Ashok Murthy : Acid Attacks against women - A Perspective
As a professional in the field of law, I am often required to read up on the latest developments in civil and criminal law jurisprudence. In the course of one such reading this week, I came across a judgement of the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka (Dt. 23.08.2011) whereby an accused was convicted for “causing grevious hurt” to a victim. As is the case with the criminal justice system in India, justice was rendered 17 years late and when rendered it was not enough. I would like to discuss this case a little in detail.
“The facts of this case were as follows. The accused was a senior in the school where the victim was studying. The accused “fell in love” with the victim who was known to be pretty and intelligent. He tried to woo the victim and the victim outright rejected his advances. On one fateful day in September, the victim was returning from a friend’s house to her own during which time the accused splashed concentrated sulphuric acid on her face. The victim suffered severe burns and underwent considerable treatment at the hospital. None the less the doctors concluded that her face would remain permanently disfigured.”
While there are numerous articles dealing with domestic violence, dowry harassment and sexual crimes, acid attacks have been the pariah of the crime prevention world. However, for a number of reasons, there is a pressing and urgent need for legislators to take cognizance of the seriousness of acid attacks and take immediate measures to curb this menace. Some of these reasons are as under,
- Acids are much more easily available for perpetrators than fire arms. They look less conspicuous than a knife or a club.
- One can still fight off a knife or a stick. But there is little or no defence against being splashed with acid.
- A knife or a fire arm can be traced. They contain finger prints and in case of firearms, there is gunpowder residue on the shooter’s hands. With acids, there is little or no trace of the attacker except perhaps when the container holding the acid is left behind at the scene of the crime.
- The consequences are long term. Physical disfigurement means that the victim will be constantly reminded of the crime every day of her life.
Why fear an acid attack?
Project against Torture, a Cambodia based organisation has published a paper titled “Living in the Shadows: Acid Attacks in Cambodia” which is a thorough and detailed study of acid attacks in Cambodia. Page 10 of the report describes an acid attack as under,
“….Thrown on a person’s face, acid rapidly eats into eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The pain is excruciating, as an intense burning heat cuts through the victim’s flesh like a hot knife. Eyelids and lips may burn off completely. The nose may melt, closing the nostrils, and ears shrivel up. Acid can quickly destroy the eyes, blinding the victim. Skin and bone on the skull, forehead, cheeks and chin may dissolve. As well as the face, the acid usually splashes or drips over the neck, chest, back, arms or legs, burning anywhere it touches….”
The detailed article is available here. Once the treatment is conferred upon the victim, the suffering still continues. The victim’s facial features undergo drastic changes ranging from hair loss to deformity. Eye sight may be lost and amongst women, the normal growth of certain features of the body is hampered and in some cases movement of neck and shoulder may also be considerably restrained.
The recovery process is slow and painful. If not carefully treated, the wounds tend to get infected. Reconstructive surgery which involves skin transplant is particularly difficult to bear. The skin grafts are itchy and painful as they assimilate themselves on the wounded areas. In a nutshell, a few drops of acid can mean a life time of suffering and pain, physical and/or mental to the victim.
The Legal position
Acid attacks are tried under Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code which states that any personal voluntarily causing grievous hurt by means of any instrument for shooting stabbing, or by means of poison or corrosive substances or by means of any substance detrimental to human health shall be punished with either description of for a term which may extent to ten years.
This is a cognizable offence and non-bailable. It is also not compoundable whereby the accused can reach some kind of a settlement with the victim and the prosecution to escape punishment.
As is the case with any offence, registering of an FIR following the commission of the crime is critical. The FIR should be registered as soon as possible from the time when the crime occurred.
However in practice, the amount of compensation being awarded to victims in acid attack cases are barely adequate to even meet the costs of the treatment required for victims. With the exception of State of Karnataka, Jalahalli Police Station v. Joseph Rodriguez involving an acid attack on one Ms.Hasinaand a few similar precedents where compensation of several lakhs were awarded, generally compensation awarded in acid attack cases have been paltry and inadequate.
The Law Commission of India in its Report bearing No. 226 published on July 2009, recommended the setting up of a separate legislative framework to deal with compensation for victims of crime including acid attack cases. It remains to be seen if these recommendations will be implemented or not.
Unfortunately acids are also easily accessible or in the alternative manufactured easily. The said report of the law commission also recommended regulating the manufacture and sale of acid. However what is even more important is that there should be a strong punishment for those who misappropriate chemicals from establishments where they are required, no matter what the consequence of that misappropriation be. So long as the weapon is easily available, the crime is likely to be committed in a brazen and widespread manner.
Countries like Bangladesh have in their legislations incorporated wonderful provisions which stipulate punishments as serious as death penalty, amongst other strong punishments, in acid attack cases depending upon the nature of the attack and the damage caused to the victim. The Parliament of India would be wise to study the legislations in other countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh where acid attacks are rampant to see how best our own legal system can be given an overhaul to meet the seriousness of the challenge.
Understanding the crime
The basic premise behind most acid attacks is revenge or retaliation. The attacker is motivated by a strong desire to inflict some kind of permanent injury on the victim. The attacker is usually a rejected lover, a jealous acquaintance or one who perceives to have been wronged by the victim either because she rejected the attacker’s offer for romance or demands for sex.
It is never easy to draw a pattern so as to establish when an attacker is likely to use acid and when he is likely to use other weapons which are not acids. However if the stalker or the unidentified/identified perpetrator is someone associated directly or indirectly to a medical or chemistry related field, then chances are that he has access to acids and therefore likely to use them.
What should the victim do?
An acid attack is not the point where the victim comes in contact with the attacker. From having gone through various cases involving acid attacks, it appears that there is a certain pattern to these attacks. They are reactive crimes, not proactive ones. The attack is usually performed by the attacker in retaliation to a perceived insult. Acid attacks are not intended to kill or intimidate. They are intended to “teach a lesson” to the victim by causing life long injuries. The attacker in most acid attack cases is usually known to the victim either intimately or as a source of harassment. The attackers stalk their victims before hand and try to win over the victims consistently. There are therefore enough circumstances to determine who the perpetrator is and perhaps even see if there is a chance that a crime is likely to be committed by such perpetrator.
To begin with, victims may begin by politely refuting the attacker’s advances. If the attacker is sane and smart enough, he will back out. Avoid antagonizing the attacker in the early stages of the stalking.
If the attacker persists, the tone and tenor of the victim of stalking should be assertive and firm while rejecting the advances. It is wise to refrain from abusive words. One can perhaps use “I am not comfortable with this one bit and I would like for you to keep away” instead of “F&@K Off Pervert”.
If however the attacker continues to persist, waste no time in lodging a complaint with the jurisdictional police station. Stalkers have to be deterred and discouraged in the strongest possible terms. Therefore all measures available under the law should be exercised without hesitation or mercy.
Having seen acid attack victim(s) from both an objective and a subjective perspective, I have come to understand that it is possibly one of the most heinous crimes which a human being can commit. It takes an elaborate degree of sadism and depravity to indulge in something as cruel and inhuman. The criminal justice system needs to be more strict in its handling of acid attack cases. Until such time though, people only have their alertness and good luck to rely on to protect themselves from this brand of criminals and crimes.