Two years ago, 17-year-old Sajan Masih had slipped a chocolate and an artificial ring in the school bag of Manpreet Kaur, two years his junior. All hell broke loose when Manpreet’s parents complained to the principal of the government school in Singhpura village in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district. Sajan was rusticated from school. Though the order was later revoked, Sajan never returned to school. The incident, and Sajan himself, were soon forgotten.
Sajan didn’t forget, though. He often turned up on the 2 km road that Manpreet and her five friends took to school from their village in Dharmabad village, but the girls ignored him. On the evening of March 17, he rode pillion on his friend Lovepreet’s bike and the two confronted the girls at an overbridge, a kilometre from Dharmabad village. He had with him a bottle of acid and just when Manpreet and her friends, all students of Class VIII, reached the bridge on their way back from school, Sajan flung the acid at them. His target was Manpreet, but she was in the centre and it was her friend Prabhjot Kaur, 16, who took the hit.
Prabhjot, who has burns on her face, chest and arms, was soon shifted to Fortis Hospital in Ludhiana. Doctors are working to save her right eye, which has been severely damaged in the attack. Her friends — Manpreet Kaur, who was the target of the attack and who suffered burns on her right cheek and neck, Arshpreet, Gagandeep Kaur, Asha Masih and Sukhmandeep — are in the emergency ward of Dera Baba Nanak government hospital.
A case of stalking and attacking with acid have been registered at the Dera Baba Nanak police station against Sajan; Thomas Masih, Sajan’s neighbour who owns the bike used in the attack; Lovepreet, who rode the bike that day; and Santokh Singh, a dairy owner who allegedly supplied the acid to Sajan. The four are now in judicial custody at Gurdaspur jail.
At his two-room brick house, Manpreet’s father Baljinder Singh, a farm labourer, says, “We complained about Sajan to the school two years ago, but I thought the matter was closed. I never knew Sajan was still after my daughter. I always felt Manpreet was safe. All six of them would go to school and come back together.”
Lying in her bed at the Dera Baba Nanak hospital, Manpreet’s friend Arshpreet recalls, “It was the last day of our exams and we were very happy and looking forward to the 13-day break. It was around 4 pm and the six of us were walking back from school. We had barely covered 500 metres when we saw Sajan. He has troubled Manpreet in the past, so when we saw him, we tried to protect her by moving her to the centre. Suddenly, Sajan flung something at us and we felt our skin burning. It was unbearable. We ran home. We later came to know that Prabhjot was hurt the most,” she says.
Prabhjot’s mother Gurjeet Kaur hasn’t left her daughter’s bedside since the attack. “She wakes up crying in the middle of night. She was shocked when she saw herself in the hospital mirror. I keep telling her that they’ll do plastic surgery like they show in movies and she will be fine.” She then steps away from her daughter’s bed and whispers, “I am worried about who will marry her now. People will make up these stories about why a man attacked her with acid,” she says.
Prabhjot, her face heavily bandaged, says, “I was looking forward to the holidays, but ended up here. What was my fault? I did not do anything to him.” She then quickly asks, “Do you know how long it takes to complete the plastic surgery? The doctors aren’t telling me. I want to know when I can go back to school,” she says.
Back at her home in Dharmabad village, Prabhjot’s father Narinder Singh says, “How can anyone pour acid on such innocent girls? My daughter’s face is all black with burns. I can’t bear to see my little one suffering so much,” he says.
At his home in Bauli village, 10 km from the Singhpura government school, Pooran Masih, Sajan’s grandfather, is a broken man. Pooran, 70, works as a labourer and lives with his paralysed son, daughter-in-law and their two children. “When the school threw him out two years ago, I begged with them to take him back. They did, but Sajan refused to go to school after that. It’s all my mistake. I have just been busy arranging for two square meals for the family and earning some money for my son’s treatment. All this while, I did not know what Sajan was up to,” he says.