movement.
''I was the one who was called by the sister when she noticed that Aruna was lying on the floor...I have got everything in front of my eyes. That chap also used to work with us. They would have some sort of fight on the animal food and milk that used to come...She was going to get married. In fact she was looking forward to the marriage", recounts Dr. Ravindra Bapat, Former Surgery Head, KEM Hospital.
Aruna's family abandoned her when hopes of her recovery faded. Her fiancé, a junior doctor, who stayed by her side for four years, later got married.
Meanwhile, Sohanlal, the accused sweeper, spent just seven years in prison for attempt to murder. The more serious charge of sodomy was never pressed on him for fear of Aruna's reputation. He changed his name, moved to Delhi and again got a ward boy's job. He recently died of AIDS.
Today, Aruna is 63 years old still lives under the care of the KEM Hospital's nursing staff.
''They have not even catheterized her. Each time she passes urine, they will change. So this is the kind of love and commitment that the staff has exhibited", says Dr. Sanjay Oak, Dean, KEM Hospital.
But Virani believes that it is not a reason good enough to keep Aruna alive.