For 30-year-old Laxmi Agarwal, India’s most high-profile campaigner against the horrific scourge of acid attacks, the last few weeks have been quite surreal.
From being abandoned by her live-in partner, without work for a year, struggling to provide for her little daughter and on the cusp of getting evicted from an East Delhi flat to receiving news that Bollywood star Deepika Padukone will produce and star in director Meghna Gulzar’s film about her life, it’s been a rollercoaster few weeks for Laxmi.
“When I heard this story, I was deeply moved as it’s not just one of violence but of strength and courage, hope and victory. It made such an impact on me, that personally and creatively, I needed to go beyond and so the decision to turn producer,” Deepika told the Mumbai Mirror.
Following news of her current predicament, job offers and financial aid from the likes of Bollywood star Akshay Kumar also came pouring through, which has only added to all the drama.
Events of the past week, however, are symbolic of the extraordinary life she’s lived thus far. Born to a middle-class family in Delhi, her life was like any other teenage girl growing up in the city.
It all changed one day in 2005. On her way to a bookshop near Khan Market where Laxmi was working as an assistant, a long-time stalker and a man twice her age, threw a beer bottle loaded with acid on her for rejecting his advances.
“After the attack, I was admitted to the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital and stayed there for nearly three months. There were no mirrors in the ward I was in. Every morning, the nurse would bring me a bowl of water to help me freshen up, and I would try to catch my reflection in that water. I would only see glimpses of a bandaged face. I used to have a scar on my nose before the attack; I would tell the doctor to remove that during the operation. When I first saw my face afterwards, I was devastated. I had no face to speak of. My eyes were misshapen,” she told The Indian Express.
Since the incident, she’s had to undergo multiple surgeries, but more critically, overcome the psychological scars that have come with it. However, in the midst of all that, she carried out an extensive campaign against the sale of acid in India and offering affordable treatment to survivors.
She credits her father for inspiring her to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court a year after the attack alongside another survivor Rupa. The petition was seeking the passage of a new law or amendments to the existing provisions in the Indian Penal Code, Indian Evidence Act and Criminal Procedure Code to deal with acid attacks, besides framing of rules for compensation to survivors. She also sought a complete ban on the sale of acid across the country citing the number of such horrific attacks.
In July 2013, she won her battle in court for the most part when the court issued a set of new restrictions on the sale of acid, which include a ban on sale to minors and furnishing a photo identity card before buying it, among other such restrictions.
“Over-the-counter sale of acid is completely prohibited unless the seller maintains a log/register recording … the details of the person(s) to whom acid (s) is/are sold, the quantity sold and shall contain the address of the person to whom it is sold,” the court said in an interim order.
Violations of its order “shall attract prosecution under the Poisons Act, 1919” and “the SDM shall be vested with the responsibility of fining the violators and initiating prosecution,” the court said. It even ordered state governments to compensate acid attack victims with Rs 3 lakh.
Through the passage of the Criminal (Amendment) Act, 2013, acid attack was even introduced as a separate offence under the Indian Penal Code. Nonetheless, her battle didn’t stop there.
“Acid is freely available in shops. Our own volunteers have gone and purchased acid easily. In fact, I have myself purchased acid,” she said in November 2014. “We have launched a new initiative called ‘Shoot Acid’. By means of the Right to Information Act, we are trying to acquire data concerning the sale of acid in every district. We intend to present the information collected through this initiative before the Supreme Court to apprise them of the situation on the ground.”
2014 was a bittersweet year for Laxmi. Earlier that year, in March, she had won the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2014, with the then First Lady Michelle Obama presenting it to her, but the high of the award was followed by tragedy—she lost her brother to tuberculosis and father to a heart attack.
This was also the year when she met Alok Dixit a journalist and the founder of the Stop Acid Attack campaign. The two fell in love.
Instead of marrying, the couple took the decision to live-in together.
“We have decided to live together until we die. But we are challenging the society by not getting married. We don’t want people to come to our wedding and comment on my looks. The looks of a bride are most important for people. So, we decided not to have any ceremony,” said Laxmi. In the meantime, she had also co-founded another non-profit with her partner called the Chhanv Foundation. Their child, Pihu, was born on March 25, 2015.
Unfortunately, this is where her life goes downhill again. Soon after their daughter was born, the couple separated on account of personal differences. Although Laxmi had custody of the child, her income streams were beginning to dry up and the cost of raising Pihu was beginning to take a toll. Salary from the non-profits stopped once she left them on account of differences with Dixit. He also did little to support Laxmi and her child, citing the lack of money.
“I have no money. I just don’t. You can check my bank account, and it doesn’t even have Rs 5000. This is how we activists live. I don’t have a regular job, and all the money that my NGO gets is spent in taking care of acid attack survivors,” Dixit tod the Hindustan Times last month.
Despite all the accolades and rewards, no one was ready to offer her a real job (Laxmi is a trained beautician) or even a cheaper place to rent out because of her disfigured face (claims of ‘children might get scared’).
“There is so much money that gets spent on multiple corrective surgeries. Laxmi received Rs 3 lakh in compensation from the government after a Supreme Court order, but much more went in her surgeries and the pregnancy that followed. She got a lot of recognition when she got the award from Michelle Obama, but her award money was not enough. In India, people are willing to give awards, not money,” said Anurag Chauhan, founder of the NGO, Humans for Humanity, speaking to HT.
Fortunately, when news of her current plight became public, aid and assistance came from all over. She has even received a job offer from a hair and makeup academy, which is also willing to fund her daughter’s education.
It’s incredible how much this woman has gone through.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)