Supreme Court Frowns on Leniency Towards Acid Attackers

Acid attacks, particularly on women are not unheard of in our country. The horrific stories of survivors have shocked the conscience of the nation again and again. Families are often driven to bankruptcy in supporting recovery costs. The Indian penal Code was modified in 2013 for the first time to add two more sections- 326 A and 326 B- for prosecuting and punishing those found guilty of acid attacks. Acid attack is possibly the worst infliction on another human – leading to complete debilitation, loss of income and opportunity, and even social sequestration and it can happen to anyone, at any time.

The factors which allow such attacks are anger, frustration and pre-disposition to sociopathic traits like violence and societal chauvinism. 85% of the victims of acid attacks are women and 41% of attacks have been from spurned lovers.Almost all acid attacks focus on the face. There’s no return from the scars that result from that. A face may not be critical to survival, but it is essential to social survival and that’s what attackers prey on.

Horrible cases of such attacks of the pre- amendment periods are still being dealt with under section 326 because amended laws are always applicable prospectively. However, it is because of the proactive attitude of the High Courts and the Supreme Court that the society and the governments have become sensitive towards victims. Last week, the Supreme court of India ruled in ‘Revada Sasikala vs State of Andhra Pradesh and another’, which has been hanging fire in different courts for the last more than a decade observed that: “It is completely unacceptable that concept of leniency can be conceived of in such a crime. A crime of this nature does not deserve any kind of clemency. It is individually as well as collectively intolerable. The respondent might have felt that his ego had been hurt by such a denial of the proposal or he might have suffered a sense of hollowness to his exaggerated sense of honour or might have been guided by the idea that revenge is the sweetest thing that one can be wedded to when there is no response to the unrequited love but, whatever may be the situation, the criminal act, by no stretch of imagination, deserves any leniency or mercy. The respondent might not have suffered emotional distress by the denial, yet the said feeling could not be converted into vengeance to have the licence to act in a manner like he has done.

The factual matrix of the case is that a woman Sasikala after her Intermediate course had accompanied her brother to Amalapuram of East Godavari District where he was working as an Assistant Professor in B.V.C. Engineering College, Vodalacheruvu and stayed with him about a week prior to the occurrence. Thereafter, she along with her brother went to his native place Sompuram. At that time, the elder brother of the accused proposed a marriage alliance between the accused and the appellant for which her family expressed unwillingness. In the morning of 25th May 2003 when the appellant Sasikala after bath had put a towel on her head to dry the accused respondent poured a bottle of acid over her head.

As a result of it, some part of her body was disfigured and the disfiguration is due to the acid attack. The sentence of imprisonment and fine imposed on the convict was reduced by the High Court because it showed misplaced sympathy and that is where the Supreme Court has come down heavily and said, ‘in view of what we have stated, the approach of the High Court shocks us and we have no hesitation in saying so. When there is medical evidence that there was an acid attack on the young girl and the circumstances having brought home by cogent evidence and the conviction is given the stamp of approval, there was no justification to reduce the sentence to the period already undergone. We are at a loss to understand whether the learned Judge has been guided by some unknown notion of mercy or remaining oblivious of the precedents relating to sentence or for that matter, not careful about the expectation of the collective from the court, for the society at large eagerly waits for justice to be done in accordance with law, has reduced the sentence. When a substantive sentence of thirty days is imposed, in the crime of present nature, that is, acid attack on a young girl, the sense of justice, if we allow ourselves to say so, is not only ostracised but also unceremoniously sent to “Vānaprastha”. It is wholly impermissible.’

Therefore, the court said: We are compelled to set aside the sentence imposed by the High Court and restore that of the trial court. In addition to the aforesaid, we are disposed to address on victim compensation. We are of the considered opinion that the appellant is entitled to compensation that is awardable to a victim under the CrPC.

The Supreme Court citing the Shyam Narain vs the State of Delhi said that: “the fundamental purpose of imposition of sentence is based on the principle that the accused must realise that the crime committed by him has not only created a dent in the life of the victim but also a concavity in the social fabric. The purpose of just punishment is designed so that the individuals in the society which ultimately constitute the collective do not suffer time and again for such crimes. It serves as a deterrent. The Court further observed that on certain occasions, opportunities may be granted to the convict for reforming himself but it is equally true that the principle of proportionality between an offence committed and the penalty imposed are to be kept in view. It has to be borne in mind that while carrying out this complex exercise, it is obligatory on the part of the court to see the impact of the offence on the society as a whole and its ramifications on the immediate collective as well as its repercussions on the victim.”

Earlier also in a catena of cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that: “In operating the sentencing system, the law should adopt the corrective machinery or deterrence based on factual matrix. The facts and given circumstances in each case, the nature of the crime, the manner in which it was planned and committed, the motive for commission of the crime, the conduct of the accused, the nature of weapons used and all other attending circumstances are relevant facts which would enter into the area of consideration. The Court ruled ‘we also reiterate that undue sympathy to impose inadequate sentence would do more harm to the justice dispensation system to undermine the public confidence in the efficacy of the law. It is the duty of every court to award proper sentence having regard to the nature of the offence and the manner in which it was executed or committed. The courts must not only keep in view the rights of the victim of the crime but also the society at large while considering the imposition of appropriate punishment.’

The Court further held that if the proper sentence is not awarded, the fundamental grammar of sentencing is guillotined and the law does not tolerate it; society does not withstand it, and sanctity of conscience abhors it. The law can hunt one’s past cannot be allowed to be buried in an indecent manner and the rainbow of mercy, for no fathomable reason, should be allowed to rule. The conception of mercy has its own space but it cannot occupy the whole accommodation.

Here it must be mentioned that despite regulations introduced by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India for the sale of acids, which among other things, says that in the retail sale it must be so diluted that does not have any corrosive effects on humans but the fact is that it is easily available. Availability of acids depends on usage. The organised sector – fertiliser and other heavy industries – are mostly under the regimented control system, so leakage or misappropriation, although feasible, are not too common.

The unorganised sector, on the other hand, in lieu of the large migrant and rural population in these sections, have a myriad of acids abundant depending on the industry. Gem and jewellery business – a prime consumer of acids thrives on mostly migrant workers who therefore have access. Paints and household cleaners remain another easy source to avail. The police force is understaffed to go after the numerous shops selling acids as household cleaners or cleaners with acid above permissible levels.

Most victims lose the motivation to pursue the fight after the initial months pass as the irreversibility of their condition become apparent to them. Hopelessness and depression sink in replacing anger and motivation for justice, lowering further the rate of prosecution and conviction of assailants.

Hence, the primary responsibility lies on the government to strictly implement the rules and regulations. At the same time, the conscientious section of the society must spread awakening on such deleterious evils and crimes. Last but not the least, the courts must not show leniency towards criminals as the Supreme Court has often observed in its judgments.

People often ask, why do our conscience as a nation need to be shocked again and again, with multiple faces over so many years, leaving us vulnerable to such a cruel and destructive crime?