Why you should care
This blinding case eventually led to repercussions — but its ill effects still echo in one Indian state.
On his way to school in Bihar — India’s second-most populous state — 13-year-old Amitabh Parashar saw a man crying in pain. A crowd had gathered, with everyone just “watching him suffer,” he recalls 39 years later. When he went a little closer, he found that the man’s eyes were bleeding. Later, Parashar would learn that the blinded man was one of the 33 victims of the Bhagalpur blindings, a landmark act of cruelty in which policemen pinned down 33 people awaiting trial and poured acid into their eyes.
The man on the road that day in 1980 was one of the first to be blinded by the police in the district of Bhagalpur, known as one of the most politically volatile areas in Bihar state. “The local daroga [policeman] had blinded him and left him just opposite the police station, probably to die,” says Parashar. That grisly sight still haunts him — and the collective memory of those Bhagalpur blindings, the worst-ever case of custodial torture in India, continues to cast a shadow over the country. But its brutality would eventually spur action from the Indian government, and become the first police torture case in which India’s Supreme Court ordered compensation for victims.
Bhagalpur is a small town on the banks of the Ganges River, 145 miles away from Bihar’s capital Patna, known for its Tussar silk saris and a prominent monastic university. The 1980s saw rampant crime and low conviction rates. Police, hoping to control the situation, found a solution they hoped would instill fear in would-be criminals: the blindings of those who had been arrested but not yet convicted.
These blindings went on intermittently in 1979 and 1980, with its victims eventually totaling 33. And when the town finally heard about this barbarous punishment that involved acid and poking needles in these small-time criminals’ eyes, their initial response was even more shocking: they applauded. In fact, the local populace not only supported the police but took its cue from them, tackling alleged criminals in a similar fashion with vigilante blindings that continue to this day. During research for a documentary of the subject, The Eyes of Darkness, Parashar met a young man in a village who was nicknamed “ankhphodwa,” which roughly translates to “one who blinds.” The man was known for having blinded a small boy who plucked mangoes from his orchard.
“On the face of it, India is the biggest democracy in the world. It is a nation that aspires to become a superpower,” Parashar says. “And yet, blind justice is common in Bihar.” After the blindings by the police became public, not everybody was supportive. Then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a symbol of strength at the time who had led the country for most of the previous 15 years, broke down in Parliament when she heard about the grisly details of the case. Gandhi is believed to have told the Parliament that reading about the Bhagalpur blindings made her “physically sick.” She told Parliament on Nov. 30, 1980, “What has this country come to? How can anybody do this to their fellow men?” In 2003, a Bollywood film, Gangaajal, recreated the case.
Parashar estimates that hundreds of people have been blinded in Bihar since 1980. One man he met there in 2013 had acid injected into his eyes by a mob with a syringe while his own son watched. A farmer was blinded in 2014 for having an extramarital affair. A laborer met with the same fate when he demanded back wages, and a woman in 2016 was blinded after being accused of witchcraft.
Illegal torture in custody isn’t rare in India. Between 2010 and 2015, an estimated 591 people died in police custody, and watchdog Human Rights Watch says many likely died during illegal torture. But blindings in Bihar have become something else, Parashar says. “It is about caste. In most of these blindings, the perpetrator is someone from an upper caste community. They want to control others.”
It took almost 21 years for two policemen to get jail time over their role in the original Bhagalpur blindings. A few others were suspended. The warden of the jail at the time went on to become a member of Parliament. The victims, of whom 22 are still alive, were awarded monetary compensation by the court for the loss of their eyes … but just 500 rupees each, or about $7.24.