After surviving an acid attack, Tuba Tabassum's lust for life is all-consuming.
I FIRST MET TUBA TABASSUM AT WORK. She was covered from head to toe, wearing salwar kameez, her dupatta bound tightly around her head, oversized sunglasses firmly in place. Her parents, Arif Ashraf and Tabassum Parveen, had accompanied her for some paperwork to Care Today, the India Today Group's corporate social responsibility initiative. She is preparing for a national-level medical entrance test later this year and Care Today is funding her tuition at a private institute in New Delhi. Coming from a small village in Bihar, she needs all the help she can get. She is 18, a young woman finding her way in the world. She is also an acid attack survivor.
ACID ATTACK IS A FORM of gender-based violence, which in turn is a violation of human rights. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by the Indian government, prohibits "violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately", resulting in perpetuation of gender inequality and discrimination.
Sally Engle Merry, professor of anthropology at New York University and faculty director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law, notes in her book Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice, "Because violence against women refers to bodily injury as do other human rights violations such as torture, it is relatively a straightforward violation. Like torture, it is about injury, pain and death. But in many parts of the world it appears to be an everyday, normal problem rather than a violation of human rights. Moreover, because gender violence is deeply embedded in systems of kinship, religion, warfare and nationalism, its prevention requires major social changes in communities, families and nations."
An acid attack is targeted on an individual, most often women, with sulphuric, hydrochloric or nitric acid that causes severe burns. The results are permanent, and can lead to loss of sight and hearing. The acid continues to burn through the skin and tissues even after the attack is over until neutralized by water, unlike other surface burns. The term 'survivor' is preferred over the passive 'victim' by those who have lived through an attack, where the healing is an active process.
THE SECOND TIME I MET TUBA was a month later at her hostel, on a warm afternoon last September. She had shifted to Delhi and was living by herself for the first time. She invited me into her room, which she shares with another girl. The study table adjacent to the bed is stacked with fat books on medicine, a few images of gods belonging to her Hindu roommate and a small bottle of eye-drops. The cooler in the corner hummed loudly, blowing cool air in our direction. She needs it continuously as she cannot tolerate the heat. I pulled up a chair and sat down, with Tuba on the bed facing me.
Tuba has never lived without her parents. "I cried a lot when I first came to Delhi, but it had to be done. If I want to study I have to make some compromises. But I like it here now; everyone's so good to me. Problems are a part of life, whether here or back home," she says. Because of the blatantly curious stares and the insensitive comments, she covers up whenever she goes out.
As we spoke, five curious girls emerged and made themselves comfortable on the two single beds joined together. It was clear that they have found a family in each other, away from home. Tuba was without her headscarf and sunglasses, in a loosely fitted salwar kameez, her scars exposed, laughing and completely at ease. Grown up beyond her years, and perhaps a bit too soon, it was a rare glimpse of the carefree teenager.
FLASHBACK TO 26 SEPTEMBER 2012, Harihans village, district Siwan, Bihar. With the Class X board examinations approaching fast, Tuba took private tuitions at a coaching centre in her village. She went for her classes early in the morning, returned home and then left for school. There was a young man in her class who had been quite taken with her. She had resisted his advances and it had looked like he had taken the hint and moved on. Several months had passed.
On an ordinary Wednesday morning, Tuba left home for tuition. She didn't get too far when she was attacked with acid by four boys from her neighbourhood, one of them the rejected suitor. They had probably worked on their plan for a while -- it requires a fair amount of premeditation to take revenge and with the intent to maim and disfigure but not kill (the survival rate is high in such cases). Often ostracized by society and unable to find work or earn a decent living, acid attack survivors are marginalized.
RELIVING THAT MOMENT, TUBA SAYS: "My face … I lost one eye right then. My arms … my clothes had burnt and started to fall off. I ran from there as fast as I could, screaming. My entire back, legs [were affected]. But the droplets of acid got everywhere. My entire body got burnt. My plait fell off. I didn't know what was going on. I was in a daze of pain and confusion.
My grandfather met me as he was leaving the mosque near my house after the morning namaz. I thought they had thrown hot water on me. But [at the sight of flesh melting, hair burning and noxious fumes] he shouted, 'No, this is acid!' My parents came out when they heard the din. The entire neighbourhood had gathered by then. Nobody could grasp what had happened, or what to do next."
She was taken to Sadar Hospital, the nearest municipal hospital, in Siwan. The doctors there were ill-equipped to treat acid burns. Such burns should be washed thoroughly with copious amounts of water immediately, according to burns specialist Dr Karoon Agarwal, who also heads the burns department at Safdarjung Hospital and is treating her, which apparently didn't happen. She was referred to a hospital in Patna 150 kilometres away, and admitted there for 15 days. "In Patna, doctors and the hospital staff washed my burns with a hosepipe. My face had swollen to twice its size, my mother told me later."
From Patna she was brought to Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi where the treatment took about two and a half months. Several surgeries down, there are many more to go. She cannot part her lips fully, even after corrective surgeries. Skin was taken from her thighs and grafted on to her back, shoulders and face. The skin around her nose had melted and covered her nostrils; small, tusk-like pipes were fitted in to help her breathe. "They're still there four years later, and I have trouble breathing. Doctors tell me these will go away post-surgery. They say that 10-12 surgeries will be needed for the nose; similarly for the eye. It will take time, a lot of time … it can't happen overnight."
TUBA LIVES IN A GIRLS' HOSTEL in north-west Delhi; her study centre is within walking distance. She attends classes four days a week with her mates from the institute, and studies the rest of the time. The medical entrance examination is no child's play, and it is tougher for her with an eye lost to acid. But she's powering through like a real trooper.
