This week, we collectively mourned the death of a symbol. They were sentimental, most of the tributes. And some hyperbolic outpourings of sympathy and respect, 140 characters or more, on the death of an inert, distressing symbol. Reportage across media was uniformly earnest. A TV news show’s headline said: “The saddest Indian story ever".

Aruna Shanbaug was no warrior. In the past 42 years, she could not think or fight for justice; she was incapable of wanting anything monumental. Or being melancholic. Her death, after these years of living with a damaged brain, caused when her assaulter strangulated her with a dog chain and raped her, was at best, a reprieve. For her caretakers, the nurses at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial, or KEM, Hospital, who decorated her bed with flower petals when we visited the next day, the death has perhaps left a great void—that void, when an old habit suddenly dies.

The country, or at least Mumbai, no longer has to acknowledge Shanbaug or deal with her presence. She was a symbol of extreme hopelessness, one that our justice system can’t address and civil society can’t champion. Her assaulter served two concurrent seven-year sentences and is now a workaday Indian citizen. The crimes that he was convicted of were assault and robbery, not for rape or sexual molestation, because sodomy was not covered by the law on rape in 1973.

Since then, new laws and guidelines have been in place for cases of sexual assault at the workplace—she was a nurse at KEM Hospital and was assaulted by a worker at the hospital. The real silver lining in the case, fought in the Supreme Court with a lot of media publicity, never benefitted her. Two years after Shanbaug’s crusader Pinki Virani (who has authored a book on her) filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in 2009 pleading for euthanasia for her, a judgement ruled that passive euthanasia should be permitted.

She, however, continued to breathe.

Aruna Shanbaug, Nirbhaya, the African Slave, the Adivasi, the Central Park Rape Victim. We all have a little bit of them in our heads. They inspire books and films, but by appearing through one primary lens of victimhood, these symbols also incarcerate histories, emotions and individuals. The personal gets lost in the political.

Like the women in billowing blue hijabs, a lingering Taliban symbol. When in October 2001 the US military forces successfully launched Operation Enduring Freedom after the 11 September attacks and the Taliban made a hasty retreat from Kabul, American media had images of a few “free" Afghan women, their veils resting casually on their back, uncovering their heads and faces. A counter-symbol to the hijab. None of us knew then, and only perhaps questioned in our minds, what would happen to them if the US military were really to exterminate the Taliban—if they would be stakeholders in a Taliban-free country’s development or if going to college would be a choice for them.

In a similar way, the scorching symbol that Shanbaug was, largely unexamined when she lived on a hospital bed, leaves behind many questions. For example, how differently would a person brutalized like her live in today’s India?

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