ON the afternoon of August 18, Raqibur Mandal of Nowda in Murshidabad district went to meet the girl he wanted to marry, carrying with him a bottle of acid. The girl, a student of class 12, had gone to the local panchayat office and was walking back alone when he waylaid her. The two were seen having a heated argument, and Raqibur suddenly hurled acid on the girl’s face. He tried to escape on his motorbike but was caught by the local people. Like all acid attacks, it was a cold premeditated assault. He knew very well that she would reject him and had armed himself to avenge the insult to his ego.
The same day at Joynagar in South 24 Paraganas district, Uma Chakraborty, a housewife, was attacked with acid allegedly by her neighbour, Bapi Mistri, over a long-standing dispute over land. Uma Chakraborty, in the throes of agony, threw herself into a nearby lake before being rescued by other residents of the neighbourhood.
Just 10 days before these attacks, Jyotsna Das Malik, a 35-year-old widow from Tarakeswar in Hooghly district, and 28-year-old Shikha Ghosh from Nadia succumbed to burn injuries after being attacked with acid. The attack on Jyotsna Das Malik was carried out on July 23, apparently for spurning the advances of one of her attackers. Shikha Ghosh, who was a deaf mute, was in her room on the night of August 6 when miscreants threw acid on her through the window. She died of burns two days later. According to her family, the attack was instigated by a neighbour who had allegedly raped Shikha earlier.
On August 3, yet another woman, this time a housewife from Bardhaman, was attacked with acid.
Between July 23 and August 18, West Bengal was witness to five acid attacks that resulted in two deaths. In the face of increasing incidence of violence on women in the State, the spurt in acid attacks over the last few years has become a cause for concern in Bengal’s rural and urban societies.
According to data available with Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), a non-governmental organisation that works with survivors for their rehabilitation, from 2010 to mid 2014, as many as 65 people from West Bengal fell victim to acid attacks, the third highest in the country after Delhi (90) and Uttar Pradesh (71). The eastern region of the country alone accounts for around 21 per cent of acid violence in India. “Though we have not yet got the final figures, our preliminary findings show that the trend of acid attacks has been rising in the last one and a half years,” Avijit Kumar, assistant director (headquarters), ASFI, told Frontline .
With more than 75 per cent of the victims being women, acid attacks have emerged as a terrifying new threat to the women of West Bengal. The vast majority of the attacks are precipitated by rejection of sexual advances or declaration of love or marriage proposals; some instances relate to personal disputes or dowry. There was even an instance of gratuitous cruelty; in August 2010, 10 women were injured when miscreants hurled acid through the windows of the ladies’ compartment in a moving suburban train in Kolkata.
Until 2010, Bangladesh registered the highest number of cases of acid attacks worldwide. However, by 2014, Bangladesh successfully managed to reduce the number of such attacks, but in India, they have been on the rise. Today, India has the highest number of acid attacks in the world, followed by Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to ASFI, the main reason for Bangladesh’s success is the rigorous enforcement of the law against offenders.
“Bangladesh has really done a commendable job, and for that they have put their laws in place. A person who is caught for acid crime and convicted in Bangladesh is liable to hang. Though not a single person has been hanged, it is still a major deterrent. In our case, our conviction rate is very poor, and [the judicial process] time-consuming,” said Avijit Kumar. According to the ASFI, the all-India conviction rate in acid attack cases in 2013 was 40.2 per cent; in West Bengal it was just 14 per cent.
Malini Bhattacharya, former chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women and former member of the National Women’s Commission, said that the increase in acid attacks in the State was a reflection of the increase in different kinds of anti-social activities. “When the general situation in the State is one of lawlessness and increasing assaults on women, it is no surprise that acid attacks also become more frequent,” she said.
