[PhotoStop] Surviving acid attacks in India

Survivors of acid attacks in India not only face pain and stigma, but also begin a lifelong battle with an unresponsive judicial system.


My vagina was burnt, the pain never subsides; he flung the toilet acid at me, focusing on my private parts and abdomen.” Reshma had broken down, recollecting the barbaric manner in which her husband had hurled acid at her.

Reshma was married to her husband for more than 15 years and had borne 5 daughters consecutively. She silently suffered domestic violence all of these years, but spoke up refusing to get a sex determination test done for the 6th child she was pregnant with. Infuriated by the refusal, her husband tossed the acid at her and locked her in for 3 days without any treatment. Much later, with the support of locals and NGOs she had logged a complaint.

This incident occurred much after the Centre framed the draft rules in July 2013 under the Provisions of Poison Act 1919, and applied it to acid attacks, to regulate over the counter sales. Though the law has been passed thanks to the PIl and continuous plea and advocacy by Laxmi (an acid attack survivor) and other campaigners for many years, the implementation in the states suffer. More than 80 cases of acid attacks have been reported since the law was amended in July 2013.

Acid corrodes immediately; eroding soft tissues and bones, shattering dreams and hopes. The survivor begins an agonizing lifelong battle against horrific deformities, abandonment, social ostracization and stigma, gruelling pain and an unresponsive judicial system. I met a few of these iconoclastic women that are fighting against this very oblivious social and judicial milieu refusing to stay relegated to the fringes of society.

——–

October, 2013

It was a rather hot Delhi afternoon and I sat numb with grief as I listened to Sonali narrate the struggles she has withstood. “The acid had burnt my body; my passion; my liberty; my love. Only revolt remained.” She said so when I questioned her about the plea for euthanasia she applied for in 2012, which eventually got rejected and thankfully so.

Nostalgia had swept upon her and she spoke with great fondness about her naiveté childhood days in Dhanbad, the challenging experiences at NCC, the rigorous dance performances, and academic pursuits.

The year was 2003. She was a fearless teen that roamed carefree, till one day she spurned the sexual advances of 3 neighbourhood boys. Infuriated by her refusal to indulge their desire, they disfigured her permanently by throwing acid at her in the middle of the night when she was fast asleep on her house terrace. She was 17.

The corrosive acid left her body completely lacerated; her nose, eyes, shoulder, neck, cheeks, ears, scalp, and breasts were burnt. She continued to bleed for three months. A sunken blob was left in the place of her nose and ear, her neck was joined to the shoulders, her cornea had deep burns, and her face was irretrievably disfigured. She had no vision, no earlobes, no armpits or neck tissue. She had lost more than 25 kgs, and couldn’t smile, see, hear, speak, bat eyelids, or walk. She has gone through more than 25 surgeries over the last 10 yeare, yet the struggle to keep her vital organs working continues.

Her father lost his job as a guard and had to use up all his savings in the operations. Her younger siblings dropped out of school and her mother suffered prolonged depression, and didn’t speak to Sonali for a long time. After many years of fighting against many challenges, there seems to be slight hope. She has joined as a Grade III clerk in the welfare department of the Bokaro Deputy Commissioner’s office, a job promised to her few years back. Her perpetrators were sentenced to nine years in jail, but were granted bail when they appealed to the High Court, and now roam free. They have never looked back.

While Sonali was able to get to make 25 lakhs in the reality television show Kaun Banega Crorepati (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) to fund a few of her operations, Anu frets that not all survivors get such an opportunity. Anu’s life story is fraught with betrayal, jealousy, rage, and greed.

“Why don’t you come and meet Frooty Mukherjee, we will all do some gupshup (chit chat) and sip tea”, she had invited me home warmly. I walked through the narrow alleys of Delhi and reached her small apartment near ISKON. She introduced me to Frooty, her pet dog, and begun re-counting the horrid tale of acid attack. “Frooty is my only solace now, no one cares enough. I survive the silence of everyday grief, hoping I can someday see justice and joy,” she says. I was seething with anger, listening to Anu’s tale, learning how the acid had devastated her life.

Anu was once an exuberant dancer in an upmarket hotel, and absolutely loved her job and financial independence. Having lost her parents at a very young age, she moved to Delhi to fend for herself and her younger brother. It is in the dance bar that she found a dear friend and a lover, both of whom eventually betrayed her trust. Her friend, an upcoming dancer was overcome with insecurity, greed, and jealousy seeing Anu’s rise to fame as a dancer. She plotted to destroy her life and threw acid right into her eyes blinding her for a life time. Her lover too had walked away, breaking the promise of a marriage. “How can I put up with the stench of your rotten flesh?” he had apparently asked.

It has been more than 8 years since the incident, and her struggle to survive and find a dignified means of living finally got noticed recently by a judge in the Supreme court, who has now promised her a job.

Meeting Laxmi is a revelation of sorts, of what unyielding grit can achieve. As I write this story she is accepting the ‘Women of Courage’ Award from Michele Obama, the First Lady of the USA. US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award 2014 recognizes women from across the world who exhibit exceptional courage and leadership, advocating for human rights, gender, peace, justice, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk. Laxmi got this award for becoming the standard-bearer for the movement to end acid attacks in India.

Laxmi was all of 15 in 2005, when a 32 year old man, whose advances she had earlier rejected, hurled acid at her. She stayed indorrs for more than 7 years, before storming out determined to advocate change in the laws around acid attacks, seek rehabilitation for survivors, and fight for justice.

She filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking regulation on the sale of acid in 2006. She had also sought framing of a new law or amendment to the existing criminal laws in the IPC, like the Indian Evidence Act and the CrPc, for dealing with the offence, besides asking for compensation. Through these years she fought many traumatic battles; 7 painful surgeries, the sudden death of her father, treatment of younger brother’s dysfunctional lungs, and extreme financial pressures. She campaigned on national television, gathering 27,000 signatures for a petition to curb acid sales, and took her cause to the Supreme Court, where the Regulation of Poisons Act was finally passed in 2013. In her journey to finding justice, she also found love in Alok, an inspirational journalist who runs the organization Stop Acid Attacks in Delhi. Together, they now campaign and advocate against acid attacks.

She had recited a poem she wrote at 16, while receiving the award at US;

“You hold the acid that charred my dreams.
You will hear and you will be told that the face you burned is the face I love now.
You will hear about me in the darkness of confinement. The time will be burdened for you.
Then you will know that I am alive, free, and thriving and living my dreams.”

We have a lot to learn from our neighbouring countries. Bangladesh, for instance, was one of the first countries to legislate on acid attacks with the enactment of the Acid Control Act and Acid Crime Prevention Act in 2002. These acts address both punishment of the perpetrators and restriction of important and sale of acid in open market. Under the Act, the unlicensed production, import, transport, storage, sale, and use of acid has been made punishable with a prison sentence of 3 to 10 years. A National Acid Control Council Fund and rehabilitation centre for victims was also established. Elsewhere in the sub-continent, Pakistan amended its penal code and the criminal procedure code to provide maximum of life imprisonment for perpetrators of acid attacks.

India, on the contrary, has hardly gone any distance in drafting and implementing stringent laws for acid attacks. It is appalling that such a barbaric act of violence is not even recorded officially by the Government. It has estimated that there are up to 1,000 such incidents based on reported cases in newspapers and NGOs. Till last year, there wasn’t even a specific law to deal with acid attacks.

In July 2012, the Supreme Court had ordered for restriction of sale of acid for industrial uses, battery dealers, schools, colleges, chemical labs, and hospitals. The order also obligated the buyers to furnish photo identity and residential address to dealers at the time of purchase. Further, all dealers, wholesalers and others dealing with acid substances were asked to have mandatory special licenses to sell them. An ordinance claiming acid attacks a serious offence that could entail a maximum punishment of life imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 10 lakh, under a new provision of the IPC, has also been passed. The Ministry has promised a compensation of at least Rs. 3 lakh to be given to the acid attack victims by the State government concerned as after-care and rehabilitation cost. All Central government hospitals and establishments have been directed to treat acid attack victims free of cost. But most of these regulations have not been implemented in the states.

Apart from implementation of these in states, Stop Acid Attacks made a plea to the Supreme Court for Minimum Imprisonment of 5 years, extendable upto 10 years, and a fine for all perpetrators. They also insist that acid attack be recognized as a non-bailable offence. They propose that changes be incorporated in the Indian Evidence Act in Section 114(b). If a person has thrown acid on, or administered acid to, another person the court shall presume that such an act has been done with the intention of causing, or with the knowledge that such an act is likely to cause such hurt or injury as is mentioned in Section 326 A of the Indian Penal Code. They also seek a law – “Criminal Injuries Compensation Act” – to be enacted to provide both, interim and final monetary compensation to victims of certain acts of violence like Rape, Sexual Assault, and Acid Attacks, and provide for their medical and other expenses relating to rehabilitation, loss of earnings, etc. Also the current proposed Rs. 3 lakh compensation is nowhere close to the actual expenditure for the 20-30 surgeries that any survivor has to go through, and has to be relooked at. Fast-track courts have to be in place so that the cases are solved within three months. Most pertinently, the ordinances passed last year by the centre has to be followed-up with action in the states.

While the survivors continue to battle with societal isolation and psychological pain relentlessly and the Government works towards framing stringent laws to eliminate the crime; each of us have to do our bit. It is a shame that all the survivors I met or spoke to had the same experience; no one in the public reached out to them after the attack. The severity of damage could have been reduced drastically had the people gathered around immediately washed the skin with water and called for an ambulance but alas! Rehabilitation and inclusion in the society after the attack is another long battle the survivors ensue after the attack.

The messages from the survivors are similar, “We must eliminate ignorance and apathy towards the issue and take a strong stance against it. We must come together to campaign and advocate for a separate law to ban over the counter sale completely, seek rehabilitation and ensure justice is duly served for the perpetrators. We have to work towards the seemingly utopian goal of a gender equal, just, safe and violence free society with a greater sense of urgency.”

PhotoStop is The Alternative’s photo essay section that features stories of sustainable projects as well as issues in spaces of arts, culture, environment, livelihood and society.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sindhuja P is a freelance Travel and Social documentary photographer. In her other life she works as an educator for an IT major. Gifted with a high restlessness quotient, she has dabbled in varied fields including theatre, playing the ‘veena’ and counselling. She constantly tries to bring her interests in travel, photography, education and psychology together to impact societal change. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sindhuja P is a freelance Travel and Social documentary photographer. In her other life she works as an educator for an IT major. Gifted with a high restlessness quotient, she has dabbled in varied fields including theatre, playing the ‘veena’ and counselling. She constantly tries to bring her interests in travel, photography, education and psychology together to impact societal change. more

Discuss this article on Facebook

  • Sindhuja, I am touched by the story you’ve shared and the topic you picked. Inspite of being confronting, it is necessary to bring forth such stories and put them in front of people point blank if we want change. All the best for your endeavours to impact societal change.

  • Nikita Gupta

    Amazing work Sindhuja!! Hats off to you for putting your words together and sharing it with the mass. I hope your words make a change. My best wishes are with you.