One of the very gruesome sights is the face of an acid victim, i.e. generally the face of a female who has had raw acid thrown on her face. Gruesome it may seem for an onlooker’s sight but actually gruesome it is for the victim. Apart from the initial shock of having pieces of flesh melt away with excruciating pain, the horror of not being able to do anything about it instantly, by which time most of the damage is done, she is left to discover for herself slowly, what she has lost in body, mind and soul.
What is wrong with Indian society that takes such acid attacks lightly? It permits the perpetrator of such a wanton act as acid throwing, scot free or with some light sentence that is laughable considering the intensity of the crime and the damage caused to the victim’s body and the scars left on her soul for life.
But heartening it is to note that despite the crime perpetrated on them, some souls have had the courage to fight back and become an inspiration for other acid attack victims as well – to not stay a victim for the rest of one’s life but continue with determination and lead a life of courage thereon.
Laxmi Agarwal – an acid attack survivor, the director of Chhanv Foundation
When 15, Laxmi Agarwal was like any young and beautiful girl having big dreams and a life of possibilities before her. When she did not respond to the advances of a 32 year old man, he along with his girl friend, threw her on the ground and threw acid on her face. She screamed for help, received none from a watching public that just ran helter skelter and lost most of her face, ears and both arms were scarred black. Plastic surgery was a far cry with the costs involved and she being the daughter of a chef with hardly any income could not even remotely think of it.
Today she is the director of Chhanv Foundation, an NGO dedicated to help survivors of acid attacks in India, based in New Delhi. She knows the agony of an acid victim, has collected 27000 signatures against acid attacks and submitted to the Home Ministry as well as petitioned the Supreme Court which did lead to the Court’s judgment to regulate acid sales across the country and to prosecute those involved in this heinous act.
In 2014, Laxmi Agarwal received a 2014 International Women of Courage Award by US First Lady, Michelle Obama, a laudable achievement and an encouraging gesture that has inspired the younger generation to reflect on their inner beauty instead of their physical characteristics. The irony remains that Rupa’s stepmother who threw acid on her is now out on bail and is living with her father. While the accused is free and happy today, Rupa is struggling to live each day.
What is Chhanv?
Chhanv is a place to halt, for acid victims who come to Delhi seeking medical treatment, legal aid or in other words, shade and succor while they seek to come to grips with life through their interaction with others who have undergone such a horrible experience themselves. Fresh victims share their joys, dance and joke, without revisiting their pain and anguish.
The idea of Chhanv arose from a kinship felt for those with nobody to help them when they came to Delhi and had to spend their days by the road, without anybody to care and nourish them. As part of the initial movement Stop Acid Attacks, that is a call and campaign against the brutality of the act of acid attacks, Chhanv provides a clean, safe and comfortable environment for survivors and their families, where they could stay while receiving aid of any sort. It provides complimentary bedrooms, a well equipped kitchen and a safe and clean atmosphere for those in dire need of it. But it goes beyond. It provides hope for the seemingly helpless, those devastated souls who do not know what they should do further in their lives.
The bigger movement – Stop Acid Attacks
Launched on March 8th, 2013, it is a crusade that hopes to have all who believe in acid attacks as an inhuman, barbaric form of assault that scars the victim for life, recognizing the urgency to bring this issue in prominent public glare and combat the menace on as many fronts as it demands and possibly can.
Stop Acid Attacks first began with providing urgent and adequate medical, legal and financial aid for the survivors in its limited way. It still needs a lot of funding but continues in the best manner possible. In the longer term, the rehabilitation of the victims who suddenly descend from a decent, peaceful life to one of strife and need, have to be set on the road of self sustenance through alternate sources of income for them.
It also engages with socio-political institutions in its bid to fight for policy change. The ultimate aim is to work tirelessly towards elimination of acid and other forms of burn violence and protection of survivors’ rights. One of the resounding successes that was achieved was the Supreme Court judgment in July 2013, regulating the wholesale of acid. The regulation was a result of many years of campaign and a petition filed by Laxmi, one of the victims herself.
Stop Acid Attacks is a Movement that seeks change but with all the stakeholders – the law, the political class, the survivors and society involved. It bridges the gap of all these and hopefully provides the atmosphere as an agent of change to get the desired objective of minimizing if not getting rid of this prevalent evil in society.
To put it in a nutshell the movement has Laxmi Agarwal and her dedicated team at Chhanv, focused on the life of the survivors. The campaign special and distinct as it is, is a life line for survivors, run and managed by fellow survivors. Their painful past transforms into new surge of strength for their fellows. The understanding of each other and the sharing, make them a beacon of hope for each other. They offer and share advice, counsel, encouragement and affection- borne of their own experience and determination.
Acid Attacks that should open India’s eyes
- Rupa’s stepmother poured acid on Rupa while she slept in her native village in Uttar Pradesh. Rupa mentioned how she even removed water from around her so that she did not survive. Rupa has, since then, undergone 7 surgeries and has spent about Rs 8-9 lakh on her treatment. It was fate and her uncle who saved Rupa from dying, but her life still remains quite a struggle in the aftermath of the horrendous acid attack. Her uncle, who owns a barber shop in Faridabad, has no hopes from the government. The irony remains that Rupa’s stepmother who threw acid on her is now out on bail and is living with her father. While the accused is free and happy today, Rupa is struggling to live each day.
