Updated: Jan 19
The concepts of “hurt” and “grievous hurt” are discussed in vivid detail under Sections 319-338 of the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”, 1860). There is a multitude of ways in which simple or grievous hurt can be inflicted upon a person, due to which the IPC has broadly classified these offences into many divisions such as hurt or grievous hurt caused by dangerous weapons or dangerous means, to extort property, on provocation, by means of poison, to extort confession or compel restoration of property, to deter public servant, and so on. However, in this article, the author focuses on the specific case of causing grievous hurt using nitric or sulphuric acid. This paper aims to critically analyse the current provisions on the prevention of acid attacks and the treatment, aftercare, and protection of the victims of acid attacks in India.
Acid attacks are a type of gender-based violence against women in which a perpetrator throws corrosive acid, generally on her face, with the intention to cause or with the knowledge that such an act will likely cause grievous hurt to the victim. While acid attacks could be perpetrated against anyone regardless of their gender, in India, the victims of acid attacks are young women of marriageable age. The most common causes include rejection of a marriage proposal, unwillingness to engage in a romantic relationship, and withdrawal from a current relationship. In the context of domestic violence, it is often used by “aggrieved” husbands to seek revenge in cases where the dowry provided by the wife’s family is unsatisfactory, where she refuses to have sexual intercourse or is allegedly involved in extra-marital affairs. The inability to deal with rejection at the hands of women, further stoked by patriarchy and toxic masculinity, makes these men retaliate in the most vicious and devastating way possible, by hurling acid at women. One can hence say that envy and vengeance are the major catalysts in the occurrence of such offences. Here, it can be observed that in most cases, the accused’s motive is never to cause the victim’s death but to deliberately disfigure and alter her face and body. In a country where a woman’s physical appearance is constantly subjected to public scrutiny, damaging her physical appearance has disastrous consequences for her societal status and acts as a huge deterrent against the prospects of the victim’s marriage, employment, and relationships. The “disgrace” often associated with an acid attack tarnishes her reputation even further because, in Indian households, any attacks on women are seen more like a dent in the family’s honour instead of an issue concerning their safety.
What is more perplexing is that there were no clear provisions in place before 2013 to determine the number of acid attack cases since it was not recognised as a punishable offence under the IPC. Acid attacks were later prosecuted as an offence under several sections of the IPC. Only an estimate of the number of such incidents was available. It was only after the adoption of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in 2013 that Sections 326A and B (devising specific offences of causing bodily harm by using acid), Section 114B, and Sections 357A, B and C were added to the IPC, the Indian Evidence Act,1872 and the Code of Criminal Procedure,1973 (“CrPC”) respectively, because of the Supreme Court’s directions in Laxmi v Union of India and Others.
Section 326A of the IPC imposes a minimum of 10 years' imprisonment, with the possibility of the sentence getting extended to life imprisonment, and a fine for causing permanent or partial damage, deformity, burns, maiming, disfigurement, disability, or grievous hurt as a consequence of an acid attack. The fine must be equitable and reasonable to cover the medical costs of treatments. Any fine imposed under this Section must be paid to the person on whom acid was thrown or administered, in addition to any compensation awarded to the victim. Furthermore, Section 326B of the IPC imposes a minimum sentence of 5 years, which can be increased to 7 years, as well as a fine for throwing or trying to hurl or administer acid with the intention of causing the aforementioned injuries to the victim. It is crucial to note that the two sections do not necessitate the injuries sustained to be grievous in nature or degree. Sections 326A and 326B can be used even if the injuries are minor, as evidenced in Maqbool v State of Uttar Pradesh. Additionally, under Section 114B of the Indian Evidence Act, a person throwing or attempting to throw acid is presumed to have both knowledge and intention to cause injury to another person.
Also, according to Section 357A of the CrPC, also known as the Victim Compensation Scheme, each State Government, in collaboration with the Central Government, shall prepare a scheme for providing funds for the compensation of the victim or their dependents who have suffered loss or injury as a result of the crime and who require rehabilitation. The section also specifies a thorough protocol for determining the amount of compensation to be given to victims and the mode of distribution to be used. Following that, Section 357B emphasises that the compensation provided by the State Government under Section 357A is in addition to the payment of a fine to the victim under Sections 326A or 376D of the IPC. Furthermore, under Section 357C of the CrPC, all public and private hospitals run by the Central Government, State Governments, local bodies, or any other person must immediately provide free first-aid or medical treatment to victims of any offence mentioned in Sections 326A, 376, 376A, 376B, 376C, 376D, or 376E of the IPC, and must immediately notify the police of such incidents.
