When lawyer Aparna Bhat first met Laxmi Agarwal in 2005, the latter was 15 and had undergone two surgeries in two months after an acid attack that had left her face and neck nearly charred. Though Bhat, then 35, had worked on several cases of domestic and sexual violence, the meeting with Agarwal shook her. “I had never seen anything like that,” Bhat told HuffPost India.
A human rights lawyer who mostly worked on cases of violence against women and children, Bhat had often discussed the need to ban the sale of acid in India. “There were people already working on the issue, to be fair. There was this organisation in Bangalore which had been demanding a ban on acid,” Bhat said.
Bhat not only took up Agarwal’s fight for justice, she also filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in 2006, seeking a ban on the sale of acid, a case she fought for 11 long years against successive governments.
When Bhat started work on Agarwal’s case, Naeem, the 35-year-old man who plotted the attack, was out on bail. But the woman accused, Rakhi, Naaem’s brother’s partner who actually threw the acid on Agarwal in conspiracy with him, was jailed and never got bail.
“It was atrocious!” Bhat said.
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In 2009, four years after the attack, both Naeem and Rakhi were convicted to life in prison. Bhat’s PIL also led to significant changes in the lives of acid attack survivors—the Indian Penal Code was amended to introduce a section that exclusively dealt with acid attacks; a universal compensation scheme was drawn up; acid sales were ordered to be regulated; and finally, in 2015, the Supreme Court issued a directive that made it mandatory for private and public hospitals to treat acid attack victims for free.
Most recently, Bhat made headlines for moving court against the makers of Deepika Padukone’s Chhapaak, demanding that she be given due credit in the movie. After the Patiala House Court in Delhi directed Meghna Gulzar’s team to credit Bhat, the film’s producers challenged the order in the Delhi high court. After the Delhi HC also ruled in favour of Bhat, her name now appears in the list of people credited at the beginning of the film.
But the woman accused, Rakhi, Naeem's brother’s partner who actually threw the acid on Agarwal in conspiracy with him, was jailed and never got bail.
HuffPost India has reached out to Gulzar for a comment and will update this story when she responds.
So what happened with ‘Chhapaak’?
When director Gulzar’s team reached out to Bhat a few years ago, the lawyer was glad someone was taking an interest in Agarwal’s inspiring story. Bhat had several meetings with Gulzar, who was keen on both nailing the legal complexities of the case, as well as understanding the atmosphere and aesthetics of an Indian court.
“I gave them papers from the case files. Their art team also visited so that they get things like a lawyer’s costume, the court bag we carry and stuff like that right,” said Bhat, who also showed Gulzar and her team around the Patiala House court.
“She later sent me a copy of the script as well, to make sure the bits on law were fine. I suggested some changes to them to make it more accurate,” Bhat said.
While there was no explicit agreement about crediting Bhat for her work—not only on Agarwal’s case but also her help to the film’s team—the lawyer did expect some kind of acknowledgement for her contribution.
However, she got a shock last week when she attended the film’s premiere in Delhi (which was hosted by the National Commission for Women)—her name wasn’t mentioned anywhere. “There were a bunch of people they ‘thanked’ in the credits, but my name was nowhere. Laxmi’s name wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the credits as well, and the film began with the disclaimer that it was inspired by true events. Then isn’t it just a decent thing to do to credit the real people?” Bhat said.
Bhat said she was also confused that Agarwal herself was not explicitly credited in the film, though she had been present at promotions with the film’s crew.
“I was kind of disappointed. So after the premiere, I told Meghna, in the way of banter, that it was not nice that she did not mention my name and it was disappointing. Meghna brushed it aside and said she’d talk about it later. I guess with Deepika visiting JNU, they had a lot on their plate anyway,” Bhat said.
Some of Bhat’s friends, however, tweeted their disappointment at her not being credited in the movie. “I did not ask them to tweet, nor am I on Twitter. But yes, I did discuss my disappointment with them. And some of them who use Twitter tweeted,” she said.
Later that night, said Bhat, Gulzar got in touch to ask her if she had anything to do with the tweets, to which Bhat admitted that some of them were her friends. “She was not very happy about that and was mostly upset that I had gone public with these issues. After some back and forth, she said that she would think about it after the film is released,” she said.