Time and again, acid attack victims have voiced their disappointment in their pursuit of redress by law. Polly Debnath (38) of Ranaghat in Nadia district lost an eye in an acid attack in 2013. “Ripon Chandra Das, who lived near my house, had been pursuing me to have a physical relationship with him, but I kept turning him down. Then he started threatening me with acid attack. When I went to the Ranaghat police station to complain, they paid no heed to my situation,” she said. Ripon Chandra Das even tried to kill her mother when she asked him to leave her daughter alone. Once again, according to Polly Debnath, the police did nothing; six months later, one day in June 2013, Ripon Chandra Das followed Polly Debnath when she went out for work and threw acid on her face. “He has still not been caught. Some time back he even came back home. When I complained again to the Ranaghat police station to have him arrested, they again did nothing. He has now gone away,” said Polly Debnath.
Myna Pramanik’s husband and in-laws threw acid on her face over dowry in 2001. “Now my face has improved, but initially when I would venture out of the house, people would be scared of me. I could feel their disgust, while those who did this to me are out on bail,” she said.
According to Dibyaloke Rai Chaudhuri, coordinator (headquarters), ASFI, the fact that the perpetrators of the crime are mostly out on bail and living their lives is particularly demoralising for the victims. “What the victims want most is justice. It is essential that those who commit this heinous crime receive punishment and an example is set. Many of them, after coming out on bail, continue to terrorise the victims. There have been several instances when we had to rehabilitate them,” said Rai Chaudhuri.
After the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, two separate sections were introduced in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to separately deal with acid attack, Article 326A and Article 326B, but the incidence of attacks has not reduced significantly. Under Article 326A, a person who has caused harm by throwing acid faces an imprisonment sentence of not less than 10 years, which may extend to imprisonment for life. For attempting to throw acid, under Section 326B, a person faces a sentence of at least five years, which may extend to seven years.
However, according to Sayanti Sengupta, an advocate with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), which takes up the cases of acid victims, reality presents a different picture. “Though there are now separate sections in the IPC to deal with acid attacks, in none of the cases that we have taken up so far has there been a conviction, and most unfortunately, the trials are also very long-drawn,” she said.
According to the Supreme Court’s direction, the government of West Bengal has set up a scheme of compensation, wherein it pays at least Rs.3 lakh to an acid attack victim. Of this, Rs.1 lakh is to be paid within 15 days of the attack, but most victims do not get the compensation on time. Myna Pramanik has not received any payment to date, though her case dates back to 2001.
Jamir Khan of the HRLN said, “The State government is not proactive in paying the compensation to the victims. In most of the cases that we take up, we have to seek the intervention of the court; and even after that there is delay.” Most victims come from impoverished backgrounds, and in many cases have to sell their belongings and even property to pay for their immediate medical expenses.
With stealth and element of surprise on the one hand and the scope for inflicting permanent damage on the other, acid attack is one of the most lethal forms of criminal assault. The ready availability of acid despite strict guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court regarding its sale is seen as one of the main reasons for this growing crime. “The criminal laws were changed in 2013, and at that time there was a section dealing with acid attack victims and the perpetrators of the crime. However, this legal provision is not enough. There has to be far stricter provisions to regulate the supply and sale of acid. In West Bengal that is not in place,” said Malini Bhattacharya.
According to the directions of the apex court, sale of acid across the counter is prohibited unless the seller maintains a log or a register recording the sale, which contains the details of the person buying the acid and the amount purchased. The purchaser will need to produce an identity card issued by the government, which contains residential address details and the seller, must ascertain the purpose for which the acid is purchased.
However, in most cases, these rules are not adhered to. Strict monitoring is also required in unorganised sectors such as jewellery making and cotton dyeing, where strong acids are used. “Easy availability of acid in these sectors, where there is a high transient working population, is quite dangerous unless monitored. We have seen that Murshidabad is the district where the largest number of acid attacks take place in West Bengal; it is also a place where cotton and silk are vibrant industries where the use of acid is a necessity,” said Avijit Kumar.