However, it is important to recognise that the amount of compensation paid in the form of these stipulated fines is insufficient to guarantee their treatment and rehabilitation. In this regard, the Supreme Court in the landmark judgement of Parivartan Kendra v Union of India and Others highlighted that the compensation amount of Rs. 3 Lakhs issued by the Supreme Court in Laxmi v Union of India and Others was grossly inadequate, especially considering that the survivor had sustained major injuries on her body and that the order is not restrictive in deciding the compensation amount. Consequently, the Court ordered the Bihar government to pay Rs. 10 lakhs to the acid attack victim and Rs. 3 lakhs to her sister (as she too suffered from a few injuries as a result of the attack). The Court also ordered all states and union territories to assess the situation of such victims and make suitable efforts to include their names under the disability list.
Another key aspect of the 2013 Laxmi case was that the Supreme Court ordered State Governments and Union Territories to develop adequate guidelines for the sale of acid. It also instructed governments to enact rigorous restrictions on the retail sale of acid, classifying it as a "poison" under the Poisons Act of 1919. The Court, in prohibiting the sale of acid to minors, stated that the corrosive chemical may only be sold to people who have legitimate identity cards provided by the government, and only after indicating the reason for the purchase in writing. The Court also required all states to develop specific principles for the sale of acid, as well as for the payment of compensation and the provision of free medical care to victims of acid attacks, and to notify the Court by April 2014. The judgement further directed the respective states to ensure that, immediately after filing an FIR about an acid attack incident, every police station must notify the appropriate Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), who would then enquire how the acid was obtained by the attacker.
Even after the existence of legislation and amendments in existing provisions, it is unfortunate that acid attacks remain to be a prevalent atrocity as acids are easy to obtain. Since acids are used in so many sectors and occupations, it is impossible to totally prohibit their sale; nonetheless, restriction of acid sales is an absolute necessity to prevent it from being used as a potent weapon at the hands of offenders. In order to govern the sale of acid and other caustic chemicals, the Model Poisons Possession and Sale Rules were enacted in 2013 under the Poisons Act, 1919. Section 5 of the Poisons Act, 1919 states that any material that is listed as a poison in a regulation established or notification issued under this Act is regarded to be a poison for the same purpose. Certain acids are declared poisons in the schedule to the Model Poisons Possession and Sale Rules, 2013, and their sales and possession must be regulated in accordance with the Poisons Act, 1919, and the rules enacted pursuant to Section. Anyone discovered selling acids in contravention of the Model Rules on Possession and Sales of Acids, 2013, will face imprisonment for one month for a first offence and a period of up to six months for any succeeding offences.
Notwithstanding the legal and judicial restrictions, acid is still easily available for purchase and the crimes are still on a rise. Acid attacks shorten a victim's life to the point of death. Hence, the mere passing of legislation is not a solution. Proper implementation is the need of the hour, as is prompt and stringent action against defaulters. Other nations that have seen a high frequency of acid attacks have successfully enforced a complete prohibition on the sale of acid. Cambodia established an Acid Control Law in 2011, and according to Articles 5 and 8, unless a person has a licence or letter issued by a competent authority, they are not permitted to buy, sell, use, store, distribute, transport, or import acid. Similarly, Bangladesh established an Acid Crime Prevention Act in 2002 to restrict acid sales throughout its territory, and the measure has been widely praised around the world. Such attempts have also been made in India, with the introduction of the Prevention of Acid Attacks and Rehabilitation of Acid Attack Victims Bill in 2017. It attempted to offer measures to avoid acid attacks, such as restricting the sale, supply, and usage of acid, amongst other things. It also suggested measures to rehabilitate victims and other connected issues. This law states that no one shall be permitted to sell, distribute, or transport acid unless they have a correct record of their name, the amount of acid involved, and the reason for which it is to be used. It also increases the maximum sentence for acid assaults under Section 326B of the IPC to ten years in jail. However, the bill has still not been passed. The enactment of such a bill could pave the way for the prevention of these offences in a more efficient manner.
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