Sangita Magar: from survivor to champion… but brave acid survivor now dreads her attacker’s release from prison
Four years after surviving an acid attack, and following 17 surgical procedures on her face, Sangita Magar and her family are re-traumatised by the pending release from jail of her attacker Jiwan B K.
When B K was arrested days after the acid attack on his neighbour Sangita, then a high-school student, he threatened to kill the family after serving his sentence. Says Sangita’s mother Chameli Magar: “We take his threat very seriously. He is unrepentant and could do it again.”
In 2015 Sangita Magar was 16, taking tutorials for her high school exam and dreaming of one day making it to Nepal’s national karate team. She was happy, had many friends, did well in school and wanted to become a doctor.
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Corrosive Conduct, Editorial
Those carefree days are reflected in Sangita's small bedroom. On the blue wall is a framed photograph of a young girl posing with her sari-clad mother. Several medals for winning karate championships hang between two flags of Nepal. On the bedside table sit various shades of nail polish, and beside them is a birthday greeting card urging the receiver to ‘appreciate the moments that have filled your life with laughter and joy’.
Sangita and her friend Sima Basnet were at a tuition centre in the Basantapur neighbourhood of Kathmandu when a boy in a hoodie entered the room, splashed a fiery liquid on them and fled.
Sangita first thought someone had thrown a balloon filled with hot water at her, but she felt her face, hands and body burn. Instinctively, she rushed out into the street and ran all the way home to her mother.
When she arrived, her skin was peeling off, and Sangita was screaming in pain. Chameli Magar, poured water on her daughter, and with the help of neighbours rushed her to Bir Hospital. That is all Sangita remembers of the day.
Due to her critical condition, Sangita was referred to KMC Hospital, where doctors managed to save her life but not her face. After many surgical procedures in the past four years, despite bouts of depression and fear of facing people, Sangita is now an undergraduate and has become a social activist supporting other survivors of acid attacks in Nepal.
Unlike most victims who are reclusive and unwilling to talk, Sangita is confident and forthright. The more outspoken she is in public, the more Sangita feels she can be effective in exposing the misogyny and violence that lies at the root of the crime committed against her.
She also wants to set the media right for how unfairly reporters treated her and her family after the acid attack. She breaks down in tears as she recalls reporters bombarding her with personal questions and forcing her to relive her trauma, even blaming her for the attack.
“So many journalists came to interview me, and they all asked questions in a very insensitive manner that were difficult to answer,” she recalls. “I could feel my pain and suffering get worse.”
A few days after the attack, police tracked down Sangita's attacker Jiwan B K and produced him before the media. B K was unrepentant, telling reporters he carried out the acid attack to seek revenge against the Magar family for having mistreated him because he was a Dalit. Some in the media insinuated that Sangita and Jiwan were having an affair and that she had rejected him because of his caste.
Sangita has had four years to analyse Jiwan’s motive, and thinks it all started with a dispute over a toilet shared by several families living in her neighbourhood. Jiwan B K had an altercation with Sangita’s brother Santosh over the use of the bathroom, and the dispute escalated, leading Jiwan to take revenge on the girl.
Sangita’s friend Sima Basnet, who was slightly injured in the attack, is now in India and will soon graduate in political science. Both the girls now want to devote their lives to helping victims of acid attacks by providing counselling, ensuring justice is done, and by addressing the roots of the crime in Nepal’s patriarchal mores.
Meanwhile, Chameli Magar blames herself for perhaps not doing enough to protect her daughter that fateful morning four years ago. She was told she should have poured milk on Sangita instead of water to neutralise the acid, which she did not know then.
Chameli was initially worried that Sangita would give up studies and work as a cleaner like herself. She supported her daughter as she overcame bouts of depression during her recovery, and encouraged her to go out more.
“I never got a chance to learn how to read and write,” says Chameli. “I now clean other people’s homes for a living, I don’t want my daughter to end up like me. I am proud of her for supporting other victims, in the same way that many of us provided her with emotional support after the attack.”
Thanks to her mother, Sangita has gained confidence to venture out, return to school and advocate for change. She wants the sale of acid in shops to be strictly controlled and is lobbying the health ministry to create a separate facility for acid burn patients, so they get specialised care.
Sangita’s activism has inspired many people in Nepal and abroad, and has turned her into a role model. Many acid attack survivors have reached out to her. Sangita says she does not want people’s pity but to join her struggle for justice.
