Acid attack survivors, giving their attackers a second chance. Here’s how the events went.
It was around 1 am. We were sleeping at our nani’s house in Fatehpur Sikri when a man came and threw acid on me, my mother and one-and-a-half year-old sister. My eldest sister was not with us at that time; she was lucky. I was just three then and didn’t know what has happened. I remember my face and hands was burning and we were all screaming in pain. We were rushed to a nearby Government hospital. While we were battling for our lives, my mamaji was running around in the hospital and also dealing with the police to file an FIR. There was nobody to support us or help us get the right treatment. Three months later, my youngest sister passed away; she couldn’t survive the attack,” 27-year-old Neetu tells you recalling the horrid night, 24 years back, that turned her’s and her mother’s life upside down.
The attacker was Neetu’s father Inderpal who was working in a band of musician who would play at weddings. He was angry to be presented with yet another baby girl. His family brainwashed him with statements like: ‘Girls are a big burden. How will you feed three girls and provide them education? What about their marriage? In a drunken state, he threw acid on his sleeping family.
The family was not satisfied with the treatment at the Government hospital and they shifted to a private hospital which was expensive. “I don’t remember how many surgeries my mother and I underwent. My mother had less burns. But she too can’t see from one eye and her hands are also burnt. I lost vision in one eye totally; from the other eye it is partial visibility. I can’t read or identify people’s faces,” Neetu says.
It took them 14 months to get better. All this time, no action was taken against Inderpal. He was roaming freely without any fear. It was only after Neetu’s mother Geeta’s condition improved that she filed a case against the husband and got him arrested but three months later, he was out.
“I was angry and wanted my husband to be behind bars. After he got arrested, he started writing letters from the jail. He wrote: ‘I was wrong and made a big mistake. Please forgive me. I was drunk and brainwashed by my family. I accept you all and try to do whatever that is required to do the damage control.’ I ignored the first letter.
“He sent another that read: ‘Sending me to jail will not get you any justice. By taking revenge, we will only harm each other and then there will be no stopping. Probably after serving my punishment, I might turn more criminal and come back to take revenge from your family members’.”
Taking it as a threat to other family members, those who were supporting them backed out at this stage. “I was all alone fighting this battle. My friends and relatives stopped talking to me thinking that I might ask for monetary help or come to stay at their place. Also, there was a constant threat lurking on other family members and I didn’t wanted to lose anyone else. We were all in a state of shock. First, from the death of my younger daughter. Second, our condition. We didn’t want any more tragedies,” Geeta tells you.
Circumstances were such that forced Geeta to withdraw the case against her husband. She tells you that she had no choice. She had small kids to take care of and nobody to turn for help. “We didn’t have the money to fight a legal battle. There was a fear of losing other family members as well. My husband was willing to accept us. I chose to take a step back. When I met him for the first time after the attack, he regretted what he had done. I went back to him on the condition that he would not do anything to harm us again and take the responsibility to nurse us back to health,” Geeta says.
The family now stays together in Agra. “It was difficult for me to accept him initially. But I had to forgive and move on since it will do no good to any one of us. If we will put all our energy in taking revenge, how will we move forward. Whatever happened is in the past. We can’t change that. We must accept, move on and think about what we want to do next and be positive,” Geeta tells you.
Neetu too opines that nothing good was to come out if they had not forgiven their father. “I am not angry with my father because I never think that I have been attacked with an acid. I feel that I am living a normal life like any other person. I don’t want him to be behind bars. My mother’s decision to withdraw the case was correct. I share a great bond with him. He never express his feelings but he treats me differently. He is happy that my mother and I are living with our heads held high and that is what matters,” Neetu says.
“Though my face is damaged and I can’t see properly, my breath and my life is the same and I live this life to the fullest. This incident has made me stronger. My confidence is not shaken,” Neetu says.
Inderpal is now old and has retired. Neetu and her mother work at Sheroes Café in Agra. The eldest daughter is now married and living with her in-laws.
