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JUSTICE HURRIED IS JUSTICE BURIED ‘BHAGALPUR BLINDINGS’

INTRODUCTION

We have often heard the phrase that justice delayed is justice denied but, in an attempt, to attain quick justice, we try to surpass the established procedure and become the judge, jury, and executioner. Bhagalpur blinding case is one such incident where police tried to circumvent the judiciary and itself tried to deliver justice in the most inhumane way.

THE DETAILS

In October 1979, in the town of Bhagalpur in Bihar, law enforcement officials started an infamous operation that lasted nearly a year before it came into the national limelight. They rounded up a bunch of under-trials and brought them to a police station and by using some long needles or bicycle spokes the police pierced their eyes. The pain of the victims didn’t stop there. The officers then poured sulphuric acid into the mutilated eye sockets. Prisoners who had lost their sight were taken to the Rajendra Prasad Ophthalmic Institute in New Delhi, where it was announced that no surgery or medical intervention could restore the victims’ vision, which had been permanently lost. The details are shocking.

LOCALS SUPPORTED THE BRUTALITY

However, not everyone was shocked. The locals vociferously supported the police. According to them, the victims were criminals and the courts simply weren’t good enough. Thus, instant justice was necessary. It is also important to remember that these victims were still under trial. It means that their cases were still pending. The accusations on these victims ranged from petty crimes like theft to heinous ones like rape and murder. It’s not difficult to understand why there was so much support for the blinding. The public demand for quick has been seen across time throughout many cases in India.

FAILURE OF AUTHORITIES AND MEDIA

The question arises about the actions taken to deal with this issue. The operation ran for nearly a year and nobody got a whiff of it? The local newspapers did report the issue but it couldn’t get attention from outside Bhagalpur. The national media didn’t report the issue and the killings continued unabated. The media’s apathy only emboldened the police and led to many more people losing their eyesight. Meanwhile, the district and session judges acted carelessly by failing to visit the Bhagalpur prison to review the case. It was only after, the outstanding lawyer, Kapila Hingorani filed a petition in the Supreme Court that the blindings started grabbing attention.[1]

JUDICIAL ACTION: COMPENSATION FOR VICTIMS

The Bhagalpur blinding case was the first time in the history of the law that the Supreme Court had mandated compensation for a breach of fundamental human rights through the judgment Khatri And Others vs State Of Bihar & Ors.[2] It was judged that the police by blinding the victims had deprived them of their rights to life and liberty and accordingly, 15 sub-inspectors were suspended.

WAS JUSTICE ACHIEVED?

It was believed to be a satisfactory ending but that is far away from the truth. After a short suspension, the 15 sub-inspectors (SI) were quietly reinstated one by one.[3] It looked as if the state government had indirectly rewarded them by giving them powerful portfolios and comfortable postings. Technically so far only low-level police officers have been charged despite accusations that the blindings had been allegedly encouraged from the top. The police superintendent of Bhagalpur who was accused of being a key player in this whole fiasco was neither arrested nor suspended. He was simply transferred. After retirement, he joined a political party in 2013[4] and is currently serving as an MP from Jharkhand in the Lok Sabha.

Paradoxically, the two men who did more than anyone else to bring the blindings to light and expose the culprits ended up paying the consequences. Superintendent of Bhagalpur Jail Bachu Lal Das was suspended for speaking out. Lalit Vijay Singh, who as deputy inspector general, headed the investigation team that showed the police as the guilty party, was later suspended for having publicized the report Both these men would later spend years fighting in courts to repeal their arbitrary suspensions.

The court-mandated compensation that each of the victims was supposed to receive for the infringement of their rights was a grand pension of mere 750 rupees per month. What is almost laughably tragic is that the victims haven’t received their pensions since November 2019.[5] Almost a year One can only imagine how they managed to survive in the middle of a global pandemic and strict lockdowns without their primary source of livelihood.

A factor that somewhat seemed to justify the police actions toward the local population was that there was a noticeable reduction in crime after the blindings. Unfortunately, the deterrent effect didn’t last for long. According to official State police stats, crime in Bihar and Bhagalpur nearly doubled in the period between 2010 and 2019[6]. Therefore, technically, the killings didn’t have any effects.

