Print edition : September 11, 2009
in Hyderabad

T. Praneetha, who suffered an acid attack in December 2008, writing her engineering examinations at KITS, in Warangal in March 2009.-M. MURALI

BHAGYALAKSHMI, a 22-year-old divorcee, was travelling by bus to Srikakulam when she was attacked by a man sitting behind her. The assailant, Appa Rao, had been asking her to marry him for some time and had resorted to threats when she kept refusing. On August 13, he followed her onto the bus and slit her throat leaving a deep gash that almost killed her. The next days headline for the story, Spurned lover slits womans throat, is all too familiar now in Andhra Pradesh and points to a disturbing trend.

According to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in August, Andhra Pradesh has one of the countrys highest rates of crimes against women. The spiralling statistics are yet to raise an alarm. A new law has been promised to tackle increasing acid attacks, but that brings no cheer to those who know all too well what they are fighting against a system of hierarchies that rationalises violence.

Of the 12 acid attacks reported this year in the State, three were against women who had rejected overtures from men. All three were in Guntur, a district known for a high rate of crimes against women. In one case, a man threw acid on his neighbour after she rejected his sexual overtures. In another instance, a man threw acid on his estranged wife 10 years after she separated from him after he tested HIV-positive. In the third case, a man threw acid on his former lover because she did not want to renew the relationship. She escaped, but two other women were injured.

It is not just acid. Since January, five women have been stabbed and two attacked with sickles. One was attacked with a boulder, and another had boiling oil thrown over her. All the attackers were spurned lovers. Some of the women had complained to the police of harassment from these men before the attacks. In two unrelated incidents in Guntur, men chose bizarre ways of revenge. A man injected his sister-in-law with HIV-positive blood after she rejected his proposal and another did the same to his estranged wife, who refused to return to him.

Such incidents, however, do not seem to generate the public outcry they deserve. The last attack by a spurned lover that got nationwide media attention took place in Warangal in December 2008. Srinivasa Rao, B. Sanjay and P. Hari threw acid on K. Swapnika and T. Praneetha, students of Kakatiya Institute of Technology and Science (KITS), when they were returning home on a scooter. Swapnikas father alleged that the police had not done enough despite repeated complaints against Srinivasa Rao, who had been harassing Swapnika for a long time. Three days later, all the three accused were killed in an alleged encounter, which evoked mixed reactions. The ruling party refused to condemn the incident; the leader of the Mahila Congress hailed it; and human rights activists decried it. On December 31, Swapnika, who was suffering from multiple organ failure, died from a cardiac arrest. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy announced a State-level special cell to respond to complaints of sexual harassment as soon as they are made.

Eight months and 12 acid attacks later, not to mention the other brutal assaults, State Home Minister Sabitha Indra Reddy promised a new law, quick on the heels of the State Human Rights Commissions demand for stringent legislation on acid attacks. A non-bailable warrant and a 10-year jail sentence are on the anvil as possible legal remedies.

Anuradha, the first acid attack victim of the State, with Home Minister Sabitha Indra Reddy at a conference on "Women and child concerns" in Hyderabad on July 3, 2009. She was a B.Sc. (Agriculture) student in 1997 when she lost her left eye in an attack by another student. Now working as a biotechnologist, Anuradha believes there should be a separate law for such cases, something that the Minister has promised.-G. KRISHNASWAMY

Every attack on the human body does not require a new law. The Indian Penal Code [IPC] addresses acid attacks in its current form, said K.G. Kannabiran, a civil rights lawyer and president of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties. Acid attacks usually fall under the IPCs Section 320 (grievous hurt) and Section 326 (grievous hurt by means of any poison or corrosive substance); in very serious cases, Section 307 (attempt to murder) is also considered.

However, organisations such as the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW) are fighting to get acid attacks recognised as a separate crime and an extension of other forms of gender violence. We dont want a new law but we want Section 320 amended to deal with acid attacks specifically, a demand the National Commission for Women has also drafted, said Sushma Sharma from the CSAAAW. The organisation has been working in Karnataka for close to a decade and has documented over 70 cases in that State.

The CSAAAW is known for its consistent demands. It is patriarchy and not just inadequate laws that is the organisations main target. Bangladesh introduced death penalty against acid attacks in 2002, but it still records the highest number 350. So the law cannot turn things around, Sushma Sharma said. The law can restrict the sale of acid and bring offenders to justice. But the world view that sees a womans body as a site for violence is beyond the reach of law.

