There are many questions to be asked about Aruna Shanbaug’s 42 years of incarceration in the jail of her body. And though it is the legal system that extended her silent misery, the issue — as it is with all legal issues — is not really about the state of the law, or the law of the State. Beyond the crime of rape committed against her and the reprehensible refusal to register a case of sexual assault against the perpetrator, the fundamental question is about the manner in which we as a society imagine the nature of care and love.
Sadly, our notions of loving and caring too often have little to do with those upon whom we seek to bestow these apparent gifts. Obsessive love and callous care that incapacitate the objects of our affection are indicative, actually, of a refusal to examine our tendency for self-aggrandisement as a loving and caring people.
The care extended to Shanbaug had little to do with any innate Indian proclivity towards mercy and tenderness. It has rather more to do with our deep desire to be seen as a merciful and tender people.
Too frequently our notions of love and caring are self-serving and, in this way, the care extended to Shanbaug has a great deal to do with our complete indifference to the suffering of others. Let us not bury the fact that legal pronouncements and debates are fundamentally about social and cultural beliefs and judges and law-makers must attend to these first.
Knowledge of the event that led to Shanbaug’s after-life 42 years ago has been in the public realm for a number of years. However, unlike other parts of the world, we have hardly had any public discussion about how to deal with rights which, if exercised — the right to a dignified end to life, for example — may fundamentally revise the meanings we attach to love and care.
The nurses who looked after Shanbaug were reported to have celebrated after the Supreme Court judgment in 2011 rejected journalist Pinki Virani petition for euthanasia. They meant well, but for whom? Were they celebrating their own — and a broader social — attitude towards love and caring, or on behalf of Shanbaug? The nurses were reported to have said that Shanbaug was no trouble at all as she was just like a child and easy to care for.
They — and we through them — infantilised Shanbaug, rather than asking if the life of an adult must always be treated as that of a helpless child who is the receptacle of our favours because the favouring makes us look good. Not all societies are as self-obsessed as that. In Australia, for example, the euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke is a popular — if controversial — speaker around the country. Notwithstanding hostility both from religious groups and the medical profession — earlier this year his registration as a medical practitioner was cancelled — Nitschke continues to lead the debate on human dignity and the right to die. And, in Switzerland, assisted suicide is not illegal and public opinion does not favour its banning or criminalisation.
What is it that we as a society fear when we refuse to acknowledge a crucial fault with the way we care? We fear that our love and care might be seen for what it is: A demand upon others to enhance our own reputation.
We expect others to live for us, all the while masking it as altruism and selflessness. With us, human-assisted death is an expression of power: Widows who self-immolate pay regard to their husband’s superior status and fathers who kill their daughters for choosing a spouse without their permission exercise their right as unquestionable head of the family and guardians of clan honour.
Our social expressions of care are in the vocabulary of control and holding on, rather than letting go. The latter positions us as an equal partner in a relationship with limits to how much we can demand of others. In keeping with a general preoccupation with hierarchy, it is a position we are loath to occupy.
Shanbaug’s human dignity was compromised by a crucial fact of our socialisation: That love should not be offered unconditionally, keeping in mind what the recipient of affection might seek, but mainly on terms that express the power of the giver of love. From cinema to family relationships, this is a common thread in Indian life.
So, what is the meaning and legacy of Shanbaug’s death? Most importantly, it must force us to interrogate the relationship between our acts of caring and the right of individuals to reject that care unless it conforms to tenets of human dignity.
We too uncritically accept care and love as neutral acts, free of self-interest. Did we care enough when no case of sexual assault was registered? Whose interests were then served? And, did we care far too little for Shanbaug when we insisted that she ‘live’ for our sake? Care is spurious if it does not attend to those it is intended for but only serves to make us feel better about ourselves.
Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal