By Alam Bains:
“21 year old Shabana Khatun, was invited to her boyfriend’s house to discuss a possible marriage alliance where she was assaulted by his family. She was force fed a bottle of acid and once she lost consciousness, her clothes were stripped off and acid was poured on her private parts.”
“School girl Ritu Saini was attacked with acid by an unknown man. It was found out later that the man was hired by her aunt to settle scores over a family dispute.”
“Preeti Rathi, a medical student on her way to the Indian Navy hospital in Mumbai, became a victim to an acid attack that ruptured even her internal organs, including food and wind pipe. She succumbed to her injuries a few days later.”
“15 year old Laxmi was attacked by acid 7 years back by a man whose repeated advances she had turned down. Multiple reconstructive surgeries later, she is still fighting for justice.”
We are looking at the horrific phenomena of “acid attacks”. These stories tell the sordid tale of innumerable women in the country. The cheap toilet cleaning liquid, easily available at any grocery store, is being used as a weapon of violence against women. A bottle costing mere 30 rupees is changing the lives of many women, across the country, forever. These gruesome attacks are followed by lifelong trauma for the victim. Not only are they scarred physically because of damaged internal organs and muscles, but also emotionally as a distorted physical appearance makes them outcasts in the society. The costs of reconstructive surgeries are extremely high and the victims need many of them. Employment is very difficult to find given the attitude people have towards their appearance.
Stop Acid Attacks (SAA) is a campaign against acid violence, under the banner of Saraswati Siksha Samiti, a non-governmental organization dedicated to promote health, education and women’s rights. It works as a bridge between survivors and the society, as many victims tend to isolate after losing their faces, hibernating into their solitude and misery, due to the ignorance of the government and civil society and aims at researching and tracking more acid attack cases to compile a database to assess the actual situation of victims. With a team of prominent activists, journalists, politicians, celebrities and responsible civil society members, SAA is trying to take the cruel reality of this crime to people. They use visual, dramatics and literary means to strengthen their campaign and drive home the message with an impact. The organization has been awarded the CNN IBN “Indian of The Year”Â award for their path breaking work. Suneet Shukla of Stop Acid Attacks, in conversation with YKA, sheds lights on various aspects of Acid Attacks.
1. Are there any statistics to say how many Acid attacks are carried out in a particular period, say an year for example?
Since acid attacks were classified under a separate section of the IPC (Section 326A and 326B) only in 2013, a proper record of acid attacks in a given year would probably be available with the National Crime Record Bureau at the end of this year. During the course of our campaigning over the last 9 months, we will painfully share that about 2-3 acid attack cases are reported every 10 days. So, roughly about 110 cases in a year; while there are many that may still be going unreported from small towns, due to an indifferent and insensitive attitude of the police, government and the people.
2. Why are such attacks on a rise? Is it a tool of violence against women or are men also victims of the same?
The attacks have been happening at an alarming rate over the last few decades. They are only being reported better now, following the ‘Nirbhaya’Â incidence, and our aggressive campaigning. Women are victims in most of the cases, but there have been incidents where men have been victims of acid attacks, too.
3. What is the legal position on Acid Attacks?
Section 326 (A and B) of IPC was amended to deal with acid attacks after the Justice Verma committee’s recommendation. The PIL filed by acid attack fighter Laxmi in 2006 has also been instrumental in getting a particular section of the IPC to deal with acid attacks and mobilizing the regulation of acid sale through the Supreme Court’s orders. At present, an acid attack accused could get a minimum of seven years and up to life imprisonment. The punishment is insufficient as long as the victims continue to be victimized.
4. What change needs to be brought in the existing law?
As a campaign, we have seen how little and inefficient laws have been in controlling the crimes against women. Through laws, we wish the governments acquires a more sensitive approach towards rehabilitating acid attack survivors and ensures the provisions listed out, reach to the needy in time. Laws can probably be useful in controlling the sale of acid and instilling a fear of apt punishment, but who addresses the criminal intent of disfiguring a woman that goes on triggering attacks on women throughout the country? A lot of illegal stuff is easily available in the market. Acid, too, will be available to those who want it. In many cases, it wasn’t purchased from a shop, but procured from a battery or through another known source.
5. What is your opinion on the fact that even Bangladesh has a specific law on Acid attacks but India does not?
We must learn from Bangladesh and Cambodia as far as controlling acid attacks is considered. Though it may be argued that they are relatively smaller countries with lesser population than ours, it was remarkable that in both these countries, the government and the people did not require a Supreme Court’s stern intervention to tackle these gruesome attacks with sensitivity and immediacy. I hope our government and people deal with this crime with the same urgency.
6. Given that the SC had given guidelines to states to regulate the sale of acid, is it likely to bring about any difference?
A couple of years ago, acid attacks were not even in news, though these shameful acts had victimized many across the country. The only difference now is that the media and a concerned part of the civil society is aware of its rampant occurrence and the destruction it causes to the family of the attacked person. The SC’s and government’s action will prove efficient only if the people participate in this campaign against acid attacks.
7. Given the high costs of medical treatment and reconstructive surgeries and the lack of employment opportunities for the victims (because of the prejudice that the society holds against the victims), it is very difficult for the victim to lead a normal life. The present compensation of 3 lakhs is meagre. What steps are required in this direction?
The government must consider that victims of acid attacks are isolated from their peers and social circle, lose out on education and career skills. Also, they must look at the medical costs of acid burn treatments before deciding the compensation. Some states still have unreasonable compensation of Rs 25,000 (in Bihar) for acid attack victims.
8. Why have acid attacks not received any attention from the government and even the common public?
I would blame our social set up for this. We always wonder what the girl did to get a burnt, disfigured face but never bother how she lives with it. Even the women, who go berserk at the sight of a pimple on their face, fail to understand what lies behind the scars of an acid attack survivor. As long as these attacks do not receive any attention, and a conscious action, from the people, nothing better can be expected from the government. Those who throw acid are protected by the people around them and helped to live a normal life again. The victims continue to be victimized.
9. What change would you like to see in the society that would help the victims lead a normal life after the attack?
We need to understand that a society that doesn’t require a police personnel at every doorstep is better than the one which requires policing on every nook and corner. People need to realize that scars on faces are a fighter’s medallion. They need to understand that a girl does not deserve to be burnt for saying a ‘no’. We need to forget “discrimination” and develop acceptance and social support for survivors of this brutal crime.
10. Please tell us a little bit about your organization and your team.
Stop Acid Attacks was an outcome of the activist Alok Dixit’s work as a journalist. We work with the survivors of acid attacks and get them out of their ‘isolation’ to share their stories. In this course, we have realized that a lot needs to be done for their rehabilitation and medical care and are working around these goals. We have been able to set up a support centre called ‘Chhanv’ for them, where we work, celebrate and reside. Acid attack fighters like Laxmi and Sapna have inspired us to campaign more aggressively. We are working around several ideas to take the campaign far and wide. These include a nation-wide graffiti campaign, a black rose campaign and more. Many documentaries, analysis and feature stories on this issue are also in the pipeline.