Punjab’s acid attack survivors join hands to overcome scarred past
Fair of face, a bachelor of medical science working in a private hospital in her hometown, Sunita Sharma had shown courage to walk out of an unworkable marriage. In charge of the natural delivery ward, she was walking to her parental home from work at 7pm on April 16, 2005, and was close to the gate when she found her pet dog Hero pulling her dupatta. As she turned to look at what her pet wanted, a motorcycle passed by and something was splashed on her. “At first, I thought someone had splashed hot water on me but in seconds, I realised it was something more for I was in terrible pain.”
Sunita had become a victim of an acid attack by cousins of her husband for allegedly wronging him. What followed the ‘chhapaak (splash)’ was an ordeal. The local hospital had never known such a patient nor had the knowledge of isolating the affected parts before washing them and even gave sedation to the patient screaming in agony. It was midnight by the time she reached Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, with third-degree burns and acid seeping internally to other parts of the body when washed.
“The first two months, I was sinking into depression. The encouragement from Dr RK Sharma in the burns department of PGI and support from activist- lawyer Veena Kumari literally brought me back to life,” she says. Today, with vision in one eye and hearing in one ear gone in addition to 28 grafting surgeries, Sunita is remarried to a caring partner, doing well in her job and she is also coordinator of the Punjab chapter for helping other survivors who are still to find their moorings physically, financially and socially.
Lawyer Veena, who has been representing survivors of Punjab and Haryana for compensation and treatment, says: “Sunita has formed a remarkable bond with other survivors. Our effort has been to follow the disability slogan given by American doctor and disability activist James Charlton: Nothing about us without us.” However, the lawyer says despite success stories be it of Laxmi Agarwal, whose brave fight was played out by Deepika Padukone in the film Chhapaak, or of model Anmol Rodriquez, there are many suffering in silence for want of resources and a healing touch.
AWAITING RELIEF, SEEKING JOBS
The story of Ramandeep Kaur of Ladhowal in Ludhiana is poignant. A mother of two, she worked at a cardboard factory and was married to an alcoholic and oppressive vegetable seller. Fed up, she decided to divorce him to marry someone else. The revenge was acid thrown at her in 2016, disfiguring her permanently and lack of resources for treatment. Veena says, “The damage can’t be reversed but with state help, after intervention from the high court, she is now getting treatment at Dayanand Medical College and Hospital in Ludhiana.”
However, there are social problems for she finds it difficult to get rented accommodation. “I’m told by house owners that if they rent out a room to me, their children will get scarred,” says a dejected Ramandeep. She is still awaiting compensation.
Sixteen of the 20 victims of the past 15 years in the state need support and rehabilitation. “After a lot of pressure, the government has included them in the category of disabled persons for employment but chances are remote. Private companies and multi-nationals should come forward to offer them jobs. Most of them are educated or skilled,” says Veena.
TOOL OF GENDER VIOLENCE
While there have been attacks on men and children yet international studies show that as in Bangladesh, in India too acid is a tool of gender violence. The primary reasons are anger and revenge at a sexual overture or marriage proposal being turned down or a woman wanting divorce.
Veena says, “The attitude of the attacker is that if she is not mine, she should be not fit to be anyone else. Our popular cinema songs to encourage such vengeful responses with words such as “tum kisi aur ko chahogi to mushkil hogi (It will be difficult if you start liking someone else)”. We need to sensitise our society against such thought patterns.”
A meeting for survivors of Punjab has been convened by the Human Rights Legal Network (HRLN) and the Ambedkar Students Association in Chandigarh on February 29 to find ways to overcome the extreme violence. The aim is to enable the victims to help one another and form a peer pressure group.
The survivors attending the meet are from Bathinda, Moga, Ludhiana, Kapurthala, Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Ropar.
Most survivors are victims of social stigma, sometimes from within their own community and even immediate family. Sunita says, “It takes courage to come out even if they know that what happened to them is no fault of theirs. Low self-esteem and depression are common symptoms that have to be overcome with togetherness.”
AFTER ANGUISH, ACTION To meet in Chandigarh on February 29 to find ways for overcoming the extreme violence with the slogan: Nothing about us without us
Weapon for the asking
Open sale of acid continues unabated in shops in violation of the Supreme Court order of 2013.
Stop Acid was the slogan of Laxmi Agarwal who moved the court after her attack and it took seven years for the order to be passed.
The direction that only those above 18 years can buy it after furnishing an identity card, has not been implemented.