A mother seeks probe in India to baby’s death in Britain

By Rana Ajit, IANS

New Delhi : The doggedness of an Indian woman in Britain to get the death of her five-month-old baby in a hospital there in 2000 probed in India has legal circles in a quandary.

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The Delhi government, central government ministries, the Delhi High Court and even the Supreme Court and the Law Commission of India have been taken aback by the woman’s determination to get to the truth behind her baby’s death, which she suspects to be due to medical negligence in Britain.

On Friday, the Supreme Court faced expatriate mother Sadhna Chaudhary’s unique plea for directions for autopsy on her baby’s body, lying in a mortuary in Paharganj, in central Delhi, to determine the cause of death.

However, the apex court dismissed Chaudhary’s plea endorsing an October 2007 ruling of the Delhi High Court, which had held that “post-mortem without the possibility of a subsequent criminal probe” into the cause of death was not legally possible as the death had occurred in Britain, where the writ of Indian courts does not run.

With apex court dismissing the distraught mother’s plea, the Delhi Police is now faced with a problem. What to do with the baby’s body lying in the Paharganj mortuary since March last year?

Apprised of the unique case and asked for how long the police can leave a body preserved at a mortuary or whether it would step in for cremation, Central Delhi Deputy Commissioner of Police Alok Kumar appeared clueless.

“We will have to examine the legal position as to how long a body can be preserved at a private mortuary in India?” Kumar told IANS.

Advocate Meenakshi Arora, who appeared before the Supreme Court for Chaudhary, said: “Police intervention is not required in this case as the body is not an unidentified one. It’s a private mortuary and the body can be kept there as long as the mortuary is paid its fees.”

“Indian laws are silent on how long one can preserve a relative’s body in a mortuary,” said Arora, adding: “Sadhna is presently in Britain. She will come back soon and take her own decision on the issue.”

Chaudhary had brought her baby’s body here in March 2007 after London authorities ordered her to cremate it or warned they would do so instead.

Even the Law Commission of India appears stumped by the legal googly.

While dismissing the mother’s plea due to the absence of any law in India to deal with a case involving the two countries, the Delhi High Court had sent a copy of its ruling to the Law Commission, requesting it to examine whether Indian laws could be amended to provide some relief and justice in such cases.

But the Law Commission is yet to decide. Commission member secretary D.P. Sharma told IANS: “The Commission is yet to take a decision on whether to examine the issue at all.”

“Various institutional mechanisms exist for cooperation between law enforcing agencies of different countries for investigation of crimes committed against the citizen of one country in the other country. But one does not know what to do in a case where the victim is not satisfied by the probe done in another country. Surely, one cannot send one’s own policemen to probe a crime committed abroad,” said Sharma.

Chaudhary’s heart-wrenching story began virtually the day she conceived for the first time in 1999 after five years of her marriage in 1995. But the doctors diagnosed the foetus to be suffering from rare Edward Syndrome with slim chance for survival of the baby and advised her to terminate the pregnancy.

Ignoring the doctors’ advice, she went on with the pregnancy and gave birth to a child through normal delivery at King George Hospital, Essex, in Britain, on May 2000.

Within days of the birth, the child was operated upon for diaphragmatic hernia – a medical condition with abdominal parts exerting pressure on the heart. But the baby made a remarkable recovery and was discharged from the hospital by mid-September with doctors noting that her heart wounds were healing well.

The mother, in her petition to the Indian apex court, alleged that the baby had to be admitted again to hospital within days of discharge due to complications arising out of overdose of a medicine administered by a family physician, who had tended to the child when outside the hospital.

The hospital authorities then told her the baby was suffering from Edward Syndrome and got legal permission to let the child die and eventually put her to sleep by administering an overdose of potassium chloride, used on terminally ill-patients or condemned prisoners.

Following her baby’s death, Chaudhary fought a pitched legal battle for six years in Britain, keeping the baby’s body preserved at morgue there. Faced with an ultimatum to cremate the body, she brought it to New Delhi, where her legal battle ended Friday at the doors of the apex court.