All it takes to shatter her dreams
If not justice, give me death, was the plaintive cry from the 22-year old Sonali Mukherjee. For the last decade, Sonali has been trying to live with a face and torso melted by acid. Three men decided to teach Sonali a lesson for being ‘arrogant’ and turning down their sexual advances. While she was sleeping on the terrace of her house, they splashed her with acid. In seconds her life was destroyed. The pretty face of the college student and NCC senior sergeant turned into an unrecognisable lump of flesh. The acid trickled into her ear and damaged her eardrum. It ate into her eyes, scalp and right side of her body. More than 22 surgeries later plastic surgeons are still working to reconstruct her face. While Sonali suffers, her attackers roam free, simply because the law of the land is too weak to give her justice.
There are many victims of acid attacks chasing justice while valiantly trying to rise from the ashes of burns and put their life back on track bit by bit. There is the 17-year old junior national volleyball player Ritu Saini, computer operator Hasina Hussain, college-goer Arti Srivastava and others from all parts of the country, who have had acid thrown on them for refusing to give in to the desires and wishes of men. Except for a fleeting mention in the media, victims of acid attack find no mention in the National Crime Records Bureau under a specific category. This is because there are no special sections in the Indian Penal Code to deal specifically with acid attacks. Not only does this make it difficult to get numbers of victims of such brutal and horrific attacks, but it also is the reason that acid attack victims do not get justice.
The police records such attacks under Section 320 [grievous hurt], 322 [voluntarily causing grievous hurt], 325 [imprisonment of for a term which may extend to seven years, and liable to fine], 326 [causing grievous hurt by means of any instrument for shooting, stabbing, by means of fire, poison or any corrosive substance] of the Indian Penal Code [IPC]. Under these sections punishment can be only for a few months or a couple of years. In Sonali’s case, of the three of her attackers, one was let off as he was a juvenile. The other two convicted by the district court were given a nine-year jail term. However, they secured bail from the Jharkhand High court.
According to the Karnataka based Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women [CSAAW], a coalition of women and human rights groups, ‘Acid attacks are a form of gender-based violence aimed at silencing and controlling women. Their use as a weapon against women, who refuse sexual or other advances, is on the rise in India’. CSAAW recorded 65 acid attacks on women in Karnataka during 1999-2008. Estimates put the number to 100 per year across the country. Recently, Rohtak district in Haryana has witnessed an increasing number of acid attacks on girls. There have been deaths due to this too. The latest is the case of a 17-year old, who was targeted by the man whose offer of marriage she had turned down. Three schoolgirls were attacked by men on a motorcycle as they were returning from their tuition classes.
Spurned suitors, jilted lovers, angry husbands and even the self-proclaimed guardians of religion and culture are opting for acid to take revenge and teach ‘erring’ women a lesson. Throwing acid is obviously a quick and cheap option to beat women into submission or destroy their life. The Jharkhand Mukti Sangh put up posters in Ranchi threatening girls with an acid attack if they wore jeans or did not drape a duppatta. In Kashmir a fundamentalist group ordered women to don the veil and stop using mobile ‘phones otherwise their faces would be disfigured by acid. This was similar to a campaign there in 2001 where women were actually attacked with acid. Tom O’Neill of the National Geographic channel holds the view that acid throwing is also used to enforce the caste system in modern India. According to him people from the upper caste attack Dalits for supposedly ‘violating the order’.
Throwing acid on women is a vicious and premeditated crime carried out with the intent to disfigure and maim. In most cases attackers are driven by ‘if I can’t have you no one else will’ sentiment. For the victims life becomes traumatic, unbearable, painful and a financial strain.
Treatment is expensive, slow and can never give her back her face, eyesight or hearing. She is scarred forever both physically and psychologically. All it takes to shatter her dreams and destroy her life is buying a litre of acid across the counter for as little as Rs 50 a bottle. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy has poignantly captured the trauma of acid victims in Pakistan in her Oscar winning documentary Saving Face. Acid attacks on women are common in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan as in India. According to Wikipedia, atleast 1,500 people in 20 countries are attacked with acid every year, out of which 80 per cent are women. Of them, 40 to 70 per cent are under 18 years of age.
The only difference is that Pakistan and Bangladesh have put in a law that has brought down the number of acid attacks on women. In 2011, the Pakistan Senate unanimously passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill, which imposes on attackers a prison sentence of 14 years to life and a fine equal to about Indian Rs 6.2 lakh. Bangladesh adopted a law in 2002 to deal with those using acid on attack women.
India has still to do the needful though activists, the Law commission as well as the National commission for Women have been asking for a specific section in the IPC to deal with cases of acid attack. There is a demand for a strict control on the sale, production and storage of acid and compensation for the victim’s treatment and rehabilitation.
The Criminal Law [Amendment] Bill approved by the Cabinet this July includes a new sub sections to Section 326 of the IPC which will make acid attack a separate offence and provide for enhanced punishment. But when will the Centre table the Bill? The Supreme Court has been urging for it. How much longer will Sonali have to cry? [IPA]