Twenty-three-year-old Pragya Singh was travelling on a train from Varanasi to Delhi in 2006, 12 days after her wedding, when she was attacked with acid. The man attacked her because she rejected his marriage proposal.
“He thought this was the easiest way to destroy my life,” Pragya tells The Quint.
She survived 40 percent burns and more than 15 corrective surgeries in the last 14 years. After languishing in court for more than 2.5 years, while she was still battling severe physical and mental trauma, the attacker was sentenced to just 4.5 years in jail.
In India, at least one case of acid attack occurs every day. However, the country with the most number of acid attacks has the least number of convictions – less than 5 percent – say activists who work closely with acid attack victims.
The conversations around acid attack picked momentum in the Indian media after 2013, when the Supreme Court offered legal remedy to acid attack survivors in the landmark Laxmi vs Union of India case.
Laxmi Agarwal’s PIL led to India officially acknowledging acid attack as a heinous crime by introducing separate sections in the Indian Penal Code – 326A and 326B – to deal with acid attackers, making the offence non-bailable and specifying a minimum of ten years to life imprisonment.
The release of the Deepika Padukone-starrer ‘Chhapaak’, which is based on Laxmi’s life, has brought back conversations on the struggle of acid attack survivors seeking justice.
As Victim Waits for Justice, Perpetrator On Bail for 9 Years
Data from the National Bureau of Crime Records (NCRB), which started classifying acid attacks as a separate case, show that:
In September 2011, Chandrahas Mishra, a Meerut resident, was attacked with a bucket full of acid allegedly by his landlord’s son for stopping him from molesting a woman a day before.
Six months into the case, the attacker was out on bail. It has been almost nine years and the attacker is still on bail.
Speaking to The Quint, Chandrahas says one can attend every court hearing but most often victims do not have the financial resources to bribe their way into it. But Chandrahas, who is now a coordinator with the NGO Acid Survivors and Women Welfare, is not ready to give up.
Director of Campaign Against Acid Attack at Human Rights Law Network, Shaheen Malik, explains:“Take for example, there are 10 cases in a year. Conviction happens in just one case in the same year. These cases are sent to fast-track courts but then they don’t function like one. Problem is not with the law but the implementation of the same.”
‘Exhausting After a Point’
An activist now, Pragya runs an NGO called Atijeevan, providing aid to acid attack victims. Like Chandrahas, Pragya faced similar setbacks when her case was on trial.
For the first few months of her trial, her parents and relatives had to represent her in court. And later, while she was recovering in Chennai, she had to travel all the way back to Delhi to attend court sessions.
“You are fighting for justice here but then you lose faith in it. The attackers think that they can do anything and simply get away with it,” says Pragya, whose NGO sees at least 250 cases of acid attacks every year.
Pragya’s attacker was awarded 4.5 years in jail. He is now out and free.
Thousands Of Cases Don’t Make it To FIRs
Shaheen blames points that while the conviction rates are abysmal, there are thousands of cases that disappear into oblivion. While increased media attention makes more victims report the incident, there is still a lot to be done, she says.
Case in point, Kavita (name changed to protect identity).
Kavita put up with her husband’s demands for dowry by simply ignoring them. The couple had two daughters and seven years of marriage behind them when he forced her to drink acid.“My daughter had a ruptured oesophagus. It is not a wound that one can see but you can imagine how her systems would have been corroded. We have tried to give her best possible treatment. But she hasn’t eaten anything for two years. How long will she survive on liquids.”Kavita’s mother
Kavita’s husband is still living scot-free because the family has decided against reporting him.
A junior doctor who has been working with the Burn Ward in Safdarjung Hospital for the last seven years says that more often than not patients give the excuse of the attack being an accident.
“We see cases from across India and most of the time, these are cases that require emergency requirements. In 99 percent of them, the victims know the attacker. But there’s no FIR. The cases are referred to as accidents. We don’t have the time to counsel the victims. But I can say that the number of such ‘accidents’ have increased, despite the increase in awareness,” says the doctor who does not want to be identified.