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Acid attacks victims need government, societal support for rehabilitation

Spurned lovers, fragile male egos and impulsive behaviour are some of the reasons acid attacks remain such a scourge of Indian society. Victims, predominantly lower middle-class, usually also lack access to proper healthcare, writes Nidhi Gupta

NIDHI GUPTA  20th Apr 2013

Illustration by Namrata Bhatter | Dev Kabir Malik Design

ragya was sleeping on the upper berth in a sleeper compartment of a train to Varanasi when she felt a burning sensation on her face. She woke up with a start — she literally felt the skin on her cheek peel away when she touched it. "I jumped down and began screaming with pain. It was 2 am, my clothes had melted and people around me thought I was going mad. If it weren't for the foreigner who recognised what had happened to me and called a doctor, I would've perhaps not survived," she says, recalling with vivid clarity, the moment she was acid-attacked in 2006.

The attack came merely 10 days after her marriage and, as she and her family were to find out in the following weeks, was the repercussion of a rejected marriage proposal. "The man was at least a decade older than me and apparently already married. They caught him and put him in jail in the next few months, but he's out on bail now. None of it changes the fact that it took me over two years simply to recover physically," she says.

Recently, two men on a motorbike threw acid on four sisters in Shamli, Uttar Pradesh. The case has made national headlines, as did another incident in Patna where two teenage girls were also victimised in their sleep. It is heartening to see an increased focus on reporting sexual crimes against women, following the December 2012 protests triggered by the gang rape of a girl in a moving bus in the capital.

It is important to recognise the special nature of acid attacks, seeing as they are generally perpetrated by somebody known. In the Shamli case, one of the accused is the brother-in-law of the victim. The girls wanted to go to town about their illicit relationship, and this was his way of containing the situation. In the Patna case, the attackers were spurned lovers.

"A general perception is that the male ego cannot take rejection lightly and seeks to overcome his rage through such an attack. This is complicated with the impulsive spirit of today's youth, which cannot handle what we call 'delay of need gratification' — they don't seem to find any sense of illegitimacy to their actions. Another explanation would be the lack of accessibility — the feeling of 'if your attractiveness can't be available to me, I will make sure nobody else can have it either'," observes Dr Arvind Mishra, professor of social psychology at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The notion of revenge is critical to acid attacks, since its intent is to ruin the victim's life without actually ending it. Such attacks cause disfiguration that lasts for a lifetime, because the social stigma attached to deformation ensures that the victim would no longer have access to a social life, nor will she be considered a viable candidate for marriage. The fact that acid is easily available at kirana shops and supermarkets across the country aggravate the situation.

The consequences of acid attacks can be dire — considering the fact that this form is particularly popular in the low to lower-middle classes of society, the victims' access to medical help might be limited. Basic operations to keep the victim alive could result in bills as inflated as Rs 50 lakh, or more, at times. Also, the facilities to treat first degree burns are few and far between. It was due to the lack of proper medical treatment that 23-year old J Vinodini died in Pondicherry after being attacked by her neighbour, battling for her life over three months.

It is also within the momentum created by the December 2012 protests that the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed recently, recognising the various forms of such violence and raising the punishment bar for rape, voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks. Up till now, all these offences were clubbed under the ambivalent label of 'grievous hurts' under sections 320, 322, 325 and 326 of the Indian Penal Code, punishable by imprisonment up to seven years — legislation, or lack thereof, that itself showed just how seriously violence against women was being taken by the state.

Under the amendment ordinance, acid attacks, along with the others, are recognised as specific crimes and are punishable by imprisonment of up to 12 years, along with a fine of up to Rs 10 lakh. While this is a definite improvement, it still seems to fall short of the correction required in cases of acid attack, from the point of view of the victim. "The government has made provisions for a parallel amendment in the Criminal Procedure Code to provide compensatory medical and private aid for victims. But whether this will be followed through depends on the course of future actions," notes Madhu Mehra, director of Partners for Law in Development.

he is sceptical because of two factors — the speed of convictions in India is nothing to boast about, and it isn't possible to adjudge the capacity of the accused to pay the stipulated fine. "The government needs to recognise that this is among the most physically debilitating crimes. It must also acknowledge the fact that violence can create polities of its own kind. For the victim, it would be more important to get back on her feet. You can either make sure that you take up social transformation, but when you can't even tell khap panchayats to shut up, you could at least ensure that the schemes or provisions you draft are water-tight," she states.

In such a situation, does regulating the availability of acid make sense? "Not really," says Mehra, "because it isn't the 'weapon', but the intent that needs to be inspected. Ten years ago in Mangolpuri, we heard of a case where men on motorbikes were slashing women's faces with razor blades. The government could slap restrictions, but there's always a way to get around the law, especially for a product so cheaply available. We just can't deal with disfigurement and that is what needs to be addressed."

Today, living in near-complete anonymity in an undisclosed location, Pragya believes that she's been luckier than most, thanks to a supportive husband and family back home at Varanasi. "I have no friends though — when I walk on the road, people ask me what happened to my face. There's plenty of sympathy, but they don't really want to associate with me beyond that," she says.

She has now started working with Stop Acid Attacks, an NGO working to help victims with medical and financial aid. Her aim is to help girls come out of the trauma through counselling and group support sessions. "I don't think I am abnormal — it is feeling that a lot of girls develop when their faces and bodies are maimed in this manner. I want to help them get back to their lives as before," she says.

 
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