POLICE BRUTALITY CONTINUES IN MODERN-DAY BIHAR

So, do the blindings remain just a small but ugly blot on Bihar’s history? The question itself is wrong. These incidents aren’t just a part of Bihar’s history, they are still very much part of the present as well. Even after the Supreme Court verdict, the blindings never really stopped. Today in Bihar blinding has become an effective tool to terrorize lower caste and poor people into submission. This is what is known as the “demonstration effect.”[7] The police brutality incident from 1979 serves as a cruel template for vigilantes in modern-day Bihar to follow. The reasons for snuffing the light out of people’s eyes have often been shockingly trivial. A teacher blinded a student in one eye because he didn’t give a proper answer in class.[8] A man blinded a small boy who plucked mangoes from his trees. Another man was assaulted in late 2012 because his wife contested for the post of sarpanch against a higher caste candidate. In 2014, a farmer who had an extramarital relationship was blinded. When a worker asked for payment, he faced the same outcome. In 2016, a lady had been accused of witchcraft and was blinded.[9] This is what lack of accountability does. Since the original police officers who performed this act weren’t punished, it sends out the signal that it is perfectly okay to blind a person without fear of consequences.

CONCLUSION

In the end, we reach the conclusion that all instant justice does is provide short-term relief. Instant justice without accountability, in the long run, inspires perverse imitations which try to deliver a distorted form of justice. More often than not it is usually the poor and the socially backward who bear the brunt of this so-called justice. Although the honourable Supreme Court set a precedent by providing compensation for a breach of fundamental rights, on the ground level the suffering of people did not end. It is therefore aptly said that “Justice delayed is justice denied, but justice hurried is justice buried.”

Author(s) Name: Eshita Dhawan (Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab)

References:

[1] Ahmed F and Bobb D, “Bhagalpur Blindings Represents One of the Darkest Chapters in India’s History” India Today (December 31, 1980) <https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/special-report/story/19801231-bhagalpur-blindings-represents-one-of-the-darkest-chapters-in-indias-history-773650-2013-11-29>  accessed October 19, 2022

[2] Khatri And Others vs State Of Bihar & Ors (1981) SCR (2) 408 (1981) SCC (1) 627

[3] Kalbag C, “Bhagalpur Blindings Did Not Reduce Spiralling Crime Rate” (1982) India Today <https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/indiascope/story/19820115-bhagalpur-blindings-did-not-reduce-spiralling-crime-rate-771378-2013-10-19 > accessed October 19, 2022

[4] Singh S, “Former Cop, Bhagalpur SP during ‘Op Gangajal’, Joins BJP” Indian Express (May 1, 2013) <http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/former-cop-bhagalpur-sp-during–op-gangajal–joins-bjp/1109986> accessed October 19, 2022

[5] Khan MI, “Pension Stopped for a Year, Bhagalpur Blindings Victims Approach SC for Justice” (NewsClick December 11, 2020) <https://www.newsclick.in/Pension-Stopped-Year-Bhagalpur-Blindings-Victims-Approach-SC-Justice > accessed October 19, 2022

[6] <http://police.bihar.gov.in/menuhome/crime-in-bihar.html> accessed on 17th February, 2023

[7] Hindu T, “Demonstration Effect” The Hindu (October 2, 2018 <https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/demonstration-effect/article25099643> accessed October 19, 2022

[8] Ramnath N, “Documentary ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ Reveals the Horrific Copycat Effect of the Bhagalpur Blindings” (Scroll.in January 15, 2017) <https://scroll.in/reel/826748/documentary-the-eyes-of-darkness-reveals-the-horrific-copycat-effect-of-the-bhagalpur-blindings > accessed October 19, 2022

[9] Muzaffar M, “These Brutal Blindings Shook a Nation … and They’re Still Happening ” (OZY Live Curiosity August 6, 2019) <https://www.ozy.com/true-and-stories/these-brutal-blindings-shook-a-nation-and-theyre-still-happening/95240> accessed October 19, 2022