By Saurabh Sharma for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Vimala, an employee at Sheroes Hangout — a chain of cafes that employ only acid attack survivors — is confidence personified. Dressed smartly in an all-black uniform, she interacts with customers in Hinglish and serves them like a professional.
Pawan Singh, the cafe manager, says she has a way with people and encourages patrons to try new items on the menu. She drives sales and is a valuable employee. He thinks there’s just one thing about her that affects her productivity: she talks a lot!
“You can spot her on a chair, talking to the customers. She easily makes them bhaiyaa and didi,” he says of her.
According to Singh, she often forms such a bond with customers that sometimes, she even prepares customers’ orders, even though kitchen work isn’t what she was hired for. Such is the rapport she enjoys with customers that nobody minds these little quirks of hers.
Such a cheerful disposition is a testimony to Vimala’s strength.
Hailing from Purwa, a non-descript village about 20 km from Rai Bareilly, Vimala’s ordeal began in December 2008. She says she was breastfeeding her baby when a man, Bhondu Singh, forced his way into their house and tried to molest her. “To save myself, I kicked him. This infuriated him and he raped me,” she tells Youth Ki Awaaz with tears in her eyes.
She and her husband, a daily wage labourer, were shooed away from the police station when they sought to register a complaint. After all, they are Dalits while the alleged rapist is from an ‘upper’ caste and wields influence in the region, Vimala says. Upon someone’s suggestion, the couple approached the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Here, their complaint was rejected within 24 hours.
Fearing backlash from the politically connected Bhondu Singh, the entire village turned against Vimala.
Soon after, upon getting a tip-off that Vimala was off to the police station regarding the case, Bhondu Singh and his brother Guddu allegedly stabbed her in the stomach. In 2011, acid was thrown on her thrice. It was only after media reported her plight that Guddu was arrested. Upon his release in June 2012, he and Bhondu raped her and shoved an iron rod in her private parts.
“I was bleeding profusely. My mother died of shock after seeing me in this condition,” she recalls the horror. Four months later, she was abducted, gang-raped, again, strangled and left unconscious, presumed dead. The men who attacked her are walking scot-free and are reportedly residing in Purwa village. Vimala claims that they call themselves a close aide of former MLA and strong muscleman of Rae Bareli, Akhilesh Singh. However, Akhilesh Singh denied knowing them.
Chhanv Foundation, which is dedicated to rehabilitating acid attack survivors, in 2016, gave her a job at Sheroes Hangout in Lucknow when it learnt her story. This did nothing to put an end to the intimidation tactics of the accused. Recently, they sent a letter threatening her to withdraw the police case which read –
“Nivedan hai ki Vimala ko apni company se nikaal do. Case wapas karva do nahi to uske shareer me khoon nahi tezaab daudega [This is a request to you to remove Vimala from your company. Tell her to withdraw her case, else there will be acid running through her veins instead of blood].”
Senior Superintendent of Police, Lucknow, Manzil Saini, acknowledges Vimala’s hardships. She says Lucknow police have deployed guards outside Sheroes Cafe to provide protection. She says they are coordinating with Rae Bareilly police to nab the accused, adding that she is personally monitoring the case and the best officers have been asked to investigate this.
The Supreme Court of India had in 2013 ordered regulating the sale of acid to curb acid attacks. As per the rule, the chemical can be bought only when one produces their photo ID proof. The seller has to maintain a record of the names and addresses of buyers along with the quantity bought. Four years on, acid continues to be sold over the counter unabated. The Supreme Court has time and again rapped state governments for failing to act in this regard, but the ground reality remains unchanged.
According to numbers available with National Crime Records Bureau, while 106 cases of acid attack were registered in the country in 2012, the number increased to 309 in 2014. A report published in The Indian Express noted that as many as 185 of these were registered in Uttar Pradesh alone.
In about 15% cases, victims were men. In most cases, the reason behind an acid attack was the woman spurning the advances of the perpetrator. In about 15% of the cases, property dispute was at the heart of the matter. Between 2010 and 2015, about 882 cases of acid attack were reported.
On paper, the law has been strengthened to check acid attacks. After an amendment in 2013, conviction for acid attack entails an imprisonment of 10 years to life and/or a fine that can go up to ₹10 lakh.
Despite all the measures in place, Vimala’s quest for justice continues. Activist and Samajwadi Party spokesperson Juhie Singh says they will see to it that Vimala’s case reaches the highest level, the accused are arrested and she gets her due.
Tall claims aside, Vimala worries that police have not taken action against those who issued a life threat to her. She alleges that the circle officer concerned is clueless about the status of the investigation. It was only after her cafe uploaded the letter on Twitter and Facebook that police swung into action, offering her protection.
Today, her biggest concern is her family’s safety. She has a 13-year-old daughter and a 10 years old son. Vimala fears her attackers would try to harm her children. “If they did not spare me, why will they spare my young daughter? The police never ever tried to provide protection to my family while people who raped me regularly threaten my husband and even call after snatching his mobile phone.”
“Every day I wake up with fear. I cannot sleep and work properly as my mind is occupied with the past thoughts. But still I try to give my best at this café,” she adds.
At Sheroes Hangout, Vimala and her peers continue to inspire their customers. Surendra Singh, a spokesperson for UP Congress and a regular customer, says he has seen a massive transformation in the persona of acid attack survivors working here. He recalls that initially, the women would cover their face and were hesitant, but now they radiate confidence. “It is really great for all of us, watching these women working with dignity,” he says.
Another regular customer, Preeti M. Shah, says it gives her immense pleasure to see these women clicking selfies with every new customer of their cafe.
Some customers have been so moved by Vimala’s story that they have offered to share their own homes with her for her safety. Some have offered to help her husband find a better job and provide a good education for her children.
For anyone who asks her, Vimala bravely shares the horrors she has lived with and how despite still receiving several threats from her attackers, Vimala says the job keeps her engaged so that she tries not to think about the past.
About the author: Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.