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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Acid violence knows no gender

Acid violence knows no gender

Mostly seen as a crime against women, a significant and growing number of acid attack victims in India are men

Chandrahass Mishra was attacked by his landlord’s son in Meerut in July 2011 after he objected to lewd comments that the man was passing against women. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/MintPremium
Chandrahass Mishra was attacked by his landlord’s son in Meerut in July 2011 after he objected to lewd comments that the man was passing against women. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

What makes Chandrahass Mishra slightly unusual is not the jaunty hat on his head nor even the scars on his face caused by an acid attack.

What makes him unusual is his gender.

Although acid attacks are most often seen as a crime against women—the overwhelming majority of victims are young women and both the Justice Verma Commission and a report by the Law Commission note that acid attacks are usually a form of gender-based violence—a significant and increasing number of victims are men.

Statistics on the number of acid attacks in India, let alone their gender break-up, are hard to come by. Until the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, acid attacks were clubbed under a general section of offences that caused “grievous harm". But in response to a question asked in Parliament in December 2014, the home ministry confirmed 98 incidents of acid violence against women in 2011, 101 cases in 2012 and 80 in 2013.

This is a gross under-estimation because many cases go unreported for fear of reprisals, say activists. Moreover, it does not take into account the fact that men are victims too.

“Men constitute 35% of the total number of all victims," says Rahul Varma, national director and chief executive officer of NGO, Acid Survivors Foundation India. According to Varma, the number of acid attacks has been increasing steadily over the years: 80 victims in 2010, 106 each in 2011 and 2012, 122 in 2013 and 130 up to November 2014. These include both men and women.

According to Alok Dixit, a journalist who set up the campaign, Stop Acid Attacks in March 2013, 386 people were attacked with acid between 1 January 2013 and December 2014. Of these, 133 were men, he says.

Mishra says he was attacked by his landlord’s son in Meerut in July 2011 after he objected to lewd comments that the man was passing against women. “He was standing outside my gate, passing vulgar remarks against women who were passing by. I asked him to either stop or else move away," says Mishra.

The son responded by asking Mishra to behave “like a tenant and not a landlord". Mishra complained to the father and this seems to have enraged the son even further.

At 7.30pm on 7 July 2011, a day after the incident, Mishra closed his iron warehouse and got on his scooter to return home. That was when he saw the landlord’s son approach him with a bucket in his hand. When the son threw its contents on him, Mishra says, he thought it was water. It was hydrochloric acid. “I put my hands on my head and saw that all my hair had come off," he recalls.

By this time, Mishra was screaming in pain. Neighbours who tried to help him recoiled when they came into contact with the acid. Finally, it was his brother who took him to the local hospital. By the time he reached, one eye had already fused shut and his right ear had simply dissolved.

Enmity and property disputes are the main reasons why men are attacked, says Dixit. “Women are most often attacked by men they have rejected and are now seeking vengeance. With men, it tends to be jealousy or rivalry. The reasons are very different. But the trauma and the pain both suffer is the same," he says.

Agrees Varma: “Professional jealousy, property dispute, family and interpersonal disputes are often the reason why men are targeted."

Regardless of the gender of the victim, the perpetrators are nearly always men. A report of an acid attack on a male professor by a woman student in Andhra Pradesh in December 2014 is almost without precedent. The student is said to have attacked the professor with acid after he went back on a promise to marry her.

Very often, a single acid attack intentionally or unintentionally results in multiple victims, often just bystanders who happened to be there, says Dixit.

In January 2014, an acid attack by a business rival on Najim Husain in Bareilly district left nine other members of his family, including three women, injured. Although Husain suffered the worst injuries with 30% burns, treatment for the entire family resulted in a medical bill of close to 14 lakh, he says. Husain says he has received a compensation of only 5,000 so far.

Acid is a cheap and lethal weapon, easily available despite a 2013 Supreme Court order that places restrictions on its sale. An attacker can approach a victim on foot or on a motorcycle with what seems like a water bottle in hand. Most victims don’t initially realize that they have been doused with acid and report feeling something cold and wet, before the excruciating pain sets in.

In Saharanpur, Akash Panwar, a 29-year-old medical representative was returning home from work on the evening of 30 June 2013 on his motorcycle with a bag of nearly 3.5 lakh in cash. As he turned into the lane to his house, he saw a friend who shouted out to him. He stopped the bike and got off. That was when he saw his friend was not alone, but with an old rival. The two men were each holding a glass of liquid, which they poured on him.

“I began running. I thought I was on fire. Everything was burning. My mouth, my eyes, my face, my hands, my arms, the inside of my mouth. Then I fell," says Panwar.

The attack had been meticulously planned. The friend knew he would be returning with cash. The rival was jealous of his success, says Panwar. “I had got engaged the previous month. And this seems to have made him even more jealous. He just couldn’t stand the fact that everything was going so well for me," he adds.

Today, Panwar is trying to reconstruct his life after eight surgeries on his face. “The doctors say I still need to have six or seven more surgeries," he says. Neither he nor his family has received the 3 lakh financial compensation mandated by the Supreme Court order. The costs of the surgery have left the family with a bill of 15-16 lakh, says Panwar.

“I am trying to get a job, but with this face nobody wants to hire me," he says. Last month, Panwar says, he submitted a petition along with his doctor’s estimate of 5 lakh required for immediate medical treatment. “It’s been a month, but the file doesn’t seem to have moved." The district magistrate has told him that he is unaware of any Supreme Court order for compensation.

Yet, there is a silver lining. Panwar’s fiancé agreed to marry him despite the attack and she has been a “great source of support", he says.

Like Panwar, Mishra too found love, incredibly enough after the attack. In January 2014, he got married—an arranged match, he points out. “My family had received the proposal before the attack and my father-in-law came to see me in hospital. He said he would honour his word," says Mishra.

Perhaps one of the most glaring differences between male and female acid attack survivors lies in how they are viewed by the society. In patriarchal societies where a woman is judged by the way she looks, an acid attack leaves her bereft of almost all social support. Men, like Panwar and Mishra, still manage to marry and plan families.

There is a flipside, points out Dixit. Women victims tend to get more sympathy and, as a consequence, more funding. “When we’ve tried to raise money through crowd-funding for men, we often don’t manage to raise even 1," he says.

For a relationship with a woman he first met on Facebook, Aatif Bilal, 21, was attacked by acid in October 2012. “When I go to court, the judge is so rude not only to me, but also to my mother," he says. “On my last hearing I was so disheartened that I swore I would never step inside that court again. If my assailant goes scot-free, so be it."

Bilal says he accepted a Facebook friendship request from the woman, but “I never knew she was married with three children." Even when he finally met the woman in Bhopal where he lives, he had no inkling. It was when his mother went to the woman’s house with a marriage proposal that all hell broke loose, with the husband swearing vengeance. The acid attack followed 12 days later. The husband’s younger brother was arrested as the main accused.

“We keep getting threats and my brother was even fired upon recently," says Bilal. “There is nothing for me to do at home. I cannot get a job and I cannot run my business. I stay home all day and play with my brother’s children."

For both men and women survivors of acid violence, life becomes a messy tangle of medical treatment, legal cases and just struggling to survive. Victims battle physical and emotional trauma, and are often marginalized from society. Acid knows no gender, nor caste, nor religion. But to not recognize that men are victims too is to do injustice to the hundreds who suffer and struggle to survive.

“He didn’t want to kill me," says Mishra. “He only wanted to ruin my life."

This is the fourth part in the series.

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Published: 06 Jan 2015, 05:27 PM IST
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