It's a chilling tale of boundless horrors. Since the last eight years, sixty women in Karnataka have been victimized by acid, thrown at them by spurned lovers or spouses. Of them, four have succumbed to injuries.
The most recent case to hit the headlines is that of Hina Fathima, the 22-year-old housewife from Mysore. She was reportedly made to drink sulphuric acid mixed with liquor, by her husband Fairoz last week.
The manufacture and sale of the acid, under the Poisons Act, 1919 is controlled. Sulphuric acid, along with six other acids, can be sold only to licensed dealers. "But they can sell it to anyone. There's no regulation on that," says Drug Controller, Government of Karnataka, and Sripathi Rao. He adds that all the seven acids mentioned under the Poisons Act are highly corrosive and their sale should be regulated to check their misuse.
The easy availability of acid can be blamed for the increase in attacks on vulnerable women. Incidentally, all the acid attack victims are women. The first case recorded by Campaign and Struggle for Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW), a conglomeration of voluntary organizations and individuals, was of Haseena, whose ex-boss Joseph Rodriques threw acid on her in 1999 and devastated her for the rest of her life.
Haseena got some relief from the Karnataka High Court, who in August 2006, granted life sentence to Rodriques and enhanced her compensation from Rs three lakh to Rs five lakh. "The Court also directed the State to provide for the treatment and rehabilitation of all the acid attack victims — a task that has still not been initiated. The government proposed that they would keep aside Rs one crore for this, an amount which may not be sufficient for the treatment of 60 scarred and maimed women," says Sushma, secretary, CSAAAW.
Along with these hapless victims, three commercial sex workers have also been victimized by acid attacks in Karnataka. Two of them were attacked by gangsters and one by her partner. One of them has turned into a pimp, as she no longer can entertain clients. "They didn't file a police complaint because of fear of these rowdies," says Vijay Kumar, secretary, Society for People's Action for Development (SPAD).
Acid attacks are registered under Sections 320 (causing grievous hurt using chemicals) and 326(causing grievous hurt) and Section 307 (attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code.
"The accused in acid attacks should be booked under Section 302 (murder) of the IPC and should be given equivalent punishment," said State Women's Commission chairperson Pramila Nesargi.
Accordingly, all acid attack victims in India so far are women in their early age (between 16 and 25), and were attacked by men known to them. Most attacks took place in public places or at home. Medical treatment is prohibitively expensive and by their admission, out of bounds.
What prompts these demonical acts? "Men do it out of revenge. They don't want to kill; instead they want their victims to suffer disfigurement and humiliation for the rest of their lives. In the early 1900s men used to chop off the nose or ear of women, to 'teach them a lesson" says Dr P K Devdass, HoD, Forensic Medicine, Victoria Hospital.
Meanwhile, Dr. Mahalakshmi, one acid victim, is still battling for justice.
Dr. Mahalakshmi's former landlord threw acid on her seven years ago. After losing a legal battle at the lower court, she moved the High Court recently. She said "granting of bail leniently to the accused" was responsible for losing her case in the lower court.
Regretting the apathy of the system in extending helping hand to the acid victims, she said till now she fought the battle alone and would continue her struggle.
Dr. Mahalakshmi completed her MBBS in 1994-95 and worked for some time in St. John's and St. Martha's hospitals in Bangalore. In 1998-99, she opened her private clinic at a rented place in Mysore. "From day one, my landlord Chikkabasavaiah started troubling me. Unable to bear his torture, I shifted the clinic to another area and asked him to return the advance amount. When he refused, I approached the police and he became more violent. Despite my repeated complaints, the police refused to register case," she said.
Once when she was returning home in an autorickshaw, her tormentor stopped the autorickshaw and misbehaved with her. When she approached the police, this time they registered a case. Angered by this, Chikkabasavaiah threatened her and asked her to withdraw the case.
She alleged that he threw acid on her on January 11, 2001 when she was returning home at 8 p.m. She said when she took the bylane that leads to her house, there was power shutdown. He was waiting for her with hands clasped behind. In a fraction of a second, he threw something at her. She immediately realized that it was acid and shouted for water. "No one came to my help. I stopped a couple on a scooter and pleaded that I be taken to a hospital. But the man did not help me," she said. Finally, it was a child, her patient, who helped her into an autorickshaw and took her to a hospital. "I paid the price for being upright and fighting for justice," she said.
For two days, Dr. Mahalaxmi was lying on the hospital bed. "The police took one day to register my case, for a flimsy reason to decide on whether the place of incident will come under their limit. It took nine months for the charge-sheet to be framed," she said.
Although the police booked a case under Section 307, the accused was out on bail.
Dr. Mahalakshmi lost her left ear and eye. The left side of her face has scars and she has gone surgery.
According to her, it is her parents, especially her mother, who extended her moral support during her days of agony. She applied for the Government service and got selected.
She is now working as Medical Officer at Chamundi Hills.
"I have fought the case all alone, even the media did not support me then. After five years, the case came up for hearing in the fast track court and accused was released on bail," she said.
When she wanted to approach the High Court, Director of Public Prosecution dismissed the case stating that "the case is unfit for appeal". Not losing hope, she approached Home Secretary with the help of Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW) and he certified that the case was fit for appeal. The case was admitted in the High Court, she added.
The Government had to take acid attack seriously by banning the procurement and sale of hazardous chemicals. Educating the acid attack victims was important to bring the culprits to the book, she added.
The latest on Hina Fathima, the 26-year-old housewife, who was the victim of indescribable domestic violence that involved force-feeding of acid laced with liquor and cigarette burns on the eyes, is that she has remarkably improved, according to doctors treating her at K.R. Hospital.
Fathima's family members have decided to shift her to Victoria Hospital, Bangalore, for further treatment. Despite having a plastic surgery unit, K.R. Hospital does not have an expert to conduct plastic surgery. In view of this, Fathima's relatives took the decision of shifting her to Victoria Hospital, where there is a well-equipped plastic surgery unit on the advice of Prof.Balakrishna.
Medical Superintendent of K.R. Hospital Geetha Avadhani told the media that Ms. Fathima could open the eyelids of one eye and ophthalmologists were optimistic that she would regain her eyesight.
"There is a ray of hope now, as she started seeing the light and identifying color of the clothes visitors are wearing. However, it is difficult to say anything authentically, under the present circumstances, as we could not test her eyes with the modern equipments in view of problem in shifting her to ophthalmology unit," she was quoted. She said that the Ms. Fathima's condition had improved remarkably in the last two days and that she was out of danger. "Now she is trying to sit with the help of others and consuming, semi-solid food," she added.
Mr. Zaheer, a social worker, who is extending support to the distressed family, said that the doctor had advised to conduct plastic surgery on Ms. Fathima to save her from her infection. "We may shift Ms. Fathima to Bangalore on Saturday," he said.