OPINION

Bengal’s burning shame

The 2016 report of the NCRB recorded 283 incidents of acid attacks in India of which 76 were from West Bengal. (Above) Piyali Dutta, an acid attack survivor, in her shop in Kolkata. (Below) For Monisha Pailan, what is perhaps more painful than the incident itself is that her attacker Salim is not behind bars yet.Ritu Raj Konwar

The 2016 report of the NCRB recorded 283 incidents of acid attacks in India of which 76 were from West Bengal. (Above) Piyali Dutta, an acid attack survivor, in her shop in Kolkata. (Below) For Monisha Pailan, what is perhaps more painful than the incident itself is that her attacker Salim is not behind bars yet.Ritu Raj Konwar  

Dipak Rajak and Parul, parents of Deepawali, have nothing much to hold on to, except their daughter’s black diary in which she meticulously recorded details of her life right until that fateful day when acid was forced down her throat.

Every moment of Deepawali’s life finds a mention in the diary. One of the last entries, months before the 24-year-old succumbed to her injuries, reads as follows (translated from Bangla):

They hit me with a gun and dragged me by my hair

Helpless mother was left pleading in despair

A bottle came out of the pocket and he poured acid in my mouth

Face was burning, neck was burning, they all watched in delight

Deepawali died on October 24, 2017, three weeks before the festival of lights after which she was named, of injuries she sustained three-and-a-half years ago.

Beside Deepawali’s framed photograph on the wall of the two-room house in Satangapara in the southern fringes of Malda district, the telltale signs of the horrific attack on the evening of February 20, 2014 are still visible. The acid stains on the wall have not been scrubbed and serve as a reminder of the trauma for Parul, who watched her daughter being brutalised. She points to the stains on the wooden door and the floor, and the burns on the shawl she wore that day.

It was just after seven. Mother and daughter had settled down in front of the TV, waiting for their favourite programme to start, when they heard a knock at the door. When Parul opened it, Ujjwal Mondal, who had been stalking her daughter for months, barged in and switched off the lights. Seconds later, Parul heard her daughter’s heart-rending scream.

Not an isolated case

Months before Deepawali died, a local court sentenced Mondal to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for attempt to murder under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code, and for causing grievous hurt by use of acid, under Section 326A. The family wants him to be tried and prosecuted for murder. But their efforts to press murder charges have so far proved unfruitful.

Mondal’s house in Bengalipara is about 1.5 km from Deepawali’s house. “There were occasions when he (Mondal) used to follow my daughter on her way to college. He would pass comments. Every time I complained to his parents, they refused to pay heed. Instead they approached us with a marriage proposal,” says Parul. The family did not approach the police in the hope that Mondal would mend his ways.

Dibyaloke Rai Chaudhuri, coordinator of the Acid Survivors and Women Welfare Foundation (ASWWF), describes Deepawali’s case as one of the most tragic ones that he has encountered in his work. “The acid poured in her mouth severely damaged her oesophagus. We helped her with many surgeries but she could not be saved,” he says, pointing at two of her photographs, taken before and after the attack.

Deepawali’s death certificate, which was issued by the State-run SSKM Hospital, says her death was caused by cardiorespiratory failure due to septicaemia (blood poisoning). In this hospital, between February 2014 and 2017, more than ten surgeries were performed on Deepawali. This included three reconstructive surgeries on her face, and several procedures to save her oesophagus. Unable to eat solid food, she remained on a liquid diet.

The latest report of the National Crime Records Bureau (2016) recorded 283 incidents and 307 victims under Section 326A (acid attack) and Section 326B (attempt to carry out an acid attack) of the IPC in India. Of these, 26% (76 incidents) and 27% of the victims were from West Bengal. In comparison, during the same period, Uttar Pradesh, the most populous State with over double the population of West Bengal, recorded 57 incidents and 61 victims.

Sections 326A and 326B of the IPC were added after the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 2013. Before this, perpetrators were typically charged with causing hurt, which only invited a punishment of three years.

Easy availability of acid

Data compiled by the ASWWF reveals that West Bengal recorded 220 cases of acid attacks between 2010 and 2016, which is about 20% of all cases recorded in the country. While there are no definitive studies explaining this phenomenon, the easy availability of acid is said to be a major reason for the wide prevalence of this ghastly crime.

Bapi Dasgupta of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) has spent years fighting cases on behalf of acid attack victims, extracting information on compensation paid, and campaigning for tighter laws to control over-the-counter sale of acid.