She knows that the damaged eye is beyond repair now. While she can see with the other eye, it has become weak and waters often. "If I push myself too hard, both my eyes start hurting and watering. I can't read much, or non-stop."
It isn't very ironic then that she wants to specialize in ophthalmology. She asks me, repeatedly, why is it that only those with locomotor disabilities qualify for reservation under the physically handicapped category in government medical colleges? Her burns, the scar tissues that have still not healed, a disfigured skin that cannot tolerate heat, a face that was taken away from her, leaving her with a distorted reflection for life -- are her disabilities not big enough to get her a seat in the reserved section? I don't have an answer.
Things do seem to be changing, albeit slowly. In December 2015, the Supreme Court directed all states and union territories to take appropriate steps to include the names of acid violence survivors under the persons with disabilities list.
Last December, the Indian Parliament passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016, expanding the list of disabilities from seven to 21 to include acid attacks, among others. Javed Abidi, director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), while acknowledging certain lacunae in the bill, reiterated that it was a "huge leap in the future. Two things it does very clearly: First, it recognizes acid attack survivors as persons with disabilities; and second, the anti-discriminatory measures that are contained in the bill are extended to the survivors."
With respect to acid attack survivors, the bill doesn't guarantee reservation in education, but it ensures non-discrimination -- it empowers high courts in every state to set up fast-track courts to see to it that this is followed through. It does provide job reservations for acid attack survivors, though, clubbing them with the locomotor disabled -- the quota ceiling, proposed to be raised from 3 to 5 per cent, was restricted to 4 per cent. It is yet to be implemented, but it's a start.
HER VOICE ASSUMES A BITTER TONE when she speaks about the violence on her body, the nightmares that don't stop. Tuba laments, "We've been getting dates after dates at the Patna High Court for the past four years. [The accused] are in jail (in Siwan) right now, but they deserve to be punished. What good is a jail for them? They get to eat and live comfortably. But my problems don't seem to end. Thinking about it, I get very disturbed."
Tuba's family wants justice for their daughter. Her family, especially her father, Arif, has been her voice of reason, supporting her, guiding her, loving her. Parveen, her mother, gave up her job as a teacher to take care of her daughter round-the-clock. "I would see them [the attackers] everywhere and replay the incident in my head. I wanted my parents to be with me at all times; I couldn't let go even for a bit. My family has held me together -- I am here because of them," Tuba says.
Two of the four accused claim they were juveniles. If guilty, this would qualify them for a maximum sentence of three years in a juvenile home. "They were older to me by about four years at least. How could they be children? They had planned to do this to me … there was nothing unintentional or childlike about it," says Tuba.
WITH THE ADDITION OF Section 326A in the Indian Penal Code in 2013, acid throwing was given the status of a cognizable and non-bailable offence, carrying a minimum punishment of 10 years and a maximum of life, effective immediately. With Section 326B, a person could face a sentence of at least five years, which may extend to seven, for attempting to throw acid. Another ruling passed by the Supreme Court in 2013 called for the regulation of sale of concentrated acid, required the maintenance of a detailed record of purchasers and prohibited its sale to minors.
However, there is a gap between what's on paper and its implementation. Data from the Ministry of Home Affairs suggest that there has been an increase in the number of reported cases of acid violence, from 83 in 2011 and 116 in 2013 to 222 in 2015. Bikramjit Sen, deputy director of Acid Survivors' Foundation India, headquartered in Kolkata, estimates that there could be as many as 500 acid attack cases in India every year.
AS WE EXPERIENCED ourselves while purchasing a concentrated form of acid (the "good stuff", as the store owner put it), procuring it is still child's play. A male colleague and I went looking at a large wholesale market in Noida after work. We didn't have to look too hard -- friendly passersby directed us to a dingy chemical store in an alley, where he bought two litres of it for Rs100 (while I waited in the car). He didn't need any identification.
Says Sen, "Looking at the laws passed by Bangladesh in 2002 and their success in effectively containing acid violence, it is necessary to have fast-track courts for such offences. It would also be helpful to have a fixed time period (90 days) for completion of police investigation."
PROPER MEDICAL CARE needs to be ensured and rehabilitative measures put in place for bringing back the affected into the mainstream. ASFI is facing problems in getting the survivors compensation from the government or free treatment at private hospitals. Sen adds, "There are no government schemes or initiatives for promoting rehabilitation currently."
Tuba echoed his thoughts: "If there is quick and efficient punishment, commensurate with the crime, only then will people be deterred and think twice about ruining someone's life this way."
According to Sen, there is a lack of awareness even among those responsible for implementation. "Many times an FIR is lodged under sections other than 326A or 326B, so that the accused gets bail very easily. Acid is still easily available and cheap. With fairly low conviction rates, the threat of punishment fails to discourage the perpetrators." It is also widely acknowledged that violence against women is under-reported globally and official estimates are lower than the actual rate of incidence. With acid violence being seen as a "low-risk" or an easy crime to commit, it is imperative that the government step up and take notice of this.
TUBA HEARD VOICES of hope, which she wanted to believe. "They told me things would be normal in no time. My father said he would take me to America to get my skin fixed with plastic surgery. But I know now that that's not true. Sure, they will give me a new nose, or a fake eye. But they won't be able to give me back what I lost; they won't be able to make me see." But the fire within her is not dead, it's burning bright, one that kindles hope. While in conversation with Bandeep Singh, who photographed her for the story, she said: "I never think about my face not being 'original'. This is me, this is my real face."
Tuba calls for a ban on acid sale in the country and harsher punishment. Meanwhile, she is trying to focus on her dream of becoming an eye doctor, and wishes that no one has to go through what she, and others like her, did.
Photographs by Bandeep Singh