- According to data compiled by Acid Survivors Foundation of India (ASFI) from news reports, RTI requests and other sources, there were 518 acid attacks between 2010 and July 2014
- Even this data is an underestimation, ASFI believes, as many attacks go unreported, especially in villages
- The highest number of attacks, according to ASFI data, was recorded in Delhi, followed by Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal
- According to NCRB data, acid attacks claimed 249 victims in 2015. The worst states are Uttar Pradesh (61 victims), West Bengal (41) and Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (19 each). Delhi had 21 such attacks.
Sources: NCRB, Acid Survivors Foundation of India (ASFI), victim’s testimonies.
Reshma Khatoon, a dancer employed with a small modelling agency in Siliguri, was 18 when she met Manoj, a fire-truck driver from Haryana, and fell in love. The relationship was over by the winter of 2015, after she found out about his wife in his hometown. But Manoj continued to stalk her. He would call, send SMSes, follow her around and get friends to snoop on her. Finally, after a series of rejections, two men threw acid on her. In a split second, Reshma’s face, hair, the skin of her hands and even her eyes melted.
Blind now, her face distorted beyond recognition, Reshma is awaiting surgery at Sankara Nethralaya in Chennai, where doctors hope to restore sight in one eye. Manoj is out on bail after four months in prison and has resumed pursuing her. Now, when the phone rings, Reshma can’t see who is calling. It could be the NGO assisting her, doctors from the hospital, her mother or brother. Or it could be Manoj or one of his friends and relatives. Even Manoj’s wife calls Reshma, insisting that she marry her husband. Though Manoj insists he will pay for her treatment if she agrees to his proposal, she steadfastly refuses, though cautiously, for to be rude to Manoj might mean attacks on her mother or brother.
“I refuse to marry him and now I am not afraid, for what have I left to lose?” says Reshma. “He has taken my eyes, my face. I used to be good-looking, but now I hide my face. All I have is my mother taking me from place to place to get me treated. I only want my eyesight restored so that I can work and care for her and my younger brother. I just don’t want them to be harmed.”
Reshma Qureishi in NYC
Manoj is the beneficiary of a system that refuses, despite legal reforms in 2013, to acknowledge the intense pain and life-long suffering of acid attack survivors. Taking a cue from Bangladesh, acid attacks were brought under a separate section of the Indian Penal Code. It invites a 10-year minimum sentence—the norm in countries such as the UK and Columbia. However, perpetrators in India mostly go scot-free, or they are quickly released on bail.
“Yes, we fought for the law and got it, but there is no justice yet. There is not enough public pressure and when that is missing, laws go unimplemented,” says Laxmi, who was a young girl when she was stalked and then attacked with acid. She went on to file a PIL in the Supreme Court that led to the legal reforms of 2013. Laxmi is now fighting for greater social awareness and stricter controls over the sale and purchase of acid.
“The government has brought in rules for restricting access to acid, but those are followed more in their violation,” says Ria Sharma, a lawyer, who runs MakeLoveNotScars, which campaigned against easy availability of acid in 2015. Sharma says acid has become a weapon of choice for settling all kinds of disputes and is “no longer limited to men extracting revenge upon women who turn them down”. Among those recovering from acid attacks, over 70 per cent are women and the top perpetrators are spurned ‘lovers’.
Seema, from Meerut in UP, was attacked in mid-2015 by a man she did not know or recognise. “I still don’t know why he did that,” she says. “I didn’t even know him. People told me later that he had been watching me from afar. But my marriage had been fixed long ago.” One morning, the man caught hold of her and flung acid in her face. Her mother, who came to her aid, was attacked too. Now both desperately need money for treatment. The government gave Rs 3 lakh each, clearly not enough considering their injuries—a lost eye and ear, a disfigured face, feet, back and arms.
Seema is afraid to step out as neighbours ridicule her hair-loss since the attack. Her feet, neck, the skin on her back, all are gone. Without skin, she can tolerate neither hot sun nor slight chills. “I am in such a terrible condition. I go for desi cures (quacks) because I cannot afford hospital care.”
A 2013 Supreme Court ruling mandated that all hospitals provide free treatment to acid attack survivors, but state governments have been lax. Medical rehabilitation can cost up to Rs 15 lakh and most victims report being shunted from one hospital to another even for emergency care.
Varanasi acid attack
“Late medical attention can be the death-knell for acid victims, but many hospitals refuse to take them in,” says Mukul Varma, who works for ASFI (Acid Survivors Foundation of India) in the northern states. “The number of victims is increasing and we don’t fully understand why.”
Chandrahaas Mishra, an acid attack survivor, says, “An eye or an ear that could be saved if treated quickly is lost as hospitals condone delays.” He believes delays are the hospital system’s tactic to discourage victims from approaching them, as they resent providing free treatment. Mishra, Seema and 14 other survivors have now approached the UP courts with another PIL seeking compensation for the injured.
“We were good-looking once, but now society rejects us and refuses to look at us,” says Daulat Bi, a survivor who works with Human Rights Law Network in Mumbai. “The government should ensure free medical care and jobs.” The governments of Maharashtra and UP are yet to formally ask hospitals to provide free treatment.
Some 30 per cent of the 100-odd women who have approached Daulat Bi for assistance were attacked by spurned ‘lovers’ keen on denying women the chance of finding another partner after rejecting them. The other attacks were over monetary or property disputes. “Those who cannot buy a gun, buy acid for Rs 20. Old men, women and even infants have been attacked with acid,” says Reshma Qureishi, who recently walked the ramp in the NY Fashion Week. “Walking the ramp was great. Even off the ramp, people looked me in the eyes, smiled and greeted me. Here, they either keep staring or they look away, grimacing.”
Arti, also from Mumbai, was attacked with acid after refusing a marriage proposal from her landlady’s son. Soon after the rejection, she was stabbed twice—in two separate incidents—within two months. “I was terrified of going out, so my mother would take me to office and back,” she says. “I also concealed my face behind long scarves.” Once, when her mother was unwell and she went to work alone, she spotted Pintu, the landlady’s son, near her office. “That evening, I was attacked with acid at the train station,” she recalls. “I was, in a way, ready for the big attack. I wanted to know who had been attacking me and why.” The attack ruined half her face and arms, while her eyes are safe thanks to her scarves. Her treatment has cost Rs 20 lakh—for eight surgeries so far—and she cannot afford any more. The government has been denying her aid on the excuse that she was attacked before the 2013 amendments. Now that she has seen how life can turn upside down in an instant, she wants to become a lawyer and help other victims.