Twenty-seven-year-old Sonali Mukherjee has been running from pillar to post for the past nine years fighting for justice. She was attacked with acid when she spurned the advances of three men in her neighbourhood in her village in Dhanbad, the capital of Jharkhand. However, nine years on, justice still eludes her and her perpetrators remain scot free. Sonali, meanwhile, has demanded euthanasia to help end her struggle as her family finds it hard to finance her medical expenses.
The key question is whether the law is too weak to help acid attack victim Sonali. CNN-IBN Deputy Editor Sagarika Ghose took up the big question with a distinguished panel on her show Face The Nation.
Sagarika Ghose: Good evening, we're focusing on the plight Sonali Mukherjee, a victim of an acid attack. The 26-year-old Sonali was sprayed with acid nine years ago by three men when she resisted sexual abuse, and because she refused them, they threw acid on her. She is today totally disfigured, blind and partially deaf, her family has lost everything for her treatment. She has got no compensation, no justice, she has been robbed of her life, but her attackers are out on bail. How can we all help Sonali Mukherjee, how can the horrifying reality of acid attacks be tackled by our society? She and her father have been running from pillar to post for 9 long years, her mother is in depression.
Sonali Mukherjee, victim of acid attack, Chandi Das Mukherjee, Sonali Mukherjee's father, Aparna Bhat, lawyer, SC, counsel for the Delhi Commission for Women, Dr Sunil Choudhary, Director, Aesthetic & Reconstructive Surgery, Max Health Care, Sushma Varma, founder member, Campaign and Struggle against Acid Attacks on Women. Now already one doctor has come forward to help Sonali. Dr Anant Sinha, plastic surgeon from Dev Kamal in Ranchi. He said he is willing to help Sonali free of charge.
Anant Sinha: We have been handling chemical burns of the face cases also. On an average three months we get these cases and also of acid being thrown on the face. Sonali is one of them. I have seen her picture, I haven’t been able to see her in person but I have seen her picture and we are confident that we can make her look acceptable. She first has to have a desire to live, if she have the proper feeling to live then only she can contribute to my hospital and can get a proper salary and job. She herself being a victim can handle patient better then anybody in my hospital. We have never failed in any of the cases so far. In fact we have been looking at one of the cases in the morning itself, and I am very confident that with my surgical skill and my hospital staff she will have a desire to live.
Sagarika Ghose: That’s Dr Anant Sinha from Ranchi saying he can treat Sonali free of charge and give her a job in his hospital as well. Now, behind me you can see pictures of what Sonali was like, she was a sweet and pretty girl and now what has become of her. Sonali is seeking justice and is the law far too weak in dealing with crimes against women? Sonali thank you very much for coming to our studio, we have seen your previous pictures, you were very pretty, very sweet and if god’s willing you’ll again be like that. Please tell us what right now you are going through?
Sonali Mukherjee: I am in a lot of pain, I have gone through 20 to 22 surgeries so far. My treatment have been for so long that I have become so weak. My BP stays low, I have breathing problems, can’t hear from one ear, can’t see from my eyes. Thank you very much for bring me here and giving me a platform to share my problem.
Sagarika Ghose: And right now what are you seeking?
Sonali Mukherjee: I want justice from the government for that I have gotten support from you people. These incident should be stopped so that no other Sonali’s life is ruined. Secondly, I want you and from your viewers to help me financially, I need your help. My family is on the road now, I cannot explain in words. I want to say this to you all so that I can take this fight forward.
Sagarika Ghose: Please help me, I am helpless and my family has no money for my treatment, that is the cry from Sonali. Sonali please tell us a little bit about the incident, what happened with you that night?
Sonali Mukherjee: There were three boys, for more than a year and half there used torture me, they used to make comments, follow me, and this went on for a long time. Then one day I opposed them and told them to stop this otherwise I have to take some legal action. I warned them. And they said to me that you have so much attitude, you think you are very beautiful, we’ll do that with you that you’ll never be able to show your face to anyone. I didn’t took their threatening very seriously but I didn’t knew that they were planning this very seriously. And one night of April 22, 2003 we were sleeping on the terrace, I was very tired from my schedule, they came up around 2 am and threw acid on me and burned me completely from which I immediately lost my eye sight and got 72 per cent body burns.