“A few months ago, authorities in Hooghly district informed us that they had issued a circular restricting the sale of acid. But when we asked them for a copy of the notification, they could not find one,” he says, rummaging through documents in his house in Chandanagar, Hooghly district.

Dasgupta reels off the names of eight victims in Hooghly and Bardhaman district, starting from 2013: Mehroon Khatun, Moumita Chakraborty, Rokeya Biwi, Saheba Khatun, Mira Patra, Saraswati Patra, Basudev Gorai, and a minor girl (name withheld). The minor’s family lives in a remote island, Notundampalchak, which is surrounded by the Ganga. Notundampalchak has not seen electricity yet, but acid seemed easily available to the man who attacked her in 2016. These are victims from remote villages and belong to poor families, most of whom do not have regular jobs or sources of income.

While varieties of acid such as muriatic acid and hydrochloric acid are available in hardware shops, the chemical most commonly used in attacks is nitric acid, sourced from local goldsmith shops. In West Bengal, goldsmith shops are a dime a dozen. They can be found anywhere from the Sunderbans in the south to Darjeeling in the north, and even in the impoverished southwestern districts of Purulia and Jhargram.

Over the past few years, Murshidabad in particular has seen a spike in acid attacks. Between 2010 and 2016, at least 20 cases of acid attacks were reported in this district alone. In 2014, in the district’s Beldanga area, Angura Biwi’s mother-in-law threw acid on her. In 2016, a class XII girl was attacked by one Raqibur Mondal with acid for spurning his advances.

In connection with another attack that took place in August 2016, a fast-track court in Baharampur, Murshidabad, sentenced both the attacker and the man who had sold him the acid to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment in December 2017. It had turned out that the shopkeeper, Chandan Pal, from whom Rakesh Mondal had purchased the acid, did not have the licence to sell acid. But his conviction has hardly been a deterrent; the sale and use of acid continues.

Pilfering the chemical

Sonapatti, a maze of narrow lanes in the Khagra neighbourhood of Baharampur town, is home to 2,000 small and big goldsmith shops. In a 8ft by 5ft shop, a 41-year-old goldsmith (who does not wish to be named) points to a yellowish orange liquid in a glass container.

All shopkeepers use nitric acid for refining gold. The chemical gets rid of impurities and other minerals present in the yellow metal. The goldsmith explains how gold cut into small pieces is first put into a container of acid and heated. Once the acid becomes hot, red bubbles emerge, with pure gold settling at the bottom of the container. “We source acid from Murshidabad and also from Kolkata,” he says. The floor of the shop is corroded by the continuous use of acid, and the shopkeeper says that his employees have to be extremely careful as the liquid can even melt bones.

It is from shops like these that acid is pilfered. Occasionally, workers sneak out a small quantity for an acquaintance or a friend in exchange for a few hundred rupees.

Acid used in garment factories for textile processing is also corrosive, and certain districts that are garment hubs have also reported attacks involving acid sourced from these factories.

Animesh Rajak is convinced that the acid that killed his sister Deepawali was sourced from a local goldsmith. “There are two shops close to Mondal’s house of which one is owned by Mondal’s family. We are sure that the acid was sourced from there. The shop was closed for a few months after the incident but then it reopened,” Rajak says.

Sanjay Biswas, the officer in charge of Baishnabnagar police station, says the attack on Deepawali is a rare case. No action has been taken against the person who sold the acid, Biswas admits, but claims that the police station has taken measures to prevent acid pilferage.

“On the fourth Saturday of every month, a meeting is held at the gram panchayat level, attended by an officer of the level of Sub-Inspector,” he says. “Among the 16 points that are discussed, one is on preventing acid theft.”

The long road to compensation

A detailed situational analysis of the acid attacks, the reasons for carrying out such attacks, and their impact on survivors was conducted by ASWWF across the country a few years ago. The study underscored that rejection in love and of marriage proposals were the motivating factor in 36% of all these attacks. This is followed by marital discord (13%). About 84% of the victims were known to the perpetrators. The study also revealed that a significant number of victims were male (35%).

Mazrul Islam, a 40-year-old farmer in Murshidabad’s Bhagwangola area, was attacked in October 2013 following a dispute with a local goldsmith. Islam, who has undergone four surgeries in five years, says that despite several attempts to shut down the shop, it is still up and running. “I have to endure the humiliation of seeing this man’s shop which is only 800 metres from my home,” he says.

Though Islam has received a compensation of Rs. 3 lakh (paid after ASWWF’s intervention), the medical expenses have been several times greater than the compensation, he says. In Laxmi v. Union of India and Others (2015), the Supreme Court had laid out clear guidelines on compensation to be paid to acid attack victims. But lawyers and activists across West Bengal say that the State government is not proactive in compensating victims. Information obtained by APDR through a number of Right to Information queries earlier this year showed that of 46 cases, only 18 of the victims were compensated.

To make matters worse, the state is also seeking to dilute the provisions of the West Bengal Victim Compensation Scheme, 2017 by inserting eligibility clauses for compensation of victims. Two clauses in particular stand out. One stipulates that the injury should have caused substantial loss to the person’s family income. The second is that the victim should not have been compensated before for any loss or injury by the State or Central government, an insurance company, or any other institution. “We are going to challenge the notification before the High Court,” Dasgupta says.

Jayanta Narayan Chatterjee, a senior advocate of the Calcutta High Court, has been instrumental in helping a number of victims receive compensation. He believes that compensation should be independent of the status of the case. In other words, it should be paid regardless of whether the accused has been arrested or not. Both Dasgupta and Chatterjee contend that most victims do not know how to approach the court for compensation and redressal.

Chatterjee remembers one case vividly. A woman from Malda’s Harischandrapur block was attacked with acid by her husband. In March 2016, she came to the High Court for the hearing of the bail petition of the accused. To everyone’s surprise, she wanted to withdraw the case and return to her husband’s home. When the judges assured her that she would be provided medical and monetary help, she broke down, the lawyer says. Chatterjee had been appointed as amicus curiae to counsel her and assure her that the court would extend all help to her.

Learning from Bangladesh

Given the rising number of acid attack cases in West Bengal, legal experts and activists working on this issue are increasingly referring to neighbouring Bangladesh as a model for how to tackle the problem.

Until a few years ago, Bangladesh recorded the highest incidence of acid attacks in the world. It then passed two laws to curb such attacks: Acid Offence Control Act, 2002, and Suppression of Offense by Acid Attack, 2002. Before 2002, the country saw about 500 acid attacks a year. But with the legislation coming into force, along with other measures, the number of attacks came down to about 100 a year.

These laws not only instituted a complete ban on over-the-counter sale of acid but also mandated the setting up of tribunals to deal with acid attacks, and the creation of a National Acid Control Council. Bangladesh has made it mandatory that investigation in these cases should be completed within 30 days.

This is in sharp contrast to the present state of affairs in West Bengal where, apart from a shameful track record in compensating victims, there is also an abysmal conviction rate.

“The all-India conviction rate in acid attack cases in the past few years was about 40%, but in West Bengal it was just 14%,” says Rai Chaudhuri. In many cases, the victims were poor and did not have the means to take up their cases in court. Moreover, the attacks leave the victims in a state of shock and in hospital for months, which helps the accused to either escape or manipulate the law, he says. Experts say that the biggest challenge for an acid attack victim is meeting the medical expenses, as they need multiple surgeries, and rehabilitation could take years or even decades.

For Monisha Pailan, what is as, if not more, agonising than the attack, in which she lost an eye and had to undergo several surgeries, is that Salim, who threw acid on her, is not behind bars. But the 23-year-old from Joynagar in South 24 Parganas is unlike many survivors and has not retreated into a shell. She has a profile on social media where she regularly posts selfies. Following the attack, Pailan’s parents either covered or removed all the mirrors in their house.

But Pailan, when speaking to The Hindu , preferred to sit before a mirror. “The first time I saw my face, it was more painful than the acid burning up my face,” she says. Pailan is pursuing a Masters degree in history and works in a café. When she uses public transport, people stare at her. “I don’t need to feel sorry about my face,” she says. “It is just a burn injury.” She is not scared of looking into the mirror any more. “My face mirrors the society we live in.”

A few months ago, authorities in Hooghly district informed us that they had issued a circular restricting the sale of acid. But when we asked them for a copy of the notification, they could not find one

Bapi Dasgupta

Association for Protection of Democratic Rights

There were occasions when Mondal used to follow my daughter on her way to college. He would pass comments. Every time I complained to his parents, they refused to pay heed. Instead they approached us with a marriage proposal.

Parul

Mother of Deepawali, an acid attack victim

I don’t need to feel sorry about my face. It is just a burn injury.

Monisha Pailan

Acid attack survivor

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