Sitting on his bed at the Medical Trust Hospital in Ernakulam, 47-year-old murder-convict P Sukumaran could not contain his excitement. The next day, his long-term wish was to finally come true, and it did. On Thursday, April 19, 2018, he donated a kidney and saved a young woman’s life.
Sukumaran donated one of his kidneys to 21-year-old Princy Thankachan, and is now in the ICU after the successful surgery. Before the surgery, he had one demand: his recipient should be from an underprivileged family. A day before he went under the knife, when TNM met him, Sukumar was elated. “I wouldn’t have ventured into this if I was afraid. I just feel happy now,” he says with a smile. There is a sense of pride in his family of wife and two children.
What makes his story special is not that he donated a kidney, but that he had to wage a long battle against the law before he could, and in the process, he effected a change in law. A murder convict and a daily-wage worker hailing from a poor family, organ donation was his dream, and now he is the reason behind Kerala government’s recent legislation enabling jail inmates to donate organs.
Repentance for an unintentional death
In 2007, 36-year-old Sukumaran killed his uncle during a fist-fight over a property issue near his house in Pattambi, Palakkad. The murder was not intentional, he says, adding that he had surrendered to the police immediately. The Palakkad fast track court ordered life imprisonment in 2010. Later, through an appeal in high court, his sentence was reduced to 10 years. Considering his good behavior and the work he did at the jail, he was released three years before his scheduled release, in July 2017.
In 2015, while he was still serving time in jail, Sukumaran read a newspaper article about Arya Maharshi and wife, from Aryalok Atheendriya Gurukulam in Kunnamkulam, donating their kidneys. The duo was heralded as the first couple in Kerala to donate their kidneys free of cost.
"That is when I thought, one life was lost because of me, so I should give a life to someone else. My family as well as my victim’s family were shattered after the incident. So, if I can save another family, it would be nice,” he says.
Sukumaran then began his efforts to donate his organs. He wrote a letter to Arya Maharshi from jail, and the couple visited him to talk to him about organ donation. "Their class boosted my confidence and I was determined to do it," he says.
Soon enough, Sukumaran got a parole and he found a recipient who needed an immediate transplant. Everything was set – except the law. "We completed all medical tests for the donation. But I did not get a legal sanction as I was a jail inmate and there were no laws supporting organ donation by prisoners," he said. Government officials also raised concerns that inmates can use organ donation as a reason to seek immediate release.
Realising that his was not an easy dream to achieve, Sukumaran began to write to those in power asking them to sanction his request to donate his organs. He wrote to then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, former Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala and the Human Rights Commission.
"I did not get any reply at the beginning. Later, Legal Services Authority got involved in the issue and finally, in July 2015, the Home Ministry passed an ordinance saying there are no legal problems in organ donation by jail inmates. However, it did not contain any other details," Sukumaran says. Sukumaran still couldn't go ahead with the donation.
Around this time, he was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram open jail, where he contacted businessman Kochouseph Chittilappilly, also a kidney donor. "Through his foundation I decided to donate my organ to a person named Manoj from Pattambi. But there were legal complications even then and I couldn't do it," he recalls.
It was when DGP (prisons), R Sreelekha, visited the open jail that things took a turn for the better. Sukumaran expressed his wish to her. “Smiling at me that day, she asked whether I am not in need of my organ. But within a month, she moved all the papers. I will be grateful to her always,” he says.
Meanwhile, he had also sent a request to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
His efforts paid off more than he expected in January 2018, when the Kerala State legislature granted permission to prisoners in the state to donate their organs to immediate family members. Sukumaran still has an objection to the order. "Why only family members? I am donating my organ to a girl who I had never met before. There should be a small change in this order," he says. However, he is happy that he could make at least a small change.
Donor and campaigner
For Princy’s family, Sukumaran was a godsend. "He wasn’t just a donor. He participated in the campaigns to collect money for the treatment. He helps us get medicines and other things for our daughter. He has come wherever we called him without any hesitation. We will be grateful to him till we die," Princy's father Thankachan says as his eyes well up with tears.
"I am not a hero and they needn't be thankful to me. I do this, because I like to do this," Sukumaran says humbly, “Every prisoner who comes out of jail should have a ray of hope and goodness to live. For me, this is what I need.”