It was after that Bhat filed a case to secure a stay order on the film’s release till she was given due credit. In court, Gulzar’s team argued that she had done a slew of films based on true events and she had not given explicit credit to anyone in the film itself. “They mentioned something about Talvar and Raazi (Gulzar’s earlier films, also based on true events), and not having to give credit. It did not make any sense to me. I am not okay with this and that’s that,” Bhat said.
Gulzar told Bhat that she had mentioned her in various interviews and that counted as credit, but Bhat couldn’t find many articles that mentioned her. “I found one article that said something about ‘Laxmi’s lawyer’, and that’s all. I’ve not had the time to go through all her interviews also,” she said.
However, having watched the film, Bhat said that the character of the lawyer has been fleshed out brilliantly and most of the portrayal is accurate. Gulzar, she said, has also not taken too many creative liberties and made things ridiculously melodramatic, which is a rarity in film adaptations of real-life stories.
Viewers of the film would agree that Gulzar’s treatment of the subject is both sensitive and nuanced—the movie not only brings home the extent to which acid attacks can derail people’s lives, it also effectively outlines the limitations of India’s British-era Penal Code, which the criminal justice machinery relies on to provide justice to survivors.
The acid attack case, and a PIL to ban acid sales
In 2005, while working on Agarwal’s case, Bhat realised that the biggest hurdle was the absence of a law to exclusively deal with acid attacks. Until then, acid attack cases were often not treated with gravity and perpetrators could easily get bail, because the victim’s trauma was often not taken into account by judges. The way to deal with it, Bhat realised, was to show Agarwal’s face to the judge so that they understood the extent of pain the young girl has experienced.
So she persuaded Agarwal, then merely 16, to remove her dupatta and show her face to the judge.
“She was just a teenager, imagine how difficult it must have been for her. But she did not back down. She wept, but she still went ahead and faced the judge, even though every response her injuries elicited — be it shock, or sympathy — hurt her,” said Madhulika Mohta, Bhat’s junior, who worked closely with Laxmi during the days of the trial.
There was a reason it was important for the judge to see Agarwal’s face. Acid attack and burn victims were generally met with apathy and dismissal by the judiciary and the police, Mohta explained. “Sirf jali i toh hai. Zinda toh hai na, chal to sakti hai. (She’s just burnt, right? She is alive, she is also able to walk and perform daily functions). That was the general attitude to acid attack victims from the people meant to give them justice. If she was not paralysed or bedridden, then her trauma must not be that great either, was a general assumption. Seeing pictures could not capture the pain they went through,” Mohta said.
“In cases of rape and domestic violence, judges immediately understood the victim’s trauma and denied bail. But with acid attacks, they would drag their feet. Seeing Laxmi gave them the idea of how deep the trauma of acid attack survivors is.
At the end of the day, it was also Agarwal’s spirit that helped fight the case. Mohta remembers one instance when the teenager turned up at their Jangpura office, restless and upset. “I have nothing to do. I am not getting any work, I want to do something,” she told Mohta, and her colleague. “Why don’t you make kurtas for us, simple ones we can wear to work, we told her,” Mohta said.
Despite her trauma, and the exhaustion of legal proceedings, Agarwal threw herself into the work. In two weeks, she turned up at their office with two beautifully made, well-fitted kurtas designed all by herself. “She even sourced the material herself, designed it,” Mohta said. “It was a very high-pressure situation, but she did not let it affect her.”
“Apart from that, she is a very articulate woman and she was like that even as a young girl, facing severe trauma and uncertainty. She’d speak slowly and calmly and her words really resonated with the people around,” Bhat said.
Meanwhile, Naeem, the main accused, was out on bail. His brother Imran was allegedly also involved in the plot and finally, it was his partner Rakhi who threw the acid at the teenager while Naeem orchestrated their escape. Imran was later acquitted, though he was charged with conspiring with the duo.
Bhat is not aware if Rakhi had a criminal record, but unlike Naeem, she did not get bail. “By the time her bail hearing came up, I was a part of the case and opposed her release vehemently,” Bhat said.
After Padukone’s visit to JNU, many right-wing websites and trolls spread the false news that the film had changed the perpetrator’s religion, making him a Hindu. This was swiftly debunked by fact-checking websites and film reviewers and technical experts, Bhat said that Gulzar never even thought of doing this from the beginning.
His brother Imran was allegedly also involved in the plot and finally it was his partner Rakhi who threw the acid at the teenager while Naeem orchestrated their escape.
From the drafts of the script she shared with Bhat a couple of years ago and the interactions that followed, it was clear that the perpetrator was always a man named Bashir. “They made Rakhi ‘Parveen’ in the script,” Bhat said.
While the trajectory of the criminal case was fairly straightforward, it was the PIL seeking a ban on acid sale that turned out to be a ridiculously long-drawn battle for Bhat.
“In the criminal case, Laxmi and her family knew all the perpetrators, and Rakhi and Naeem were convicted in four years. By Indian standards, that is pretty good,” Bhat said. Naeem got 10 years in jail and Rakhi, seven.
But the government, at that time the UPA led by Congress, was unwilling to pay heed to the PIL, and initially sought to get it dismissed.
“Most of the time, they argued that acid was necessary for everyday jobs, so they could not ban acid sales. In fact, the first time the PIL came up for a hearing was two years after it was filed,” Bhat said.
The court also contributed to the delay, saying it was the government’s prerogative to take a decision.
Bhat said she had to constantly review and change her strategy so that the PIL did not lose relevance and courts did not lose interest. “Often, in long-drawn public interest litigations such as these, people lose interest unless there is a sense of immediacy,” she said.
Since the government was insistent that the use of acid in daily life meant it could not be banned, Bhat had to find innovative ways to counter this.
“I argued that they had banned the sale of eggs in Rishikesh. If they can do something like that, they can surely ban acid, which is taking the lives of women?” she said, a scene which made its way into Chhapaak as well.
Bhat also got the court order banning acid sale in Bangladesh in 2002 translated into English and presented it in the court.
Bhat remembers that there was a lot of “emotional rhetoric” from both the court and the government on how terrible life was for survivors, but nothing concrete came from it.
“I argued that they had banned the sale of eggs in Rishikesh. If they can do something like that, they can surely ban acid, which is taking the life of women?”
“Every time the government was reprimanded, they would say they will do something, but finally didn’t do much,” Bhat said.
Finally, in 2011, the narrative began to change—on the basis of Bhat’s PIL, the court directed the government to form a universal compensation scheme for acid attack victims. In 2013, the scheme — where survivors get Rs 3 lakh in compensation from the government — became functional.
Then, in 2013, the IPC was amended to introduce a law that exclusively dealt with acid attack victims as a separate offence. The absence of a separate law on acid attacks until then was ridiculous and had emboldened criminals. The 2013 law defined what ‘acid’ was in legal terms and fixed a minimum of 10 years imprisonment which could extend to a life.
“Prior to that, people could get off with shorter sentences. Till then, acid attackers were booked under either attempt to murder or Section 326, which was meant for people who ‘voluntarily cause grievous hurt by dangerous weapons’,” Bhat said.
Also in 2013, seven years after the PIL was filed, the Supreme Court ordered that acid sale should be regulated and only licensed retailers could sell it. Bhat remembers one particular instance when Justice RM Lodha, who was briefly the Chief Justice of India in 2014, lost his cool with the government for not acting fast enough.
“At one of the hearings, I was speaking very angrily, my patience with the government was running very low. Justice Lodha asked me why I was shouting since the government has been accommodating and has been listening to my demands. I had been fighting the case for seven years then. After that, he asked the government to respond to me within 7 days,” Bhat said.
Later, when the government appeared before the court, they did not have appropriate responses to Bhat’s queries and in fact, seemed like they had not done much work on the issue at all. “They said something like ‘yes we are also looking into this’,” Bhat said.
“Justice Lodha shouted at them, saying ‘what do you mean by also looking into this. This is not important enough for you, women are losing their lives and you are also looking into it?’ he said.”
In 2015, the Supreme Court directed that all hospitals, including private facilities, should provide free treatment to acid attack victims. “You only have to show the copy of the FIR and the hospital has to treat you for free. And not just preliminary care or medicines, but they’d also have to do surgeries,” Bhat said.
However, she added that there hasn’t been enough advocacy on either the regulation of acid sales or the free treatment of acid attack survivors.
“Private facilities will try their best to wriggle out of this. These treatments are incredibly expensive and they’d try to not have to do it. Victims may not even know that they can go to a good private hospital and get free treatment,” Bhat said, saying there was a strong need for sensitisation camps and awareness campaigns.