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Human rightzzzzz

The Supreme Court's belief of sleep being a human right is in aid of a government that is being denied its right to sleep. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Feb 25, 2012 23:20 IST
Indrajit Hazra

So you have a dude who can make his stomach cave in and cave out as if he has an operating vacuum-cleaner docked to his sphincter. But if the cops wake the same Caterpillar Man up at midnight, he’s liable to develop ulcers and is well within his rights to accuse the State of torturing him. Don’t bother to wake up and smell the coffee. Because I think we’ve just got a landmark judgement here that will define the way we set the alarm.

Like Citibank, the Supreme Court never sleeps. So while India has traditionally been against the idea of napping — “Arise! Awake! And stop not till the goal is reached.” (Vivekananda, September 11, 1893); “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” (Nehru, August 14-15, 1947); “But it’s Saturday night!” (Hazra, February 18-19, 2012) — the highest court in the country ruled on Friday that depriving a person of sleep is a violation of his or her fundamental right to shut eye. “Sleep is essential for a human being to maintain the delicate balance of health necessary for its very existence and survival,” said the wide-eyed and fresh-as-a-daisy Justice BS Chauhan while describing the wrongness of the midnight crackdown on Ramdev and his supporters on June 4-5, 2011, at the Ramlila Maidan. “Sleep is, therefore, a fundamental and basic requirement without which the existence of life itself would be in peril,” he added, forcing some to rekindle the old question about what made dinosaurs disappear from the face of the Earth.

I’m not really sure how long Ramdev and his disciples had been denied sleep before that terrible night. Perhaps, the dark circles under their eyes that they carried the next day bore marks of the real horror of the Long Night of the Snatched Mattresses. But I would not be surprised if the court took into consideration the fact that Ramdev has a squint and it would be better if he kept his eyes shut as long as possible.

In his landmark study on sleep and sleep deprivation, Dr Allan Rechtschaffen of the University of Chicago, wired the brains of rats to an EEG machine and each time the rats’ brain waves showed them drifting off to sleep, he ducked them in cold water. A rat usually sleeps an average 13 hours a day. For a week, these rats did not get to sleep at all. For them it was like being in the controlled environment of Nightmare on Elm Street — fall asleep and you’ll be attacked by a monstrous entity. The rats ate twice their usual amount, but rapidly lost weight. They started getting irritable, their fur thinned, their energy levels drained. By the 13th day, the first rat died. By three weeks, all had gone to rat heaven.

Coming to the human side of things, no one’s died of sleep deprivation. Forced wakefulness leads to immune system breakdowns, body temperature drops, hallucinations and has been used quite regularly as a method of torture. But volunteers have helped us understand the mechanics of sleep deprivation and thereby sleep itself. In 1964 (life was perhaps easier then), a 17-year-old San Diego student Randy Gardner established the scientifically documented record for the longest period a human has intentionally gone without sleep without using any stimulants. Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours (11 days) without any lasting damage. He started developing mood swings, paranoia, short-term memory loss and hallucinations over the days.

Which makes me return to the Supreme Court judgement. While it seems that the statement is directed against the government which denied Ramdev and his sleeping partners their healthy dose of sleep on that exciting night last summer, I reckon that in the long-term, the court’s belief of sleep being a human right is in aid of a bloodshot-eyed government that is being denied its right to sleep.

The din over scams, bad politics, emptying coffers, strange governance has ensured it sleepless nights for more than a year, and the signs — lowering of immunity, mood swings, paranoia, short-term memory loss, weight loss — are all there to see. While PV Narasimha Rao had his nap while the Babri Masjid was being demolished, while HD Deve Gowda slept through his United Front government, our poor prime minister, himself a walking-talking soporific, is being denied sleep.

Which is why I, sated with sleep, firmly believe that Ramdev was brought in during the Anna Hazare jagraan, to ultimately help the government (and the country) to get some much-needed shut eye. Last week, the Court brought a pillow and sang it a lullaby.

ihazra@hindustantimes.com