In 2005, at the tender age of 15, Laxmi, was attacked with acid by three men, near Tuglaq road in New Delhi. Reason for the attack? She refused to marry one of them, who was more than double her age at the time.
Acid attack refers to the act of throwing acid or a similarly corrosive substance on another with the intention to disfigure, torture and kill the victim. The most commonly used acids are sulfuric and nitric acid, although hydrochloric acid is also used sometimes. These corrosive chemicals damage the skin, tissues and sometimes even dissolve the bones of the victim, leading to disfiguring, blindness and deafness, impacting their psychological, social and economic viability.
Laxmi- an acid attack survivor and activist
Today, acid attack has become a global phenomenon. It is not restricted to any particular geography or caste or creed or age, not even gender, as most think. Both men and women have been made victims to the heinous crime, although it is true that it is predominantly women who have victimized by men. However, generalization is difficult. In countries like Jamaica, it is predominantly females who have made other females their victims due to tussles over male partners, while in UK, majority of the victims are males with the crime being related to gang rivalry. Personal conflicts, land and property disputes, gang rivalry and violence and other social, political and even religious differences have also been reported as reasons for the crime. However, as manifold the reasons may be, one of the most common one, especially in South Asia, appears to be men seeking revenge against women who have refused their advances or harassments, predominantly sexual in nature. And Laxmi was one of them.
Back then, in 2005, acid attack was not recognized as a separate offence and Laxmi refused to succumb to the crime. Even as a minor, she had a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in 2006, seeking a new law or amendment to the existing laws, to deal with the crime, apart from asking for compensation for the victims. It also sought a total ban on the sale of acid, so that the crime could be prevented. Her efforts finally bore fruits and in 2013, the Criminal Law Act was amended. For the first time, the Indian Criminal Law recognized acid attack as a separate offence.
Before the amendment, there was no official number to account for the number of acid attack cases. It was estimated to be approximately 100-500, based on historical evidence and data from other neighboring countries with similar socioeconomic conditions, but the reported cases in 2012 or 2013 were approximately 100. However, after the amendment of Criminal Law Act in February 2013, a Bench of Judges, comprising of Justice Madan B Lokur and Uday U Lalit, directed the Center to convene a meeting and file a comprehensive affidavit on the number of acid attack cases, and the statistics were alarming. 309 cases were found to have been reported in 2014, which was approximately 300% more than those reported in the preceding years. Of these, majority of the cases were reported in Uttar Pradesh (185 cases), Madhya Pradesh (53 cases), Gujrat (11) and Delhi (27).
Section 326 of Indian Penal Code
In February, 2013, The Ministry of Law and Justice, amended The Criminal Law Act to include the clause for “an act of throwing or administering acid or an attempt to throw or administer acid which may reasonably cause the apprehension that grievous hurt will otherwise be the consequence of such act”. For the first time, it laid down the punishments for throwing acid (Section 326A) and attempting to throw acid (Section 326B). Excerpts from the Act include-
Section 326A: Whoever causes permanent or partial damage or deformity to, or burns or maims or disfigures or disables, any part or parts of the body of a person or causes grievous hurt by throwing acid on or by administering acid to that person, or by using any other means with the intention of causing or with the knowledge that he is likely to cause such injury or hurt, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than ten years but which may extend to imprisonment for life, and with fine:
Provided that such fine shall be just and reasonable to meet the medical expenses of the treatment of the victim;
Provided further that any fine imposed under this section shall be paid to the victim.
Section 326B: Whoever throws or attempts to throw acid on any person or attempts to administer acid to any person, or attempts to use any other means, with the intention of causing permanent or partial damage or deformity or burns or maiming or disfigurement or disability or grievous hurt to that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine.
Explanation 1: For the purposes of section 326A and this section, “acid” includes any substance which has acidic or corrosive character or burning nature, that is capable of causing bodily injury leading to scars or disfigurement or temporary or permanent disability.
Explanation 2: For the purposes of section 326A and this section, permanent or partial damage or deformity shall not be required to be irreversible.
