Long before it became fashionable to write on mercy killing plea forthe late Aruna Shanbag, Mumbai gave germ to an idea which was far ahead of its time. The idea of “Death with dignity” was floated and actively implemented. Ketan Tanna reports.
Aruna Shanbag very briefly looked at me when I entered her room in KEM Hospital along with a nurse sometime in early 1992. I was a young reporter working on voluntary euthanasia story for SUNDAY magazine. Her bed was aligned to the wall on the right side of the room and near herbedwas besides a small window which was tightly shut.
She was in a fetalposition. Like a baby. Her face was frail and all I remember of her face were her large expressive eyes. Strands of her hair fell on her face and yet it was a beautiful face. I stood hesitantly, a little bit away from her bed and the nurse started feeding her. Aruna grimaced and it was evident that she wasunhappy because of a stranger in the room. Her eyes looked at me and then at the nurse and she was making small noises. The nurse looked at me and told me that Arunawas unhappy with my presence. ‘Pleaseleave the room’ I was told. So I stepped out and stood near her room as the nurse continued feeding her. That was the only time I saw Aruna face to face.
Aruna made her final exit on Monday. Scores of articles and reams of pages were devoted to her life and the concept of mercy killing. Was she a fit case for mercy killing? Did she suffer during the last 42 years of her vegetative shape? Did she die when she was raped and slowly degenerated into a medically vegetative state?
Logic and ethics demand that one cannot be an arbitrar of someone’s life. Humans cannot and should not sit on a pedestal and decide that another human’s life needs to end, no matter how convinced one is and how honorable the intentions are. How can one decide to end someone’s life if the person in question does not have the mental capacity to take such a crucial decision?
In 2009, Pinki Virani, author of ‘Aruna’s Story’, moved the Supreme Court seeking a peaceful death for Aruna and end of her force-feeding. The thenAttorney General G.E. Vahanvati, who was asked, to assist the court, said “the right to die should not be confused with the right to die an unnatural death”. The KEM Hospital nurses who considered Aruna as their own said in an affidavit that Aruna was “”child (who they) have cared and nurtured for 33 years”. In the end, the Supreme Court rejected Virani’s petition but allowed for passive euthanasia in conditions similar to Aruna or for patients that are in permanent vegetative state.
For some the concept of dying with dignity may sound esoteric especially in a poor country like India, where hundreds die anyway without having a choice and in a rather undignified way. But given that India is resource starved and a democratic country, should not the citizens have a right to liveand die the way they want?
The group was established by late social activist Minoo Masani in 1981 and he campaigned for it tirelessly. In 1992 when I met Masani, he explained to me the rationale behind SRDD. “Veer Savarkar and Sant Tukaram took their own lives. I strongly believe that the right to die is a part of the right to live. A man should decide when he should die, and not the state.” Former Maharashtra Legislature member, the late Sadanand Varde, moved a Bill in 1984 in the Maharashtra legislature seeking to legalize it, but failed to garner support. The SRDD has also published a document called the Living Will or Ichha Maran. The document instructs under what circumstances the person would want to be euthanized. But Living Will has no legal validity in India.
Minoo Masani has long passed awayand since then so have many of those who tirelessly promoted it. But the SRDD still survives in the heart and minds of people like Dr Nagraj G Huilgol who is the chief of radiation oncology at Nanavati Hospital and honorary secretary of the society. His firm belief in the right to die with dignity has attracted doctors and ordinary people who believe that they have the right to end their lives if they are terminally ill and suffering. A fair number of those with SRDD are senior citizens’ who are determined to live and die with dignity.
With 600 plus SRDD members, the cause of dying with dignity that Masani campaigned for still lives in the hearts and minds of many persons. They meet annually each year. Anyone can join SRDD which has a life time membership fee of Rs 500. Dr Huilgol who is spearheading the SRDD told The Free Press Journal that the group is going from strength to strength and is in the process of establishing its own website.