“Sheroes is like a family to me. Everyone of us are the fighters. The organisation has given us an identity to lead an independent and happy life. When you are positive, new doors open,” Neetu shares.
‘My success is his punishment’
She was one of the prettiest girls in the family and everybody’s apple of an eye. At an early age, she found her passion in embroidery and started working in a factory to earn and contribute towards the family income. All was perfect in 15-year-old Shabnum’s life. Little did she know that the contractor Kayoom at her factory has developed feelings for her. One fine day, he managed to express his feelings and proposed to her.
“This was back in 2005. I was 15 and used to do embroidery work in the factory. One day, out of the blue, he approached me and told me that he liked me. I was scared and told him that this was all wrong and ran away. A few days later, he approached me again. This time I told him in clear words that what he wanted was not possible and I would never marry him. The same night he attacked me at 1:30 am while I was sleeping at home in Sikanderrao, Aligarh,” 23-year-old Shabnum recalls.
She was rushed to Aligarh Hospital where the doctors refused to admit her without filing a police case. She had received 70 per cent burns. As the case was filed against Kayoom, he panicked and ran but later surrendered to the police. Meanwhile, Shabnum was fighting a battle of another kind. Not getting proper support and treatment, she lost vision in an eye that could have been saved.
“I lost my vision of my left eye. We moved from hospital to hospital. Surgeries were done to reconstruct my face. We went bankrupt as my parents spent every single penny they had on my treatment — all of Rs 5 lakh. I never got any concession or financial support from anywhere,” Shabnum says adding that she still needs to go through more surgeries but doesn’t have the money. “Also, my body is weak and is not fit to undergo another operation,” She tells you.
The attack left her completely shattered. People would get scared looking at her scarred face; she was debarred from attending family functions.“Be it my brother’s marriage or celebrating a festival, I used to sit inside the room whereas everybody used to have fun. I used to listen to their voices but would never come out. It affected my self-confidence. People would tell my father that my marriage will be difficult. But my uncles and brothers found a very nice husband for me. I married him three years after the attack. I have a cute little daughter, now in school,” Shabnum says.
After five-six years, Shabnum came face to face with her attacker. It was a shock for Shabnum to see Kayoom again. After spending two years in jail, he was out.
“Whenever I visit my mother’s place, I see him. Initially, he couldn’t recognise me. Then he heard me speaking to someone and identified me by my voice and stared for a long time. Initially, I used to cover my face and roam around but now I don’t. Some people stare at me but that is their problem. He may have changed my face but he can never damage my soul. I want him and others to know me by this face,” Shabnum says.
Though Shabnum has been told to reopen the case, she wants him to be out of the jail and see her succeed. “He should be out and see that even though he has burnt my body, I am alive and living a successful and happy life. If he would have been in jail, he will never be able to see what kind of life I am living. If I will take revenge by sending him to the jail, then there will be no difference between him and me. I have a loving husband and daughter who are my lifeline. I have carved a name for myself. I am a living example that if I can fight back without losing hope, why not others. I travel, meet celebrities and people from all walks of life who come to Sheroes Cafe. What more do I want,?” she asks.
Today people know Shabnum as a fighter. “Meri sath woh ho chukka hai jo kisi ke sath hona nahi chaiye. Isse bura aur kuch nahi ho sakta. I have seen the worst and I don’t fear of anything anymore. People say that it was his was love that made him do this. But this is not love. It is his lust and when he faced rejection, his ego got hurt ans said that if I can’t be his, then I will be of nobody else. He tried to bury my dreams and life but he has failed,” Shabnum says.