After the acid attack case by Laxmi and the amendment of the Act, other petitions were also filed highlighting the lack of legal guarantee to free medical care, rehabilitative services, uncontrolled sale of acids and adequate compensation under the Survivor Compensation Scheme. As a result, the Apex Court, passed an order in July 2013, to regulate and control the accessibility of acids and other corrosive substances. The ruling included that
- the Center and States/Union Territories shall work towards making offences under the Poison Act, 1919 cognizable and non-bailable
- directions for compliance for States and Union Territories, where rules to regulate sale of acid and other corrosive substances were not operational
- guidelines for educational institutions, research laboratories, hospitals, Government departments and departments of Public Sector Undertakings, who require to store acid
- responsibilities of the SDM for taking appropriate action for the breach/default/violation of the directions
- provision for the preparation of a scheme for providing funds for the purpose of compensation to the victim/dependents
- increase in the compensation by the States/Union Territories to atleast 3 lakh rupees (upon the suggestion of the Solicitor General) of which 1 lakh to be paid immediately within 15 days while the remaining amount to be paid as expeditiously as possible within 2 month
Also, detailing the compliance required by States and Union Territories where regulations were not operational to regulate and control sale of acid and corrosive substances, the Supreme Court,
- prohibited over the counter sale unless the seller maintained a log/register for the sales including details of the buyer, his address and the quantity sold
- indicated that the seller could only sell once the following has been furnished by the buyer
- a photo ID issued by the Government which also has the address of the person
- specifies the reason/purpose for procuring acid
- prohibits sale of acid to any person below 18 years of age
- requires all stocks of acid to be declared by the seller with the concerned Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) within 15 days
- provides for confiscation and imposition of suitable fine (upto Rs. 50,000/) by the SDM, incase of undeclared stock
- provides for imposition of fine upto Rs. 50,000 on any person violating the above
Laxmi and Amol Dixit: true love!
In the last three years, since the recognition of acid attack as a separate offence, the legal outlook in the country has further transitioned, acknowledging the seriousness of the crime. Very recently, on 8th of September 2016, a special women’s court in Maharashtra, sentenced Ankur Panwar, a 26-year old hotel management graduate, to death, for attacking his neighbor, Preeti Rathi, who was travelling to Mumbai to join the Navy as a nurse. Panwar had followed Preeti all the way from Delhi, and threw acid on her as she got off the Garib Rath Express at Bandra terminus. The 25-year old died a month later. Finding the accused guilty, Special Judge, Anju S Shende said that Panwar was to be hanged by the neck till death. the ruling has been the first of its kind in the state. Giving the death sentence, the court held that an acid attack was in many ways worse than a rape, in which case despite destroying the soul of the victim, the victim can be kept safe and rehabilitated, while protecting her identity. Such is not possible for acid attack victims, who have to live with their destroyed bodies, their dreams in shattered.
Preeti Rathi dies due to acid attack
The amendment to the Criminal Law Act and the subsequent Court rulings are all a welcome initiative. However, India still has a long way to go, especially with respect to protecting the rights and rehabilitation of acid victims and the compensation packages. But despite all odds, it is the fighting spirit of the victims, their valiance in life that is commendable. Laxmi, is one such fighter. Attacked with acid at just 15 years of age, today, she is a campaigner with Stop Acid Attacks and a TV host, who speaks of the rights of acid attack victims and appeals for their inclusion into the mainstream. In 2014, Laxmi fell in love with a journalist and social activist, Amol Dixit. The couple are in a live-in relationship and have decided not to get married. “We have decided to live together until we die. But we are challenging the society by not getting married. We don’t want people to come to our wedding and comment on my looks. The looks of a bride are most important for people. So we decided not to have any ceremony”, said Laxmi in an earlier interview to media personnel. As part of her initiatives, amongst others, she is involved with SheRoes Hangout (http://www.sheroeshangout.com/) and Chhanv-an abode for acid attack fighters (http://www.chhanv.org/).
SheRoes Hangout, is a café close to Taj Mahal in Agra. It serves French fries and chai and offers free Wi-fi. But what makes it special is that it is the world’s first café to be run by female acid attack survivors. Flawless skin, a perfect figure and a beautiful face — just a few things most of us would intuitively associate with a receptionist in some restaurant or cafe. But here’s a book cafe that challenges the stereotype. The faces that have undergone several reconstructive surgeries will now host the people at their first of it’s own kind cafe and Reachout Center. Sheroes in deed the name of the cafe derives from a pun on ‘hero’. Managing the counter, taking orders and engaging their customers in delightful chatter, these women will inspire the most cynical with their tales of resilience- SheRoes. The café, first of its kind in efforts to reintegrate survivors into the mainstream, presently attracts hundreds of customers everyday, primarily tourists in Agra and locals in Lucknow.
SheRoes: a café by Acid Attack Survivors
Chhavn, another initiative of the Stop Acid Attack campaign, works toward both short term and long term goals of the victims and survivors. It aims to provide a shelter for all those victims who have travelled from far and wide to the Capital for treatment. In addition, it also serves as a meeting place for survivors where they get a chance to interact with others and create a wave of social awareness and sensitivity. Training programs, counselling, workshops to encourage and help boost the confidence of the survivors form part of the agenda. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chhavn: an abode for the acid attack victims
“Our life is not going to stop. Understanding the psyche of the criminal, I have realized, what they want is to make you live a life confined to closed spaces. But I have fought back and I urge every girl to fight for survival and come out strong”, says Laxmi with a smile.