LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — Shortly after midnight on 12 February 2014, Anshu Rajput felt the skin on her face melting off. Her 55-year-old neighbour, whose sexual advances she had rejected, had clambered over the low wall that separated their houses, crept up to her as she lay sleeping in the courtyard, and poured acid on her face.
Rajput was 15 years old at the time, and she believed her life was over.
More than four years later, Rajput can speak matter-of-factly, not just about the horrific acid attack she survived, but also about the man who disfigured her face.
"He wanted to have sexual relations with me. I told my parents, who complained to his sons. There was a quarrel," she said. "But there are many like him, older men who throw acid on young girls. I know this girl who was also 15 when a man in his fifties threw acid on her. I know this other girl in Delhi who was 17 when her bua's son threw acid on her. He was 45."
But Rajput does not speak of the present in the neutral tone of voice that she uses for her past. The 20-year-old, who hails from Abid Nagar village in Bijnor, is animated when talking about her future, which, unlike her past, she is determined to fashion.
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Currently, Rajput sees the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh as the biggest threat to her future happiness. For the past few months, state authorities have been trying to close a popular cafe named Sheroes Hangout, situated in the heart of Lucknow, which is known for employing acid attack survivors.
The state government has accused the Chhanv Foundation, the organisation which runs Sheroes, of financial irregularities. The New Delhi-based foundation, which opened Sheroes Hangout in Lucknow in collaboration with the UP Mahila Kalyan Nigam under the previous government led by Akhilesh Yadav, denies wrongdoing.
Alok Dixit, who runs Chhanv Foundation, has accused the BJP government of irregularities in the administration of the cafe, as well as lengthy delays in paying the salaries of the acid attack survivors.
"It was only after our campaign to save the cafe gained traction did the government start denying that they were planning to close Sheroes, but this denial is not part of any official paperwork. The UP Mahila Kalyan Nigam is looking to return this space to the LDA (Lucknow Development Authority)," Dixit told HuffPost India.
Rajput and 12 other acid attack survivors who work at Sheroes are caught in the middle of the conflict between Chhanv Foundation, which gave them a new lease of life, and the Adityanath government. They feel trapped under mounting legal notices, red tape, state apathy and a political tug of war between the past and present regime in UP.
"This cafe, the structure, is not Sheroes. We are Sheroes. She plus heroes," said Rajput. "My face was taken from me by a man but I won't allow anyone to take my life."
In August, the Adityanath government announced that a new tender to run Sheroes had been given to a private firm named Lotus Hospitality, but when Chhanv Foundation went to court over irregularities in the tender, it was cancelled.
My face was taken from me by a man but I won't allow anyone to take my life.
In September, the government accused Chhanv Foundation of various financial irregularities and gave them three days to vacate. At this point, the acid attack survivors launched an online campaign against the order. Supporters, both online and in the city, demanded that the state government back off. The survivors also approached the Allahabad High Court, which stayed the government order for 23 days.
Embarrassed, the Adityanath government said that Sheroes would not be closed, but did not clarify whether it would be run by Chhanv Foundation or not. Rita Bahuguna Joshi, the state's minister for child, women and family welfare, issued a statement, reassuring the acid attack survivors that they would not lose their jobs.
"Sheroes hangout cafe won't be closed. The UP government is committed to ensuring livelihood of acid attack survivors. The department has been directed to talk to the survivors and to find a way of the situation," she said.
Rajput, however, does not feel reassured. "In all this time, the minister has never once come to meet us or had a single conversation with us in person," she said. "If she comes to speak with us, she will realise that a lot of homes are functioning because of this place. A lot of hopes and dreams are kept alive with this place. We don't want to go back to the filth from which we have emerged. We would prefer to run a thela outside, but not return to that filth."
This cafe, the structure, is not Sheroes. We are Sheroes. She plus heroes.
Going to the Supreme Court
In the weeks and months that she was consumed by a sense of helplessness after the acid attack, Rajput would never have believed the road to recovery would be fairly swift, not in terms of her physical recovery, but taking charge of her destiny.
The young woman from Abid Nagar village in Bijnor, who lost sight in one eye after the attack, certainly never imagined that she would be heading to the Supreme Court to make her case for Chhanv Foundation.
"I was timid. I did not have the courage to speak before anyone. The way I'm speaking to you, I would not have been able to do it earlier, but now I can express my point of view in public," she said.
Earlier this month, Rajput was told that she had to appear for her first hearing in the Supreme Court
Rajput told this reporter that her heart skipped a beat, but then she quickly set about making plans to catch an overnight train to Delhi. "This cafe is my home and I will fight for it. We will embarrass the government but we will not be bullied," she said.
Pausing only for a few minutes to comment on the peeling ceilings and peculiar growth on the walls of the government hostel where she and other acid attack survivors live, 2-3 girls in one small room, Rajput rushed to pack her bag.
"You ask why we don't trust the government to save us, then just look at this place. It gets flooded in the monsoon. And it gets so dirty that we cannot come here after our surgery. We have to book rooms in a hotel even if we can't afford it," she said.
This cafe is my home and I will fight for it. We will embarrass the government but we will not be bullied.
Rajput continued, "Isn't it the job of the government to ensure there are no acid attacks? Well, the government isn't doing the job. At least, we are creating some public awareness. People now see us and don't think of us as monsters, but humans behind these faces."
While packing her bag for the overnight journey to Delhi, Rajput spoke of how Sheroes had changed her life.