A lot of confidence was built when Shabnum joined Sheroes two years back. “I meet so many people who give us hope and motivation. They also help us in fighting a case and put the culprit behind bars. My dream is now associated with my daughter and I aspire to be a singer one day. I even got through an audition and was called to Mumbai for a project but I can’t leave my daughter alone right now. I will get many more opportunities. For now, I am in a happy zone,” Shabnum says
‘I’m not scared of him anymore’
For 32-year-old Reshma, recalling the horror incident still sends a chill down her spine. Hailing from Lucknow, Reshma got married at 16 and went on to have five girls. She was going through a tough time in her marriage as her husband — Mohammad Naseem — would beat her. To make ends meet, Reshma took up tailoring.
“Usne mujhe zinda kar ke mara hai har baar. Par abb mujhe maut ka bhi darr nahi. Naa khaane ko deta thha, na he ghar kharch ke liye paise. Bhuka pyaasa marne chhod diya karta thha, Reshma tells you.
When she was pregnant for the sixth time, her husband forced her to go for prenatal gender screening. “My husband wanted me to abort the child if it is a girl. I was scared and refused to go to the doctor. On July 24, 2013, he beat me mercilessly and pulled my hair but failed to drag me out of the room. He went outside, brought acid and threw it on my private parts. My thighs and area near my private parts was burnt. My parents came rushing from Kanpur and took me from one hospital to another, but nobody was willing to treat me. The doctors would send us from the ground floor to the fourth floor and then ground floor to the lady doctor who would just put cotton on my burns and refer me to another hospital. When my father took me to Kanpur, the doctors there asked my husband’s signature for the treatment and that it would require Rs 5 lakh and 10 people’s blood. For eight days, there was acid on my skin. A lot of people used to see me and sympathise and even show disgust but never came forward to help. Some would say that I have been raped,” Reshma recounts.
Her parents came back to Lucknow to get the signatures of the husband for the operation as Reshma was pregnant. “My husband thrashed my father as well. He was bleeding profusely and broke down in front my mother and said that ‘abb apni beti ko hum nahi bacha payenge,’ Reshma says.
Fortunately, Reshma spotted some mediapersons outside a hospital who were there to cover another case and narrated her ordeal. “The news went viral. People from Chau Foundation and Sheroes came to my rescue. That is when the entire Kanpur stood up to donate blood. On August 12, 2013, my husband got arrested on a non-bailable offense. The operation took place and 500 gm of my skin was removed from my body. I was not able to sit or walk properly and had difficulty going to the toilet. I was weak and scared if I would be able to safely deliver the baby. But by God’s grace, I managed to deliver a healthy baby boy,” Reshma says.
Reshma was given the backing that she needed to fight the case and after two-and-a-half years of the attack, she met her husband for the first time in the court. “I was very weak that time and not able to walk without any support. When I saw him and my entire body started shivering. As I pass by him, he chuckled and said ‘langadi jaa rahi hai’. But I didn’t react. He didn’t have an iota of regret for what he did to me. During the court case, he used to send my daughters to convince me to take the case back otherwise it will destroy their future. He even threatened me that he will take the son away. But because of the support I took a stand and fought back,” Reshma says, adding that her husband is presently serving his 10-year jail term.
All through the case, the daughters were staying at their father’s home and were ill-treated by his family for not doing the household chores. “My eldest daughter is a Class VII dropout and makes a living by applying mehendi. The second one too has lost interest in studies and is a tailor. The other three are studying in school. I can’t keep them with me as I have no space of my own. But they come to meet me in Lucknow. I have opened a joint bank account with them. A part of my salary goes to them,” Reshma says and adds that she is no longer scared of her husband.
When asked if she has met her husband in jail, she says: “No, I will not go to meet him. But my daughters go there sometimes. They tell me that he has kept all the newspaper cutting of my articles. I am told that he is jealous of the fact that I wear jeans and T-shirt, meet celebrities, have a job, earning and leading an independent life. He tells them that he will get married for the second time when he will come out of the jail, divorce me and get our son’s custody,” Reshma says.
But she is ready for him. She plans to divorce her husband, get her own place where she can live with all her children and build a future together.
Writer: SANGEETA YADAV
Courtesy: The Pioneer