India's Supreme Court will hear petitions Monday from 15 men who claim police deliberately blinded them by puncturing their retinas with needles and then pouring acid on the wounded eyes as part of a law and order campaign.
Newspapers have reported at least 29 and perhaps as many as 40 such incidents in the town of Bhagalpur in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, about 180 miles northwest of Calcutta, but only 15 cases are coming before the Supreme Court on habeas corpus petitions to get them released from jail.
In almost every case, the men have not been convicted but are awaiting trial on criminal charges.
The episode is the latest publicized example of allegedly widespread police corruption and brutality in India -- including mass rapes of women by police officers, the use of professional witnesses in trials, the common use of third-degree methods to exhort confessions and the fast use of sticks and guns during disturbances.
The Times of India in an editorial yesterday called the alleged deliberate blinding by police of the men awaiting trials "the most brutal instance since independence [33 years ago] of goring human rights to death."
Most shocking, said correspondent Arun Sinha in the article in the Indian Express that brought the practice to light, is that "the cruelty has the sanction and active support of senior police officials who daily brief their minions on the highly commendable and effective method of dealing with criminals."
The alleged blindings might never have come into the open if the jail authorities in Bhagalpur had not complained to the state government that they needed a bigger staff to care for the sightless men in prison.
Once reports of the blindings appeared in India's national newspapers -- first in the Express, followed a few days later by the Times of India and with a cover story in Sunday magazine -- Indian authorities took notice. The speaker of the national Parliament requested a report from the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the Bihar state government formed a committee that includes the leader of the opposition party.
The Supreme Court also has asked Bihar officials about the charges, but no reply has been received, according to the news reports.
Despite petitions to local Bihar courts that were filed as long ago as July, nothing was done about the allegations until the news reports surfaced here. The Bihar Home Ministry official assigned to investigate the newspaper accusations told the Times of India that his office may have received a report of the blindings from jail authorities, but "if it was sent, it might have been lying buried in the files somewhere."
The newspaper articles described the blindings in such graphic detail that many readers found them too sickening to finish.
Today's Indian Express told the story of Baljit Singh, a young man in his twenties, who related how he was taken to a police station on Oct. 6, accused of being a criminal despite his cries of innocence, and then taken to a truck where a man addressed as "Dr. Sahib" pierced his eyes with a bicycle spoke. Then, he said, acid was poured in the wound.
Similarly, Sunday Magazine had a three-page article with similar detail of other cases, and published a list of 25 names of men it said were blinded while in jail awaiting trials on criminal charges.
In some of the cases, police and men described as doctors were reported to have forced the suspected criminals to go through the eye-piercing and acid punishment a second time because they were not completely blinded on the first try.
According to the Indian Express, most of the blinded men are young, come from poor families and belong to a lower caste.
According to the newspaper accounts, the alleged blindings started in February and have taken place in five police stations in the Bhagalpur area, which is known for its harsh extralegal treatment of suspected criminals.
Police in India remain much as they were during the British rule -- a repressive force to keep the people in line, feared rather than respected. Their level of pay is poor and they receive hardly any training. Their typical method of crowd control is to beat on people with the long sticks they carry, called lathis.
This spring, Delhi police were accused of staging a lathi charge against a procession of blind men and women demonstrating for greater benefits. More recently, a poor water seller admitted to being a paid police witness in 4,000 criminal cases during the past 20 years. He said he had never seen the events he testified about on behalf of the prosecution.
The papers are also full of cases where women charge they were raped by police officers, often when going into a police station to report a crime or to seek help. The charges became so numerous that the central government told the states they should not allow police to bring women into the station houses at night.