"I had no idea there was such a big world out there. When I was attacked, I thought I was alone in the world. When I got here, I realised there are other acid attack victims. I realised there are other women who have survived atrocities. I realised I was not alone in the world and that has been my biggest strength."
Farah Khan, 33, whose ex-husband threw acid on her in 2011, said that meeting survivors younger than her changed her life.
Khan, who is blind in one eye and only has 20% vision in the other, said, "I used to think, could this attack not have happened after a few years when I was older and I have lived a little? But after joining Sheroes, my thinking changed. I saw younger girls who has been attacked but were determined to carry on with their lives," she said.
On whether she would continue her fight if the allegations against Chhanv Foundation were found to be true, Khan, who was accompanying Rajput to New Delhi, said, "It is the government's job to help us acid attack survivors, but it is Chhanv Foundation that is giving us a second chance at life."
I realised I was not alone in the world and that has been my biggest strength.
Caught in the middle
In March 2016, after he visited the first Sheroes Hangout, in Agra, former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav invited Chhanv Foundation to open a second outlet in Lucknow. Under the Memorandum of Understanding between Chhanv Foundation and UP Mahila Kalyan Nigam, the government was to provide Rs 4.10 lakh every month towards running the cafe to make it self sustainable within two years.
Last month, a state monitoring committee accused Chhanv Foundation of a range of financial irregularities, including paying 12 acid attack survivors less than what other employees at the cafe were earning. The government also said that even though the cafe's earnings in 2017-18 were 13 times more than the previous year, the foundation did not increase the survivors' salaries.
Further, the state government said that Chhanv Foundation failed to open a joint account with the UP Mahila Kalyan Nigam, provided incomplete bill vouchers, electricity bills and documents related to expenditure, and conducted various programmes without seeking permission.
The committee also claimed that the acid attack survivors refused to speak with its representatives without Chhanv Foundation members being present.
"It reflects that all survivors are under pressure of Chhanv Foundation, whereas the objective of the cafe was to make the survivors independent and not to be dependent on any organisation," it said in a report.
Dixit, who runs Chhanv Foundation, claims that the monthly payment of Rs 4.10 lakh stopped six months after the Adityanath government came to power in March 2017. "It was only after we put a lot of pressure did the government release money for the salary of the survivors. They never got full salaries," he said.
Dixit also alleges various irregularities in the manner the tender was granted to Lotus Hospitality, including a report appearing in the media even before the tender was officially opened.
"They announced a tender to run Sheroes Hangout, but Sheroes Hangout, the idea, concept, the execution, everything is ours. It is our brand," he said. "They have no experience of working with acid attack survivors. This is not just a job. They have come to seek long-term rehabilitation."
This is not just a job. They have come to seek long-term rehabilitation.
Under the MOU, Dixit said that a state monitoring committee had to be set up to manage the café, which would include one member each from Chhanv Foundation, the UP Mahila Kalyan Nigam and the government, along with a social activist and an auditor, but the panel was only set up in August, months after the Foundation's contract ended on 8 March 2018.
"This committee was made after we put an RTI and went to court. They made the committee in that notice period, excluded us and framed allegations against us," he said.
Highlighting key passages in the proceedings of the committee, Dixit said that it was decided that no one would be given the tender and the space would be returned to the Lucknow Development Authority.
"It is written very clearly. Rita Bahuguna Joshi is saying that café will continue working, but no one is looking at what is written and they have managed the media," he said. "They know that if they take out another tender, we will get it because we are in a unique position to work with acid attack survivors and to run a café."
Financial stability means a lot
"Being close to fire can melt our skin, so we cannot cook, but other than that we do everything," said Khan.
From taking orders to working the till, the acid attack survivors are responsible for running Sheroes. Financial independence means the world to them. Many women who work at the cafe send money to their families living in small towns and villages in UP.
"With the exception of my parents, my relatives and even close friends distanced themselves from me after the attack. But after I became financially independent, they came back," she said. "That's just the way of the world."
Under a new agreement with Chhanv Foundation, which they entered in March, the acid attack survivors say they are paid Rs 23,000 every month. The UP government paid them Rs 12,000 every month, and the survivors claim they received this after lengthy delays.
Rajput and Khan both said they received a lump sum of around Rs 50,000 each, once or twice. Rajput added that the government still owes her Rs 1 lakh in salary arrears.
The prospect of a future in which she is not self-dependent terrifies Khan who, before losing her eyesight, used to earn a living making clothes. Her father, a heart patient, no longer works, and the burden of supporting her family is on her and one of her three brothers.
"The fact that I can stand on my own two feet is helping me find my place in the world," she said.
They have no experience of working with acid attack survivors. This is not just a job.
As she zipped up her duffel bag, Khan said, "Even when I was attacked, I was in a rush to get better. I used to keep asking the doctor when will I get better. I still don't have an answer."
Making her way out of the door, she said, "I realised that life never stops, it keeps going, and I have found the will to keep going."
I realised that life never stops, it keeps going, and I have found the will to keep going.
At the hearing on 10 October, the Supreme Court said the Chhanv Foundation could run the cafe for nine months, during which period the Allahabad High Court will finish hearing the matter.
Rajput recalled standing behind their lawyer, next to Khan, staring up at the judge during the 10-minute hearing.
"We did not say anything, the lawyer was doing the talking, but I was confident that we would get a ruling in our favour," she said. "When the judge gave us nine months, the emptiness that I was feeling in my heart melted away."
"We have not done anything wrong. Now, we have nine months to prove it," said Rajput.
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