‘Chhapaak’ has an important message

‘Chhapaak’ has an important message

(Twitter Image/@deepikapadukone)

Deepika Padukone’s presence in Jawaharlal Nehru University in support of the protesting students received the expected response. ‘Boycott Chhapaak’ started trending on twitter amidst praises and encouragement for the ‘star’ getting involved in a politically sensitive topic. It is impossible to ignore her presence, especially in the light of her recently released movie which has become a matter of political controversy. Amongst the allegations of ‘publicity stunts’ and ‘boycott calls’ it is important not to lose sight of the subject matter of Chhapaak which somehow is also linked to the violence in JNU.

The story of Laxmi (an acid-attack victim) on which the story of Chhapaak is based goes beyond her personal account and reveals important facets of this crime. Acid violence is often referred to as “weapon of misogyny”, “result of toxic masculinity” and “weapon of patriarchy” for targeting women who have tried to assert their agency by refusing to pay dowry, asking for their property rights, defying religious norms or social custom, or laughing loudly, refusing to wear hijab, or choosing to wear jeans and most commonly rejecting a love proposal.

Laxmi too became a victim of acid attack as she refused the advances made towards her. The most harrowing facet of JNU violence was the fact that it could have gone worse as one member of a student organisation confessed in a news channel debate that students were asked to weaponize themselves, with batons and acid. It reveals that acid is not just a misogynistic weapon but has become a political weapon. Acid violence is a premeditated attack born out of a feeling of vengeance intended to put the victim who dares to challenge the attacker.

If such violence is allowed to become political, it will have disastrous consequences for a number of victims. Moreover, if members of opposing ideologies weaponize themselves with it, mere possession of it will lead to a chilling effect on freedom of speech. Laxmi’s story is also about the greater social impact her struggle left. Ruling on her petition, the Supreme Court directed the state governments to make provision for the regulation and sale of acid. The SC ruling provided guidelines for complete prohibition of over the counter sale of acid unless the seller maintains a proper register with details of persons to whom the acid is sold along with its quantity and purpose.

The guidelines required the buyer to furnish a proper identity proof with a photo before the purchase and seller to declare the stock of acid to the concerned Magistrate. All educational institutions, government undertakings, departments or PSUs were required to store acid and maintain a register of their usage.

The guidelines called for provisions that would ensure accountability on any person for mere possession of acid itself. A line from the trailer captures the essentiality of these guidelines perfectly, “kitna acha hota agar acid milta hi ni, bikta hi ni to fikta bhi nai (How great would it be to acid was unavailable? It wouldn’t be thrown if it was not allowed to be sold.)”

In clear defiance of the Court’s guidelines, acid is regularly available in India across various pharmacy or grocery shops. A newspaper report after an acid attack in 2014 in Delhi noted that although the acid available in markets is diluted, there is complete absence of regulation to determine if the level of dilution confirms to the prescribed safety levels. A year later in 2015, a survey of 40 random pharmacy shops in India was conducted, all of which were selling acid without any questions asked.

The issue of compliance has been brought to the Court’s notice by a writ petition which is currently pending. Such clear defiance of the Court’s guidelines has resulted in easy availability of acid and is an encouraging factor for prospective perpetrators. Acid is allowed to be politicised for the guidelines have not been implemented by several state governments.

In Delhi itself, acid is ubiquitously available with any pharmacy shop. The government at every level including all the state governments need to answer the question of why acid is still available for sale in the market. Chapaak’s release and Deepika’s presence in JNU presents a perfect opportunity to implore this issue which seems lost in political extremities.

One can only be hopeful that Bollywood’s adoption of Laxmi’s story leads to greater awareness on this issue so that the future governments ensure regulation of acid sale and purchase.

(The writer is an advocate at the Supreme Court and works with Srishti Madurai, a human rights organisation based in Madurai)