Sagarika Ghose: Before this incident what kind of life were you living? You were a NCC cadet, you were beautiful, you used to study in college. Please tell us.
Sonali Mukherjee: I had a lot of dreams, there was a lot of energy in me, I wanted to study further, my father was teaching me with his low income, his dreams were attached to my dreams, I wanted to do something in the field of study. I wanted to do PhD. But today my life is in dark and failure is so deep that I have no desire of living.
Sagarika Ghose: Sonali you said that you don’t have any desire to live, why you said that?
Sonali Mukherjee: My nine year struggle is so painful that I hurts so much to say that there is no support from the society and the government, we have got no support. After seeing all this I feel so bad that we belong to a state where there is no help. What will happen of me, what I have to do to live like this where there is no one to hear my cries. So I feel like dying.
Sagarika Ghose: No, don’t say that. You have a lot of courage in you. Chandi Das Mukherjee, you are Sonali’s father, tell us those who are out on bail, who are the accused, they have threatened you, what kind of a state are you in?
Chandi Das Mukherjee: They always say that the law is I their pockets.
Sagarika Ghose: Who say that?
Chandi Das Mukherjee: Relatives of the accused. Since the day this incident happened I have lost all my property.
Sagarika Ghose: How much have you spent on Sonali’s treatment?
Chandi Das Mukherjee: I have got help from my in-laws then I sold my farms and then everything.
Sagarika Ghose: What doctors say now? Will she see again?
Chandi Das Mukherjee: Doctors told me to go to Chennai then when I went to Chennai there the doctors said that it will cost you a lot, they have to change the cornea.
Sagarika Ghose: Rs 10 to 15 lakhs is what Sonali needs to get her eye sight back. Let’s help Sonali because she was a young and talented woman, she was driven. So my courage that now she speaking and her life is simply ruined because she rebuffed sexual abuse. Dr Sunil Choudhary you have seen her condition, you have seen her now, can her condition be set right?
Sunil Choudhary: The first thing that I tell every patient is that there is always hope. It’s a slow process because you know the deformities are large but at the same there is something that can be done to make her look acceptable to make her look human again. If someone asks me the question that if she could get the same looks that she had before then the answer would be no. But if somebody asks me if she can be made to look human then the answer would be a qualified yes.
Sagarika Ghose: She is so brave, she’s got courage that she is speaking, she is so much human spirit shining through her that it is such a tragedy that it happened to her. Let me come to you Aparna, is there such a vacuum in the law, she is speaking that her life is ruined and her attacker are out on bail after simply three years.
Aparna Bhat: There is a huge vacuum in the law. We have been hearing such identical cases, she’s completely disfigure, she has to cover herself in veil and come to court and her perpetrators. I went to this trial and people so easily get bail in acid attack cases. Either it is in grievous hurt, I don’t know what comes under her case.
Sagarika Ghose: What’s the punishment for grievous hurt?
Aparna Bhat: 10 years. But the fact is it is taken by district magistrate. At the time bail application the judge is not aware, it is only when he comes to face to face with the victim then only he realises the gravity of the offence. If you put acid attack as a separate case then the judge will be aware immediately and will be careful about granting bail.
Sagarika Ghose: So there is a need for a separate acid attack section.
Aparna Bhat: At least an amendment in the appeal court so that it deals with the acid attack separately. So the judges will be more careful in granting bail and I am sure Sonali will share the same thought as I do.
Sagarika Ghose: And what about the compensation? Does the judicial mind really have to bend itself towards compensation? Because she hasn’t received any compensation from the state and the from the attacker, I mean he has to sell his land and his fields in order to pay for her medical treatment.
Aparna Bhat: Compensation is necessary for them to get back to where they were. In 2009, there was a CRPC wherein all victims of crime were suppose to get compensation and many states had to form a scheme for them to get that compensation. Unfortunately states haven’t come forward with that scheme. So now what happens is that there is a section under the law but there is no corpus created and if I as a victim go to a court and apply that give me money and in that section there is no money. So you have to put in the money first. And these are non-comparable issues if you compare with the fact that the acid is available so easily. I can look at Sonali now or any other victim and say that they rather have time when they were attacked, they rather hadn’t been attacked. What is the benefit of the treatment, job when they are attacked? When there was an opportunity for them not to be attacked.
Sagarika Ghose: So prevent acid to be made so freely available. Let’s quote what the Supreme Court has said, “It’s a matter of concern that the acid is available so easily. The centre and the state government must take action so that the acid is regulated and is not available as freely to the offenders.” Sonali, have you got any compensation from centre or state government or from the attackers?
Sonali Mukherjee: No ma’am not yet. I have got no help from anywhere.
Sagarika Ghose: So all the spending you have done is by yourself?
Sonali Mukherjee: Rs 8 to 9 lakhs and all that my father saved for my marriage all that had to be sold off.
Sagarika Ghose: Isn’t this shocking a woman have acid thrown on her, her life ruined and she gets no compensation from the state or the centre, in fact she had to sold her land and everything to pay for her treatment. Let’s hear it from Sushma Varma, is this a common pattern you are seeing here that the acid attack is tied up to sexual assault where there are men throwing acid on women when she rebuffs their sexual advances.
Sushma Varma: Yes, we have seen here that this attack is a gender sexual violence and there is a pattern here. We can also say it is a systematic women violence. Acid is used to negate a woman’s body, it is a way to negate her right. You know women’s movement is fighting for women’s right and as soon as a woman exercises her right then she gets a backlash out of it. And we have seen cases like Sonali where they have been denied basic rights, basic medical facilities, legal rights.
Sagarika Ghose: Why are they denying? Is it simply because the government and the courts are simply apathetic?
Sushma Varma: Yes they don’t take it seriously. Even we have to file a PIL here in Karnataka and it is still pending and is still going on. They have issued an interim report to the state government to have some kind of a rehabilitation measure and we got Rs 2 lakhs to be given to these victims and offered jobs and homes to them, and still that has not been implemented.
Sagarika Ghose: Chandi Das Mukherjee I want to ask if you have to challenge this bail would like to challenge it in Delhi?
Chandi Das Mukherjee: Yes absolutely.
Sagarika Ghose: Would you be able to help him?
Aparna Bhat: I’ll talk to him after the show.
Sagarika Ghose: Can you tell us what recourse that there is in the law.
Aparna Bhat: One, I have not seen the papers. If she they have got bail and she has been threatened the right thing to get done is apply for the cancellation of the bail. And since he is saying that has been done then you can come to the Supreme Court and challenge on what ground they have been granted bail.
Sagarika Ghose: Sushma Varma have there ever been any conviction in acid attack case or is this simply a crime that has happened all these years and have gone unpunished?
Sushma Varma: When we took up the campaign only then it came out to the media and as a pressure to the government and the courts. And we can see Hasina’s case when the Karnataka High Court gave the landmark judgement where it granted life term to the convict as well as Rs 5 lakh compensation to be paid. Even in the lower courts they have been giving life term to the convicts. But I would like to make a point here, most of the convicts are not in the position to pay the monetary compensation.
Sagarika Ghose: So what advice would you like to give Sonali Mukherjee and Chandi Das?
Sushma Varma: I think the best thing is that the government should come forward and help them. We have been putting pressure on the government to come out with the remedies and address whatever complaints that the victims have.
Sagarika Ghose: Dr can she be given free treatment? Can doctors like you volunteer and give her free treatment like Dr Sinha has volunteered because she is not getting compensation from anyone.
Sunil Choudhary: Absolutely, we treat a lot of underprivileged patient all the time.