GUWAHATI/ NEW DELHI (AFP/Reuters) - Indian authorities on Friday raced to provide help to hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in makeshift camps in the country’s northeast after deadly ethnic unrest.

The chief minister of far-flung Assam state, Tarun Gogoi, said the region was now calm after some 45 people were killed and at least 200,000 forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in camps set up by the government. “The situation has started improving. The priority is provide relief and rehabilitate the people who are now sheltered in the camps,” Gogoi told reporters in Assam’s largest city Guwahati.

His comments came as the national government dispatched medical teams to Assam where fighting broke out Friday last week between indigenous Bodo tribes and Muslim settlers over long-running land disputes.

Victims were beaten to death with sticks and houses were burned by roving mobs. Indian media quoted people in the camps as saying that they feared returning to their homes. “We are living in fear and we can’t even think about going back to our homes,” one woman, Bimla Basumatary, told India’s NDTV television network.

The chief minister described the violence as the worst crisis his government has faced. Gogoi said the New Delhi government was to blame for the escalation in violence because it failed to send troops immediately after the unrest erupted. “We didn’t have adequate security forces” to restore peace, Gogoi said.

Now at least 3,000 extra soldiers and paramilitary personnel are patrolling the region.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who represents Assam in the parliament’s upper house, was due to tour the conflict-hit districts on Saturday. Troops are under orders to “shoot-on-sight” anybody violating a curfew. 

Another report says nine years on, Sonali Mukherjee, 27, is appealing to the Indian government for medical support for skin reconstructive surgery as well as tougher penalties on her three assailants, who were released on bail after only three years in prison.

They came in the dead of night, broke into her home as she slept and poured a cocktail of acids over her face - burning her skin, melting her eyelids, nose, mouth and ears, and leaving her partially deaf and almost blind. Her crime? She had spurned their sexual advances.

Either that, she says, or authorities should give her the right to kill herself. Euthanasia is illegal in India.

“For the last nine years, I am suffering ... living without hope, without future. If I don’t have justice or my health, my only way out is to die,” she says, sitting on a bed in a sparsely furnished room above a Sikh temple in south Delhi. “I don’t want to live half a life, with half a face.” Sonali’s desperate plea highlights the heinous crime of throwing acid on women in India, the lack of support for victims, and lax laws which have allowed attackers to get away with what activists say is the equivalent of murder. Acid violence - where acid is intentionally thrown to maim, disfigure or blind - occurs in many countries across the world, and is most common in Cambodia, as well as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India where deep-rooted patriarchy persists.

Around 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, with 80 percent of them on women, says London-based charity, Acid Survivors Trust International, adding this is a gross under-estimate as most victims are scared to speak out. There is no official statistics for India, but a study conducted by Cornell University in January 2011 said there were 153 attacks reported in the media from 1999 to 2010. Many of these attacks, said the study, are acts of revenge because a woman spurns sexual advances or reject a marriage proposal. “These men feel so insulted that a woman could turn them down and have an attitude of ‘If I can’t have you, no one can’,” says Sushma Kapoor, deputy director for UN Women in South Asia.

With a bright future ahead of her, Sonali was a 17-year-old sociology student in the city of Dhanbad in India’s central state of Jharkhand when the attack happened back in April 2003.

The three men were her neighbors and harassed her as she left for college every morning. When she threatened to call the police, they took revenge, leaving her with 70 percent burns to her face, neck and arms.

An Indian court handed down nine-year jail terms to each of her attackers. But within three years, the men were out on bail. Her appeal against their release has yielded little results, says Sonali, and she continues to worry about her safety.

Unlike countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where acid violence has in recent years been listed as a specific offence, India still categorizes it as grievous hurt, dolling out penalties which are lenient and jail-terms which are bailable.

“The actual attack is just the start of a life of suffering. Most are disfigured and blind. They face years of physical and mental pain and need rehabilitation,” says Sushma Varma, founder of the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW), a Bangalore-based voluntary group.

“In most cases there is no help, no support, no money.”

With a rising number of reports of such attacks, the cabinet this month approved a proposal to make acid attacks a separate offence, making it punishable by 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 10 lakh rupees ($180,000). This will now have to be approved by parliament.

But victims and activists say the government must also look at regulating the sale of locally produced household cleaners, which contain highly concentrated acids, that are easily and cheaply available in local markets across the country.

Acids are increasingly being used as weapons, like guns, they say, but there are no licensing laws for those who sell and purchase these deadly chemicals which also include neat hydrochloric and sulphuric acids.

“You can buy highly concentrated chemicals like those used on me in most markets for less than 50 rupees a bottle,” says Sonali. “This is enough to ruin a woman’s life. They may not have killed me, but I might as well be dead.”