Till recently, Shabnam Rani was celebrated for leading the successful legal battle against the regressive practice of triple talaq. Shabnam was one of the key petitioners in the case. The decision of the Supreme Court banning the practice evoked divergent responses from different sections, such as intellectuals, legislators, feminist organisations and religious clerics.
During and after the legal battle, the petitioners, including Shabnam, had to face criticism and ostracisation from orthodox sections of the community, which even resorted to violence. Shabnam has been a victim of frequent assaults, for she dared to challenge an age-old social practice, the latest being an acid attack on her. While Shabnam’s background story has been given coverage in reporting on this, little or no attention has been paid to a critical question -- how were the perpetrators able to buy the acid?
Since 2014, the sale of acid has been prohibited by the Supreme Court. In Laxmi vs Union of India (Laxmi), the apex court gave detailed guidelines to regulate such sale and directed states and union territories to amend the Poison Rules, 1919, with the same purpose. The only visible effort taken in compliance of the order was a mere directive issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs to all the states and UTs, as the matter falls under the State List.
Four years hence, the executive has done little to give effect to the guidelines in the judgement. No effort has been made by the government to take stock of the compliance of the SC guidelines. The continued defiance has most surely resulted in the increasing number of acid violence cases in India. As per NCRB data, the cases of acid attack have doubled from 2011 to 2015. There were 106 attacks in 2011 and 2012, 116 in 2013 and has since risen to 225 (2014) and 249 (2015).[PS1]
India and Bangladesh have been among the worst performers in the world with respect to acid attacks. But, unlike India, Bangladesh has taken strong legislative measures, such as enactment of an all-encompassing legislation that provides for the creation of Acid Prevention Tribunals, prohibition on sale of acid and a National Acid Control Council strictly for the purpose of spreading awareness.
The legislations also seek to reform the delay in the criminal justice system by mandating the time for completion of investigation and trial to be 30 and 90 days respectively, including effective provisions like trial in absentia, if the accused is absent, and holding officers responsible for their negligence. The law in Bangladesh provides for both preventive and rehabilitative measures, as opposed to Indian law.
Every year, more than 250 women become victims of this horrific crime, out of which convictions happen only in 12 cases on average. The brunt of this inefficiency is faced by the victims, who are predominantly women. Such violence serves to deepen gender discrimination by making the targeted gender fearful of transgressing social norms and undermines their voice.
A majority of women who become victims of such violence come from a weak socio-economic background. They are entirely dependent on compensation from the state for their rehabilitation, mostly through reconstructive surgeries.
An acid attack victim requires three to four surgeries, each costing around Rs 3 lakh, resulting in medical bills that far exceed the amount of minimum compensation provided to such victims as mandated in Laxmi by the Supreme Court, that is, Rs 3 lakh.
The insufficiency of this amount was highlighted in a petition by Parivartan Kendra, where it was extended to Rs 10 lakh, at the discretion of the Secretary of District Legal Service Authority (DLSA). However, such discretion is rarely exercised and most victims leave with only Rs 3 lakh in hand.
Taking note of this reality, the 226th Law Commission report recommended that the State issue guidelines for a uniform standard of treatment for such victims. Much like the SC guidelines in Laxmi, the recommendations have remained unnoticed.
As a result, in a majority of the cases, the professionals at primary health centres treat acid burns as normal burns, making their condition worse. It is high time that the problems of acid attack victims are taken into consideration and governments moved towards implementing the SC guidelines to prohibit the sale of acid and to provide victims with sufficient compensation to change their lives.
Indecision by the government has compelled victims like Shabnam to seek court intervention for security and compensation.
Let’s hope that Shabnam’s case shocks the government out of its slumber and into taking effective steps to deter prospective acid attackers, enforce the ban on sale of acid and remove the threat which seems to have taken a strong hold in the lives of women who want to go out and take bold steps to improve their own lot.
(The writer is a researcher with Delhi Legal Services Authority)