Kiran Bedi. Photograph: Seamus Murphy
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The NS Interview: Kiran Bedi, social activist and former police chief

“My policing was nothing but activism – it had to be”

“My policing was nothing but .activism – it had to be”

Why did you decide to join the police force? You were the first woman in India to do so.
When I was growing up, government was the agent of change: it was a developing country. What was important was to make a difference.

Did you encounter sexism?
Yes, I encountered it even as a child - when I was a tennis player, we would get lesser expenses. [Bedi first became a national tennis champion in 1966.] The ladies' finals would be on court four but the boys would be on centre court.

Did you see yourself moving into activism?
My policing was nothing but activism - it had to be.

Was that challenging? I read that you were put on postings considered "undesirable".
I had a clear vision: if I take up an assignment I'll do full justice to it, otherwise I'll walk away. A lot of my PhD work and my book-writing came from that - when I thought it was time not to take up an assignment that was not worth it. That's the reason I took early retirement. It's good to go batting rather than be bowled out.

You campaign on a wide range of issues. If you had to pick one as the main problem facing India today, what would it be?
Corruption. If that is handled, governance will improve. When governance improves, there will be less have-nots and more haves. The corruption creates a lot of have-nots because it's their money which is being stolen. If India has a major problem today it's corruption. It's not shortage of money, it's siphoning of money - money that was supposed to be for infrastructure which benefits everybody: roads, bridges, schools, dispensaries, hospitals, communications, railways, airports, policing.

What would be next?
After corruption would be electoral reform. If you did just these two things, India will be a developed country within ten years. It will be able to deal with its billion-plus population well. If we clean up our act before the 2014 elections, and we can vote in better people who would deliver better governance, India would have better policies and services and address the growing aspirations of its youth - India is going to be one of the youngest countries in the world.

You were arrested for your anti-corruption work. What was it like being on the other side of the law?
The police were very kind, very decent. They wanted to withdraw the case; they wanted me to take bail and I said no, then they discharged me! They didn't know what to do with me.

How is the position of women in India?
Somewhere [sexism] is blatant and somewhere it's not visible and somewhere it's gone. You have a mixture of all the three. Rape is still a serious crime in India, eve-teasing [street harassment] is still a major crime, domestic violence is still a very serious issue. So is dowry; that still exists but it's also being fought. Legal systems are being put in place to deal with them and media awareness is also very high.

What are the main barriers to reform?
Corrupt politicians - there are quite a few politicians who have criminal records and still make it to the elected assemblies. In our electoral system, unless the person is convicted, he can still fight for the elections. We want a change, saying that if you are charged, you are barred from fighting elections.

What do you think about dynastic politics?
People are fed up. People are rebelling against it. In the coming election, either you perform or you perish.

What do you do to relax?
I sleep very well. I keep my morning walks, but I enjoy doing whatever I do. I do only what I like, so it doesn't stress me.

What's next?
The next two years, we are on to a mass anti-corruption movement and electoral reforms. A lot of travelling round the country, making people aware every vote is their responsibility.

Was there a plan?
There was no plan. The focus is what is right be­fore you - to give it your best. It sows the seeds of tomorrow.

Is religion a part of your life?
Oh yes. I believe in prayer. I believe in gratitude and serving people.

Is there anything you would rather forget?
There are no conscious blunders. When you stay alert, why would you run into trouble?

Do you vote?
Yes, of course.

Are we all doomed?
No, the outlook is better - we're making today better than yesterday. We're addressing it; we're not sulking, we're not depressed. We are upbeat. We believe we can be the change.

Defining Moments

1949 Born in Amritsar, India
1968 Gets BA in English from Government College for Women, Amritsar
1972 Becomes first woman to join the Indian Police Service
1993 Inspector general of Tihar, Asia's largest jail; implements reforms such as drug rehabilitation. PhD in social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
1994 Wins Ramon Magsaysay Award, also known as the Asian Nobel prize
2007 Takes early retirement from police

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism