First an icy splash. Then melting flesh and dissolving dreams. A decade after the world forgot about the acid attack on Arti Shrivastav, Poorva Rajaram and Alok Dixit track the lingering wounds
IT WAS the afternoon of 24 January 2000. Arti Shrivastav, 18, was on her way home in Kanpur after tuitions. Even though it was a short distance, one that she usually walked, her father Pratap Saran Shrivastav, then a professor at DAV College, had insisted on escorting her home on his scooter. The reason? Her college mate Abhinav Mishra, also 18, had been obsessively pursuing Arti even though she’d emphatically rejected his advances. As father and daughter neared home, they suddenly spotted a Maruti van with three menacing men driving dangerously close to them.
Moments later, Abhinav flung acid at them from the van and sped away. The first few seconds of acid burning through skin are supposed to feel ice cold. Arti thought someone had thrown ice water on her. That was until the burning started. Some of the acid had spilled onto Pratap’s back and even he didn’t realise what was happening until he turned around and saw his daughter in utter agony. The next few moments were a haze.
AFTER MANY delaying tactics, Abhinav was finally found guilty in 2009 and sentenced to a 10-year imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 5 lakh. In February 2011, Judge Vinod Prasad granted Abhinav bail. The legal trickery that got Abhinav out is startling. The bail order of 10 February 2011 says he had been in prison for five-and-a-half years. Seven days later, a revision to the bail order apparently rectified the ‘clerical error’ by stating: “In the fourth paragraph, the word ‘five’ is substituted with the word ‘one’. In the first condition, words ‘a month’ are substituted with ‘two months’.” Abhinav’s bail, however, hasn’t been revoked.
The results of the hubris and righteous vengeance wreaked by men like Abhinav are still festering under the sleepy surface of Shabd Pratap Ashram in Gwalior, part of the Radha Soami Satsang. This is where Arti and her family live now. The 30-year-old is an unnervingly jovial ‘victim’ in her meditative surroundings. She strides energetically around the house organising the day’s cooking and jokes about television soaps like Balika Vadhu. It’s hard to believe this livewire is recovering from her fifth plastic surgery in 10 years.
In the last decade, Arti got a BA in English and an MA in Education from DG College, Kanpur — though she chose to not leave her house for classes and studied through a distance learning course. She’s unsure what she can use her degrees for but is considering a PhD in Education. The problem is that each surgery completely halts her academic life for months.
Arti is full of cheer but her life has become a series of painful choices. About two years ago, the family had to leave Kanpur to move to an ashram because it was their retirement spot of choice. She’s been thrown into an early geriatric lifestyle with nothing to do other than running a house. Her two sisters, who live in Pune and Bengaluru, are married and regularly travel around the country. Arti visits them often and is particularly fond of Pune, but she always needs to revert to her base in Gwalior every two months. Other than the medical complications of travelling, when Arti goes to new areas she has to cope with people pointing and staring. Her otherwise supportive parents matter-of-factly refer to her face as ugly. Arti tries hard not to relapse into the past but she does sometimes wistfully wonder what life would have been like if her face hadn’t been burned away.
Arti is firm in her resolve to seek justice, not revenge — and is almost obsessive in her pursuit of the law. She allows herself to be swayed by waves of outrage only when she discusses the court case. “You can’t imagine what happens in courts,” she says. “Justice sounds like a faraway idea. What about other women who’ve been attacked, what kind of precedent does my case set?” She gets angry when Abhinav’s name is mentioned and says she’s not had any contact with him and would rather forget him.
“We’re stuck in a situation similar to the Jessica Lal case, but without the same media attention,” says Arti’s mother Meena Shrivastav, “There are other Artis out there.” She worries about how firmly her daughter avoids discussing what has happened to her life, and wonders whether Arti will ever open up. Her husband prefers to dwell on what Arti has managed to endure, and comments, “When she was attacked the doctors were amazed that she never complained when her wounds were being dressed.”
Unlike many women her age who may not even be victims, she hasn’t plunged herself into a verbose body image crisis and hopes plastic surgeries can bring her closer to her earlier appearance. She hasn’t given up on marriage either and is hopeful about finding someone. Arti does, though, speak of one regret — she wishes her treatment hadn’t cost her parents so much, around Rs 16 lakh so far.
The Shrivastavs have followed the Radha Soami Satsang ever since Arti’s great-grandfather joined the group. Most of Arti’s aunts, uncles and cousins live less than five minutes away in the ashram. Her life has whittled down to meeting only those who know her — everyone has been sensitised not to stare too much.
IT’S HARD to assess the exact scale of the problem of acid attacks. A study by Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School found 153 cases of acid violence reported in Indian newspapers from January 2002 to October 2010. The lack of accurate statistics is perhaps because there is no national advocacy group for the issue.
The law on acid attacks is sluggish even by Indian standards. Currently, such cases are booked under Section 322, 325, 326 that punish an attacker for “voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons”. If the victim doesn’t die, the maximum penalty under this section is 10 years in prison. There are calls for a stringent and well-publicised law specially dedicated to acid attacks. There are also unrealistic demands to regulate the sale of acid — which is available everywhere, sometimes for as little as Rs 10 for a bottle.
A day after the attack, Abhinav told the media he simply wanted to marry Arti and that since her face was now ruined, he hoped she’d agree
Other countries have been far more proactive than India. Bangladesh has an active acid survivors union. The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) provides a support group, healthcare and a home for survivors. Acid attacks still haven’t crystallised as a national issue in India since we’re still deceiving ourselves that acid-throwing is a matter for provincial people leading provincial lives. Others do it, and it happens to others. We have to start by acknowledging that such attacks have become a key feature of the violence in our urban ecology.
What we have become good at is biting into the sympathy pie of such victims. Back in 2000, the media typically saw an opportunity first and carried daily updates of Arti’s health. Around a thousand people showed up outside her hospital in Lucknow in solidarity. Famous lawyer Nand Lal Jaiswal offered his services to them for free. Various women’s groups descended to give rousing speeches. Then chief minister Ram Prakash Gupta announced a cash award of Rs 1 lakh to the family. Other local politicians made pledges of Rs 50,000. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad protested the liberty taken by couples.
On that afternoon a decade ago when Arti was attacked, the father had first rushed to the police station where the equally shocked policeman promised to file an FIR and lent them Rs 20,000 to go to a hospital. At the hospital, though, the doctors confessed to not knowing how to treat such an attack — what they could make out was that Arti was in mortal danger. The acid had seeped deep into her scalp and was a millimetre away from her brain. She was transferred to a better hospital in Lucknow, but the damage was lasting: eye and facial damage, hearing loss, throat damage. For the next few years, Arti was forced to sleep with her eyes open.
Abhinav was the braggart son of the district tax collector. A day after the attack, he told the media he simply wanted Arti to marry him — and that since her face was now ruined, he hoped she’d concede to it now. In the following years, he pursued an MBA in Pune and got married. He declined to speak with TEHELKA.
The Shrivastavs didn’t even know about Abhinav getting bail till a family friend, who read about it in the Kanpur papers, called to tell a shocked Arti. Today, they hop between outrage to a desire to be left in peace. They thought they were done with that chapter of their lives but the corrupt State has decided otherwise. Today, Meena still wonders whether the attack on her daughter and husband would have been avoided had the family bought a car earlier.
Poorva Rajaram is a Correspondent with Tehelka.