Section 193 of the Criminal Code, which came into effect in August 2018, states that acid attackers will be fined up to Rs300,000 and/or be jailed 5-8 years depending on the seriousness of the attack. If the victim dies, the culprit faces a murder charge.
Sangita wants the punishment to be more stringent, and the law to be amended to include payment for the victim’s treatment as well as compensation. For now, her family’s main worry is that Jiwan is getting out of jail soon, and that he may attack again.
Acid is a weapon
Burns Violence Survivors (BVS) Nepal has been helping an average of 250 patients with burns caused by fire and acid every year. Many are women burnt by in-laws for not providing enough dowry, but the organisation has also been helping victims (almost all young women) who have been subjected to acid attacks by husbands, jealous and spurned men or in-laws. Acid is corrosive and damages human tissue by eating through the skin into the muscles and bone. The healing process is also longer than for survivors burned by fire, and acid attack survivors need specialised care.
The acid attack on Sangita Magar was all over the news that week in February 2015. I used to live near the Magar residence, and knew the family, so I followed the news with interest. One morning a week after the attack, I received a phone call from Hanuman Dhoka Police.
I felt a chill run down my spine since I had done nothing wrong, and wondered how the police found my number. They wanted to talk to me about a phone call I had received that morning.
When I arrived, many other people were waiting to be questioned, so I felt less nervous. The police wanted to know who had called me. I told them it was my friend who lived in the neighbourhood where the attack occurred, calling to wake me up to go to my high school class.
I was impressed that the police had the ability to check every number by geolocation. It was two weeks later that they tracked down Jiwan B K and arrested him.
The Das Sisters
It has been eight months since the rainy night when a neighbour splashed acid on the Das sisters as they slept in their home in Chandrapur of Rautahat.
Samjhana Das, 18, had burns to 35% of her body and was rushed to a hospital in Kathmandu, where she died an agonising death 12 days later. Her sister Sushmita, 16, survived but wears high-neck, full sleeve clothes to hide the burn scars.
“I miss my sister a lot. I don’t want to go back to my village: there are too many bad memories and the same old questions that I am not ready for from people,” says Sushmita softly while waiting for a surgeon's appointment (right). She now lives with her aunt in Kathmandu because her mother is separated from her father and works in Malaysia.
It was Samjhana’s testimony from her hospital bed that led to the arrest of the family’s neighbour, Rambabu Paswan, who she said used to stalk and repeatedly proposition her.
After the attack, Paswan had helped the sisters’ father rush the girls to Kathmandu for treatment. At the hospital he even told Nepali Times (#929, pictured above, left) that the girls “are like daughters to me”. It was all an act.
Paswan is now behind bars in Rautahat Jail. Government lawyer Khadindra Raj Katuwal, who has been handling the case, said that paperwork is taking time but added: “Paswan will be in jail for life as this case is being tried as a murder.”
Sushmita is in Grade 8 in a Kathmandu school, and is hoping for a better life and future.
Acid attack makes it to Bollywood
Laxmi Agarwal was just 15 in New Delhi when an acid attack disfigured her entire face. Since then she has become an activist, leading the Stop Sale Acid campaign to end the easy availability of acid in roadside shops. However, very few people knew about her story before Bollywood’s celebrity actress Deepika Padukone decided to make a biopic about her journey.
Chhapak (Splash) is releasing in January 2020 but has already created a stir in the media, with every post Padukone shares about the shoot on social media going viral. The actress wears shocking prosthetic makeup reproducing the damaged skin on Agarwal’s face.
“I never imagined that one day people would recreate the look of an acid victim, or even make a biopic on my life,” Agarwal told an interviewer, crediting the movie, and especially Padukone, for her fame. Agarwal hopes the movie will be “a tight slap on the face of my attacker, who thought he had destroyed my life”.
Nepal’s own Rekha Thapa also produced a movie, Rudrapriya, focusing on acid attacks, but Bollywood’s wider reach will give the crime much more publicity. Agarwal’s story shares many similarities with the case in Nepal of Samjhana and Sushmita Das last year (see above). Like Samjhana, Agarwal was attacked as a teenager by a man twice her age for rejecting her advances. Samjhana succumbed to her injuries, while her sister Sushmita survived.
Chhapak is expected to help efforts in both India and Nepal to regulate the sale of acid.