EVERY THURSDAY, Saturday and Monday, the Garib Rath Express reaches Bandra Terminus at 8.15 am. On 2 May, as she disembarked from the train, Preeti Rathi saw a Mumbai morning for the first time.
It was a moment she had dreamt of for the past four years. A moment that her father, 58-year-old Amar Singh Rathi, had prepared for since the day she was born. As she disembarked from the train — father, aunt and uncle in tow — she wasn’t just a 23-year-old from Delhi moving to a new city. She was the first generation of Amar Singh’s family, born in a village in Panipat, walking towards a hard-earned future as a Lieutenant Nurse at the INHS Asvini Hospital in Colaba.
The Rathis had walked along the platform for about 10 minutes, chattering excitedly when Preeti felt someone grab her bag, pulling her back. Turning around, mid-sentence, she felt what acid attack survivors have described as ‘liquid fire’ — flung on her face, into her mouth, burning a hole right through her throat and lungs.
At 8.35 in the morning, Mumbai’s Bandra Terminus is the centre of extreme chaos. On that Thursday, with men, women, children, trains — everyone jostling for attention, offering service, shouting advice, screaming bloody murder — it was difficult to hear anything over the din. It was harder still, for anyone who might have been present at the time — coolies, vendors, labourers — to remember a face, especially one that had been in Mumbai for all of 10 minutes before it melted away. “I remember someone running up to me to ask where the First Aid room was,” says Ganpathi Sathe, a coolie at the platform where Rathi disembarked, “but I didn’t know what it was for. Aaj kal bahut bura mahaul hai (things are bad these days),” he says before walking off.
Prior to the anti-rape laws that came into force this year, the National Crime Records Bureau did not record these attacks, as they failed to constitute a separate section of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Instead, acid attacks were diluted under other sections of the IPC— ranging from 307 (attempt to murder) to 320 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt through dangerous weapons). A newly established helpline for women in New Delhi, which functions out of the chief minister’s office, has recorded 56 cases of acid attacks in the Capital in the past three months. Uniformly, the victims were female, and helpline volunteers reported that 98 percent of the assailants were spurned suitors.
The brazenness of the crime was not new to Mumbai — on 3 February 2012, a young woman from Malwani was attacked with acid at Malad station. This was the third attempt on her life — the assailant had stabbed her face twice before. On both occasions, the local police station had refused to register a complaint.
“You have to find who it was and do exactly the same thing to him,” Amar Singh Rathi reads his deceased daughter’s notes over the phone. Until she finally succumbed to her injuries, Preeti was filled with rage at the stranger who had burnt her future. The acid she had ingested had caused a 2 cm hole through her windpipe. Her trachea, vocal cord and food pipe had been reduced to what her surgeons describe as “a soft burnt mass”. Preeti was first taken to Guru Nanak Hospital in Bandra, then shifted to Masina Hospital in Byculla three days later. On 19 May, by the time she was taken to Bombay Hospital in Churchgate, she had stopped communicating with her father entirely. Her last note read, “Can you afford my treatment?”
The day Preeti was born, Amar Singh Rathi had decided to bring her up exactly the way he would have raised a son. “Relatives would tell me to save money for her marriage, but I’d tell them, ‘She will marry when she chooses. I’m earning to educate her’,” he remembers. Rathi first moved to New Delhi with his wife and three children when Preeti was only five years old, determined to earn a better life for his children.
A foreman at the Bhakra Beas Management Board, due for retirement in nine months, Amar Singh had spent the last of his savings educating his children. While Preeti’s training as a nurse cost him 4 lakh (double the compensation that has been offered to him by the government of Maharashtra); her post at the naval hospital would have added a much-needed income of 40,000- 60,000 a month to the household of five that includes Rathi’s son, who is currently completing his final year of engineering, and Tanu, his youngest daughter in her first year of college.
A month later, Amar Singh has finally returned home to his surviving children. Compared to the pandemonium that followed Preeti’s death in Mumbai, and later at the protests that followed her body to Narela, her home, where her grieving family waits for justice — is silent.
The public demonstrations in Mumbai this week mirrored concerns raised at the protests in New Delhi last December. That an act of such brutality could occur in a bustling part of the city, during peak commercial hours, indicated a sense of impunity, a certitude that law enforcing agencies would inevitably fail to serve justice.
The new anti-rape laws have taken cognizance of acid attacks as a serious crime. With a minimum punishment of 10 years, the perpetrator can now also serve life sentence — depending on the victim’s physical state. In spite of this, Preeti’s attacker was not apprehended because of a series of blunders made by the primary investigation agency — the Railway Police, aided by an ineffectual state government. In spite of the revamped surveillance at Mumbai’s railway stations after 26/11, the Police lost out on crucial evidence because several of the CCTV cameras at Bandra Terminus were malfunctioning on 2 May. While Preeti communicated with her father initially, she never spoke to the police, who failed to contact her closest friends from school and at Batra Hospital, where she trained as a nurse. Following public pressure, the police arrested Pawan Gehlaun, a young man from Narela and a relative of one of Rathi’s neighbours. “I have filed an affidavit in court stating that they have arrested the wrong person,” says Rathi, “they are saying Preeti identified him, but she had lost her sight by then.”
For the past one month, Rathi and his family have drawn support from the members of Stop Acid Attacks (SAA), a rehabilitation group for survivors. Besides organising demonstrations and running a public awareness campaign, SAA has also appealed to Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil to license and monitor the sale of acid. “Currently, nitric, sulphuric and hydrochloric acid can be bought by the litre at your local motorcycle repair shop or jeweller,” says Alok Dixit, the group’s founder, “To my mind there is no worse crime — survivors of acid attacks suffer ostracisation from society; it is worse than victim blame, it is victim punishing.” On 1 June, the day Preeti died, several of SAA’s members were on a train to Mumbai, determined to meet Preeti and offer support to her family. One of these members, Pragya Singh, had found echoes of Preeti’s story in her own.
Ten days after her wedding, Singh was asleep on a train from New Delhi to Varanasi, dreaming of a happy future. She was still sleeping when a spurned suitor walked past, pouring acid on her face as revenge for rejection, burning her eyelids, lips, nostrils and scalp. Fortunately for Singh — her attacker was caught a day later. Her family could afford to get her surgeries worth 16 lakh, and provide all the therapy she needed. Despite the fact that Singh considers herself emotionally strong enough to offer assistance to other survivors, she kept her identity and whereabouts hidden for years — until Preeti’s death. “The man who attacked me was let off after four years. I feared that he would come looking for my family,” she says. On the train ride to Mumbai, Singh says she realised she, and survivors like her, could no longer hide in the shadows.
In the meantime, walking in broad daylight, are Preeti’s attacker and hundreds of other young men — their pockets filled with liquid fire.