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India's Acid Attack Victims

Preeti Rathi, a 23-year-old woman from New Delhi with dreams of becoming an Indian navy nurse, alights from a train in the bustling Bandra station in India's financial hub of Mumbai on May 2. She was to join the Colaba Naval Hospital as a staff nurse and fulfill her lifetime dream to eke out a secure life for herself. But as soon as the young woman got off the train, a man appeared from nowhere, tapped her back and as she turned round, threw acid into her face.

The attacker then melted away into the crowd. Her eyes were damaged, her liver and kidneys were affected and she suffered excruciating pain for a month before breathing her last on June 2 in Mumbai.

"We still don't know who attacked her. The efforts made by the Maharashtra government to investigate my daughter's case have failed," said Amar Singh Rathi, the girl's hapless father.

"The Maharashtra government (of which Mumbai is the capital) offered me compensation of INR 200,000 ($3,200) which I refused because I want nothing but justice for Preeti. My wife and I want an immediate CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) probe into Preeti's acid attack case and her attacker to be identified and punished," said Rathi, who has now started an online petition to pressurize authorities for a speedy probe into the attack.

"Her excitement and enthusiasm was cut short due to an act of madness by a maniac," said the father, one of the many hapless people in India awaiting justice for acid attack victims.

Growing menace

While statistics by the London-based Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) show such attacks worldwide come to about 1,500 a year, in India, where sexual violence against women is rampant, there are more and more cases now being reported, especially attacks on women and mostly by men who have had sexual or other advances spurned by women.

According to Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), though there has not been any systematic record of acid attack victims, a Right to Information (RTI) petition in the state of West Bengal elicited a figure of 77 recorded cases in the past six years.

"We found 19 such victims in Kolkata metropolis itself. Our research shows that there could be 700 to 800 recorded cases across India in the past six years," said Subhas Chakraborty, executive director of ASFI.

The Bangalore-based Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women has listed 68 victims in Karnataka state over a 10-year period.

One of the most horrific cases was reported in October from Bihar state. On October 21, 2012, four men threw acid onto 19-year-old Chancal Paswan and her sister, 15, after the girls rejected their sexual advances. The family still awaits justice.

"She had been harassed by four men from our district in Patna for months. One night they got into our house and threw acid onto Chanchal and her sister. Though the four have been arrested, their trial has not yet started," said Sailesh Paswan, father of the sisters.

Elusive justice

It has indeed been a long road to justice for acid attack victims in India.

Take the case of 27-year-old Sonali Mukherjee, for whom help started pouring in only years after an attack in 2003, when the media took up her case.

Hiding her disfigurement with thick sunglasses, Sonali was on a TV show hosted by Indian movie star Amitabh Bachchan some months back. She had won INR 2.5 million on a show titled Kaun Banega Crorepati (Who Wants to be a Millionaire). Help is pouring in for her but life has become a daily struggle for the woman after some men in the Dhanbad town of Jharkhand state in eastern India 10 years ago threw acid on her.

Sonali, a sociology student in Dhanbad, had acid thrown onto her after she spurned the men harassing her. She was blinded by the attack.

Debasish Mukherjee, Sonali's brother, is hopeful that she will be able to see again one day.

"Maybe she will be able to see with one eye after all the surgery is done. She had to undergo a total of 22 surgeries already and many more, about 10, are being done. These are not easy operations. She suffers a lot of pain even now," he said.

Sonali herself said in a message on television that the government should bear all costs of treatment of acid attack victims and put the perpetrators behind bars.

According to Debasish, the government is not serious in dealing with this form of violence, though under the new tough anti-rape law formulated in India in the aftermath of the Delhi bus gang rape, acid attacks on women are regarded as a sex crime.

"Acid attacks are sexual crimes too in many cases. It is because the offender could not sexually assault the victim that he throws acid on her," said Chakraborty.

"When the Verma Commission (a panel under former Indian apex court judge Justice Verma formed after the Delhi gang rape) was drafting the new anti-sexual assault recommendations, we requested that the panel make acid attacks fall under sexual crimes," said Chakraborty.

Tougher punishments

The Verma Committee submitted its "path-breaking" recommendations on January 23 to the Home Ministry, calling for tougher punishments, including life imprisonment for sex crimes against women, but stopped short of the death penalty. According to activists, the easy availability of acid in the retail market also needs to be addressed.

"Selling acid just like that should be banned. You can get a bottle of acid for just INR 50 from the market. We need acid in household work but it should not be allowed to be sold so easily," Chakraborty suggested.

International organizations like ASRI are also hopeful about changes in attitudes in India.

"In India, there is a public and media outcry over the high levels of violence against women. This has prompted the national government to take action … the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2012 was introduced to the Indian Parliament in October 2012 to provide harsher penalties for perpetrators of sexual assaults and acid violence. This has been very recently superseded by Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance 2013," said Jaf Shah, executive director of ASTI.

"Promisingly, some states, notably Uttar Pradesh and Goa, have taken the lead in issuing local instructions regarding payment of compensation to survivors and their families," Shah said.
 

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