The state, however, is yet to recognise that acid attacks are another form of violence against women. In India, we have always underplayed several kinds of sexual harassment by calling them acts of eve teasing. The word tease tries to get the perpetrator of abuse and violence off the hook, said Aparna Rayaprol, Professor of Sociology at the University of Hyderabad. Though the Supreme Court has defined ogling, staring and making lewd remarks as forms of sexual harassment, they are seldom seen as serious offences.

For every case that makes the headlines, there are many that go unreported because the victims families are wary of the stigma associated with such attacks. Jameela Nishat of the Shaheen Womens Welfare and Resource Organisation, which works in Hyderabads old city area, said: Two months ago, a 16-year-old girl was attacked with acid, raped and killed and her body was abandoned. We are still persuading her mother to register a case. In a recent case, a young woman was pushed to death by her boyfriend from the first floor of Charminar.

Jameela said there were many such cases where the families perception of honour came in the way of justice. Urban middle-class victims usually get more attention from the media and a quicker response from the government than their rural counterparts.

Kannabiran pointed out that the law cannot correct these social imbalances, nor can summary justice of the kind meted out in the Warangal encounter. He defended Shaik Suban, a murder accused, after he appealed to the High Court saying he was not provided counsel for his defence. The case against Shaik Suban was that he had killed a college student, Prasanna Lakshmi, in 2000 after she refused to marry him. The boy was not provided defence because the bar resolution said no one could appear, and no one did. I am not arguing about the sentence, but there is a system in place. What is the point of having courts if you sentence people without a trial? Kannabiran said.

A rally organised by a womens organisation in protest against attacks on women and "fake" encounters, in Visakhapatnam on December 16, 2008. The three young men who threw acid on Praneetha and her friend Swapnika in Warangal died in an "encounter" soon after being arrested.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

In 2004, the Bezawada Bar Association passed a resolution a day after Y. Manohar stabbed to death college student Sri Lakshmi, saying he should not be defended on moral grounds. They have no right to pass these resolutions. Such arbitrariness will not do, Kannabiran said.

Jameela Nishat, who works with victims of sexual harassment, also agreed that the encounter in Warangal was a wrong step. Nothing has changed since then. In fact, there have been more acid attacks than last year, she said.

The problem is not acid but the ways in which young boys grow up thinking that they can control and dictate terms to the women in their lives, Aparna Rayaprol said. Girija Devi, programme coordinator for Oxfam India, said: Day-to-day sexual harassment is a symptom of the same problem. But the law is not helping because men are still not able to cope with women asserting themselves.

Everything points to a social diagnosis, but no change can come from a piecemeal approach. There has to be more awareness, greater sensitivity and far more respect. What we need is more effort by students unions, by faculty to make men more sensitive, Kannabiran said. There is no respect for women, Dalits, minorities. We need a cultural transformation because these hierarchies are perpetuated by caste.

Jameela Nishat said that the gender equality we talk about must be reflected in films and TV programmes because they have an impact on children from a young age. The overwhelming opinion blames popular culture for marketing female sexuality to men and commodifying women. The bottom line is that the male gaze is in operation and the female body is commodified behind the camera, in the home and on the streets, Aparna Rayaprol said. The media are often seen as playing an insensitive role by sensationalising the issue rather than engaging with it.

Films too, especially regional cinema, seem to have a huge impact on the psyche of young men. The heroes are so aggressive in films, they never take no for an answer, and these boys think its the same for them, Jameela Nishat said. Aparna Rayaprol agreed: Films draw a very thin line between courtship and harassment. Interpreting the girls refusal as shyness and then the hero making her fall in love with him are narrative techniques designed to nurture the male ego. In the real world, such attitudes result in harassment of women.

A system of redress that is more accessible to women is sorely needed. Kannabiran recommended making the Womens Commission a part of the legal proceedings. We need to strengthen the respective commissions before introducing new laws. he said. Reporting a crime is not always easy because it brings with it publicity, court visits and a long wait for justice. Girija Devi said that the governments attitude did little to help because executive departments were not really involved with individual cases. She said: We find the police very effective and helpful because they have the patience to follow a case for three to six months. The WCD [Department of Woman and Child Development] has no system in place to deal with cases. It is more concerned with implementing GOs [government orders].

As the womans body continues to be a site for violence and contesting claims of authority, there is little that is being done except in the way of fresh legislation. But for laws to be effective, the government needs to realise that acid attacks and other brutal assaults on women are a manifestation of an ingrained inequality. These attacks are not just about the women they target, they are also about the society that allows such attacks, the hierarchies it has internalised and the voices of protest it has silenced.

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