Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said today she "felt physically sick" when she learned of the deliberate blinding by police of at least 31 prisoners and said she is donating almost $2,000 to each of the victims.
The government, defending itself in both houses of Parliament, announced the arrest of 14 police officers in the eastern Indian district of Bhagalpur, where the blindings took place, and Home Minister Zail Singh promised punishments would reach to the very top of the state of Bihar's police if they were involved.
"Our heads hang in shame at the dastardly act," Singh told the lower house of Parliament, where the issue was brought to the floor by five opposition members who tried unsuccessfully to tie the police atrocities to Gandhi's ruling Congress-I Party.
The government said it was sending a team of top eye specialists to Bhagalpur, a district of 2 million located 180 miles northwest of Calcutta, to see if sight could be restored to any of the blinded men at government expense.
So far, only low-level police officers have been charged despite accusations that the blindings had been encouraged from the top. The police superintendent in Bhagalpur was not arrested but was transferred to headquarters.
Some opposition members called for a parliamentary inquiry into the blindings, but the government said that Bihar Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra has already appointed a committee headed by an opposition member of the state assembly to investigate.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Y. V. Chandrachud, saying that testimony of doctors at a hearing brought by 15 of the blinded prisoners seeking release from jail "will shock the conscience of mankind," ordered two court officials to go to the prison this week to get first-hand information.
Unlike other atrocities that have come to light in recent months -- Hindu-Moslem killings, the slaying of Bengali immigrants by tribals in Tripura and numerous reported cases of police looting and rape -- the blindings have not become a partisan political issue.
Members of Gandhi's party noted that the first reported blinding took place in October 1979, before Gandhi returned to power.