SRINAGAR: As the hazy winter morning waits for sunshine, a group of young girls huddle in a quiet corner of their empty classroom. A charcoal heater gathers them in a neat circle. As the ambers burn, their faces flush, their eyes sparkle with tears.

On December 11, 2014, their friend and classmate, Snober Hameed (name changed), was attacked with acid outside her college in Tawheedabad, Soura, on the outskirts of Srinagar. The 21-year-old was on her way to the Kashmir Law College when two car-borne men threw acid on her face. Known for her big eyes, long lashes and a “doll like” face, Snober, today, lies in a lonely hospital bed in faraway Chennai, where doctors are working to restore her eyesight. The corrosive liquid has melted a portion of her face. The long lashes are gone.

On December 19, 2014, even as people were trying to overcome the shock of the December 11 acid attack, the decaying body of a 20-year-old village girl was found in a paddy field near the railways tracks of Nowgam village. The deceased, Zareena Akhtar from Wanpura Village in Pulwama district, worked in a pencil factory to help her father run the house. On November 26, while returning home after hours, Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, a truck driver who also happened to be her distant relative, offered her a lift. Zareena never reached home. Her anxious father, Mohammad Ramzan Bhat, called her co-workers who told him about Zahoor and how he insisted on dropping her home. Next day, Ramzan filed a complaint with the police.

“We were provided some leads by the eye witnesses, including some girls who were working with the deceased. When we arrested Zahoor Ahmad he revealed that he had kidnapped the girl, then raped and killed her,” shares Tejinder Singh, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Pulwama.

Zareena’s body was found 23 days after her abduction, leaving her family in shock and despair.

Gender crimes in Kashmir have shown a steep rise over the past few years, with the year 2014 being the worst. According to statistics available with the J&K police’s Crime Branch, 378 rape cases were registered in the state in 2013 while the 2012 figure was 303. Similarly, molestation cases registered in 2013 went up by 67 cases – from 1,322 in 2012 to 1,389. Though the official figures for 2014 are yet to come, the year has seen some bone-chilling incidents come to light.

Professor A.S. Bhat, principal of Kashmir Law College, where Snober is enrolled, stresses on ensuring timely punishment of the culprits, “Attacks like these are often associated with stigma and a blot on the reputation of the victim and her family. She has been a topper at my college; I don’t want her identity to be lost.”

He adds, “Unless and until the criminals are given a stringent sentence and that too publicly, such crimes are unlikely to stop.” The professor cites the example of the acid attack on January 2, 2014, in which a 28-year-old school teacher was gravely injured.

She was attacked by a man, Riyaz Ahmad Nath, in Baghat, Srinagar, after she turned down his marriage proposal. The teacher now lives with a disfigured face and impaired vision. Nath’s 10 year imprisonment certainly did not serve as a deterrent for Snober’s assailants.

Moreover, in cases of acid attack what makes it easy for miscreants to commit the crime is the fact that it is cheap and readily available in the open market. Although the Supreme Court of India has given a ruling to regulate the sale of acid on July 16, 2013, over the counter sale of the deadly substance continues unabated.

In fact, in 2013, the central government, too, has passed a law to regulate the sale of acid by declaring it a poison under the Poison Act 1919. This means that shops would need a license to sell it and the buyer, not younger than 18, would require to submit a photo identity card to the seller. Yet, “buying acid is as easy as buying Coke. Laws are only on paper,” says Haroon Ahmad, a graduate student.

Stop Acid Attack (SAA), a Delhi-based group working with survivors, has counted more than 200 attacks ever since the law has been passed. Most attacks are aimed at young women in public places and more than half of them occur in revenge for the refusal of marriage proposals or sexual advances.

In the Kashmir Valley, torn by decades of war, crimes as sensitive as rape and murder often become fodder for political debates and mudslinging.

Snober’s friends and family have been receiving dozens of condemnation statements from different political and separatist parties that are engaged in blame games to gain an edge over each other. “How long will people play politics on this incident? When will we see justice?” asks Naziya, Snober’s friend and classmate, as she breaks down.

In the light of the ever increasing rate of crimes against women the public at large is anxious as well. Abdul Majeed Bhat, a government employee from downtown Srinagar and the father of a teenage girl, says he is “saddened” to see how authorities are ignoring these warnings, “It is not easy to be father of a girl nowadays. Every year, we witness something worse than before. It is very unfortunate that the authorities do not learn anything from past incidents.”

Meanwhile, inside the Kashmir Law College premises, fear and anxiety has taken a toll on the psyche of young girls. Many of them remain absent and those who come are accompanied by their parents. The girls leave the college in groups, holding each others’ hands and praying for their safety. “If this can happen to Snober, it can happen to anyone of us,” remarks Saba, a student.

Snober’s father, Abdul Hameed, had wanted his daughter to become a lawyer. Hameed, who has studied law from Kashmir University, was unable to realise his childhood dream of practicing the law when some domestic obligations came in the way. He was waiting for the day Snober would don the black cloak and fight for justice.

Three months ago, an accident left Hameed bedridden and he was forced to shut his shop, his only source of income. On December 11, when someone came rushing to inform him about the incident, he struggled to stand up to go to his daughter. His wife, unable to make sense of anything, fainted. Snober’s brother, her only sibling, studies in Saudi Arabia. “Their situation is awful. Her father is helpless and her brother has been called from Saudi to take her around for treatment,” says Beenish Naaz, Snober’s closest friend.

The last time Beenish had visited her at a hospital in Srinagar, Snober had asked her how much damage the acid had done to her face. “I lied to her,” she cries. Whereas stories like these, of heinous crimes being perpetrated against girls and women, continue to pour in from all corners of India, will the New Year be any different for the other half?

( Women's Feature Service)