In 1980, the police in Bhagalpur, Bihar, shocked the world with news of their savage attacks on undertrials by pouring acid into their eyes to “purify them of their crimes.” As many as 33 people lost their eyesight permanently, evoking an outcry against the police brutality. But if you thought Bihar had been cleansed of its bestiality after the protests, a new documentary film says otherwise. The Eyes of Darkness, directed by Amitabh Parashar, reveals that the blindings continue even today, albeit with a difference: it’s now ordinary citizens who are the perpetrators, not the police.
In 2012, a week before the New Year, Munna Thakur and his friend Kanhaiya Thakur were attacked in their Hingna Aurahi village near Forbesganj in Araria district by a group of men, who proceeded to inject acid into their eyes, leaving them blind.
A complaint lodged with the police said the men were assaulted because Munna’s wife contested the village elections against a member of a higher caste. Parashar’s 54-minute documentary explores the mindless brutality in 21st-century society through the burned eyes of Munna.
“The blindings have continued unabated since the early 1980s,” says Parashar, a New Delhi-based journalist born in Bhagalpur. “It’s used as a method to punish suspected criminals and settle personal scores,” he adds. The Eyes of Darkness, which won a ‘Special Mention’ among non-feature films at the National Film Awards announced earlier this month, traces some of the victims of the Bhagalpur blindings, while extending its focus beyond Munna’s tragedy to other victims like him.
As per the filmmaker, hundreds of people have been forcibly blinded during the last three-and-a-half decades in Bihar. In most cases, the victims belonged to marginalised sections of society.
“There were 20 such cases last year alone… the local media has reported four blindings so far this year,” says Parashar, who came across Munna during a personal visit to Bihar in early 2013. Having witnessed the wails of a victim in front of a police station during the 1980 blindings in Bhagalpur as a schoolboy, Parashar was shocked to hear from Munna that the practice continues in Bihar even today. “I knew at that moment that I was going to make a documentary on this barbarism in my state,” says Parashar, who began shooting by the end of 2013.
“I feel deep remorse, even guilt,” says Munna’s wife Indu Kumari. “Had I not contested the elections, this would not have happened.” Manik Chand Mandal, who is accused of plotting the attack on Munna, says he is innocent. “I represent this village. I am the village head. Do I look like a killer?” asks Mandal in the film. Interestingly, it’s his wife Ranjana Devi, sitting by his side, who is actually the village head. Police say they have “disposed of” the case, but the suspects move freely in the village, threatening the same fate on Munna’s young son.
Ram Kumar Mishra, a lawyer in Bhagalpur who fights these cases for free on behalf of the victims, says even after four decades the victims are struggling for assistance and rehabilitation. “I have filed a writ petition in the Patna High Court and I am ready to go to the Supreme Court to seek justice,” says Mishra. The cases, however, are piling up.
In Lakhisarai district last year, a 10-year-old girl was “punished” by being blinded in one eye because she stole peas from a farm. Parashar says he decided to not use the gruesome pictures of the girl in the film. Ranjit Sada, a farm worker in Sapaul district, was beaten up and blinded—so he wouldn’t be able to identify his attackers—for demanding wages. Mohammed Shahid was attacked with acid 22 years ago in Bhagalpur and lost his left eye. In 2013, he was assaulted again. This time, acid was poured into his right eye.
“People here are not ready to accept any defiance of social norms,” says Patna-based social activist Saibal Gupta, explaining the brutality. “Munna Thakur’s decision to make his wife fight the village elections was a kind of social defiance—being a member of the lower caste, how dare you fight against us (the upper caste)?” he adds, referring to the backlash. Gupta says the state supports the violence by keeping quiet. “We need a movement by civil society to stop this brutal practice.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer