Sentencing the victim

The purpose of the law is not to prevent a future offence, but to punish the one actually committed.

Ayn Rand, writer

Aruna Shanbaug will live. And so will the crime committed against her.

On Monday, the Supreme Court, speaking a lot of sense, ruled against the mercy killing of the KEM Hospital nurse who was brutally raped and assaulted by a ward boy, Sohanlal Valmiki, in November 1973. The attack left Aruna in a vegetative state, semi-comatose, unable to control her body and with irreversible brain damage.

The court rightly said that allowing euthanasia without a regulatory framework is dangerous. Who should have the power to take such a decision? And under what circumstances? This needs to be debated thoroughly, since the potential for misuse is great.

But, to me, this is not the most striking aspect of Aruna’s case.

What shocks me is that a legal system that brings so much maturity to the debate on euthanasia can allow Aruna’s assailant to avoid conviction for rape.

Shocking as it may sound, Valmiki was only convicted of attempt to murder and robbing Aruna of her earrings.

Hindustan Times reporters tell me that Valmiki got away because he sodomised Aruna. You can only be convicted of rape if there is vaginal penetration. As if forced sodomy is not rape!

Valmiki didn’t stop there. After his brutal sexual assault, he wrapped a dog chain around Aruna’s neck and tried to strangle her. He then simply walked away.

Valmiki was arrested the next day and eventually served a mere seven years in jail. An innocent Aruna is still paying the price.

Undoubtedly, we need a debate on euthanasia, its social and legal implications. But we also need a debate on a justice system that allows an offender like Valmiki to serve a few years in jail while his victim serves out a life sentence of sorts.

***

I am not anti-euthanasia, but merely against it in the absence of a regulatory framework.

India could learn from the experiences of countries that have legalised euthanasia, passive and active.

Passive euthanasia entails withholding treatment or life support to the terminally ill or permanently comatose patients. Active euthanasia involves the use of lethal substances to end a patient’s life.

Albania, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland have legalised passive euthanasia and have a regulatory framework that is strictly enforced. The preconditions range from at least three close family members consenting to it to the terminally ill mentioning it in their will or providing an advance directive. In some cases, the patient must play an active role in the administering of lethal drugs.

However, I wonder whether India is ready for it. The government’s argument against allowing euthanasia was that “we are an emotional country”, implying that we have not evolved enough socially for the introduction of a law permitting mercy killing. And many agree.

We haven’t heard the last of this.