- At the beginning of the year, Aarti Thakur (23) faced an acid attack at Goregaon station, that too in the peak evening hours. The 23-year-old girl had just begun her career in marketing and her family had pinned its hopes on her to kiss their financial woes goodbye. Their dreams were dashed that evening, two months after she joined a renowned IT company in Goregaon. Following the attack, she never heard from her employers ever again. But, what Aarti regrets most is how all her colleagues, who over a period of two months had become good friends, wiped her out of their lives. “Till date, not a single colleague or friend has called to enquire or help. This attack was also an eye-opener in many ways,” she said.
- The gruesome attack left her with serious burns and scars on eyebrows, face, neck and forearms. The attack also mentally scarred her 21-year-old sister, who always steps out wearing a burqa now. She is pursuing a beautician’s course and dropped out of her college for want of funds. Aarti’s family, which comprises her mother, a single parent, and her sister, are practically leading a hand-to-mouth existence. The only earning member of her family, Aarti made about Rs 14,500 a month before the attack. Now, the family has no source of income. Their home rent of Rs 3,000 is pending for the last six months. She said the IT firm she worked for also owes her 21 days’ salary that they have refused to pay her. “But, we do not have the time and resources to fight for all that now,” she said
- Aarti hails from Kanpur. In the afternoon of 24th January 2000, while aarti was returning from her tuition classes with her father on scooter, she was attacked by a ruthless follower. They tossed the acid bottle on her face.The acid went straight on her face. It also burnt a large part of her back and 80% of her face. As per the doctors, the attack was so fierce that if she did not reached the hospital on time, the acid would have entered her brain as well.The main offender and acid attacker is the son of an income tax officer and aarti’s college mate.
And finally after 9 long years in 2009, the Aarti case was brought to the court for its first hearing. The fast track court declared 10 years of imprisonment with rigorous punishment and cash penalty of Rs. 5 Lakhs for Abhinav. Whereas,the other offenders were punished with 8 years of imprisonment and cash penalty of Rs. 2.5 lakhs each. The fight for the right was at last won by Aarti and her family. But it did not last for long as, in December 2010, all the accused successfully escaped from the imprisonment by faking the documents. Meanwhile, Aarti had gone through 4 major surgeries worth Rs. 16 lakhs. But nothing could do much to her face. Aarti and her family are now tired of the fight that they challenge in everyday life. And Aarti is now fighting her depression each day.
There are many more such acid attacks that make one shiver at the brutality of the offender and the pain that the victim has felt and is still undergoing physically and mentally.
Unnati’s views on acid attacks
Unnati Silks is a woman centric organization and for a business that has been dealing with ethnic women’s apparel (handloom sarees, salwar kameez), it has a deep understanding and empathy for the Indian woman and her tale of woes.
Devendra Ladha, CEO and pioneer of Unnti Silks is both shocked and angry at the level of barbarism that is many a time perpetrated on women. “One of the main reasons for these acid attacks stems from an inability to handle rejection at an early age that makes Indian males go to any lengths to have their way. At a young age when there is a feeling of male supremacy that comes from the way boys and girls are treated differently, the boy when he tends towards adulthood carries this attitude throughout his dealings”.
On the matter of post acid attacks, there is distress in his voice. “I understand the shock and the trauma that the female victim feels during the incident. But worse is when she has to come up with looks that are anywhere from ugly to gruesome from the disfiguring that occurs that fetches her disdain not only from her peers but even her workplace and other members of society. This attitude for the victim is most deplorable especially when the act is perpetrated on her. I have children of my own and I know how much the victim’s parents and other close family members must feel when their loved one is hurt so bad”.
“Society and its guardians in polity and the Law must get into action if this horrific crime is not ground to a halt soon. The Death penalty may be deplored by some “so-called-thinking –individuals” of society. But what about this daily death, that the victim has to undergo throughout her life for some silly obsession of the perpetrator which is by no means his right? Is that justified? This act just cannot be pardoned by any means. Also what about the compensation for the victim? In all cases the victims have had to fend for themselves.
A decent life being led peacefully, is suddenly shattered to bits and the victim and the family is put through misery that was never even dreamt of, for no logical reason at all. Shunned by society for the looks, loss of livelihood for the same reason, no alternative sources of income, but worse, the numerous operations to be undergone just to save the life, the medical expenses to be borne and the trauma of not having the faintest idea on how it would be possible on the existing means. Plastic surgery for correcting the situation becomes prohibitive and if the victim was not strong mentally suicide seems a good option.
So apart from a sentence like life imprisonment, why should not the court bring about a law that the offender should provide for the victim something like an amount that was being earned by the victim and her family be provided them for life? This would at least bring about some parity to a situation that is utterly hopeless?
While nothing can replace a good life shattered by dastardly acid attacks, it is worth a thought for the law makers to legally bind the offender/s and the family members for making good the provision determined by court or themselves face penal servitude till such provision is made as stipulated by the court”.
One only wishes that such cruel behavior be looked down upon by all sections of society, laws be stringently implemented and deterrents cause this unholy act to soon be a thing of the past.