Police are threatening a statewide strike to protest the suspension of 15 officers implicated in the deliberate blindings of at least 31 persons awaiting trial on criminal charges.
The police demand that the 15 be reinstated appeared today to have widespread support in the northern Indian district of Bhagalpur, 180 miles northwest of Calcutta, where the blindings, carried out with needles and acid, occurred.
A general strike supporting the police threat -- backed by the chamber of commerce, bar association, truck owners' association, college teachers, medical students, local political leaders and magistrates, among others -- has closed schools, banks, government offices, and public transport during the last three days.
About 5,000 villagers and uniformed police were reported to have squatted on the railroad tracks Wednesday, blocking rail traffic through the district. Police on duty are wearing black badges to show solidarity with their suspended colleagues.
Normal life in Bhagalpur was paralyzed yesterday during a one-day general strike that saw 10,000 police supporters march through the main bazaars. The demonstrators submitted their demands to Supreme Court probers of the blindings and they also stopped trains going through the region.
Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra of the state of Bihar, where Bhagalpur is located, has said repeatedly that the police blindings have "a social sanction" in the community. In a speech yesterday, he said there was widespread resentment over Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's granting of close to $2,000 -- a fortune in poor communities of rural India -- to victims of the blindings.
Reports of the blindings in the national press in the last two weeks have caused a nationwide furor. Ganhi told Parliament Monday that reading the details of the blindings made her physically ill; the Supreme Court took the unusual step of sending a team of investigators to Bhagalpur, and the blindings have been denounced as barbaric in editorials in most national newpapers.
But in Bhagalpur, according to reports reaching here, leading citizens of that rural district of about 2 million approved of the police action. They are said to resent its exposure by outsiders and the subsequent furor that catapulted the issue into a national political debate.
While Gandhi denounced the blindings in Parliament, the Bhagalpur branch of her ruling Congress-I (for Indira) Party and its Youth Congress supported the police demands.
According to an article in the Indian Express by Arun Sinha, the reporter who first broke the story on Nov. 22, prominent citizens of Bhagalpur found "nothing wrong" with the blindings and said the criminals "deserved it."
"They said this had reduced crime in the district, ignoring data which proved otherwise," wrote Sinha.
He said the blindings were the talk of Bhagalpur long before his articles exposed them to the rest of the country. "Every incident of eye puncture was being heard and discussed in elite circles with much delight," he wrote.
Bihar Chief Secretary P. P. Nayyer denied there was a police mutiny, but state officials, who made no reply to the police demand for reinstatement of their colleagues, asked the Gandhi government to send national police to Bihar in case of a local strike.
The suspended superintendent of police in Bhagalpur, ordered to report to state police headquarters in Patna, was reported still to be in his office.
He was backed Tuesday by a demonstration at the regional police office where people shouted, "We won't allow the superintendent of police to be transferred." Some of the shouted slogans charged that politicians and criminals were collaborating.
Meanwhile, eye specialists have begun examining the blinded men to see if some sight can be restored to any of them. A team of three specialists from Patna said it may be possible in six cases. But doctors examining two of the blinded men brought to the Rajendra Prasad Center for Ophthalmological Sciences in New Delhi said there was nothing they could do and that they had never seen such extensive eye damage.
The Times of India commented editorially today that blinding is merely a departure from the usual police practice shooting accused criminals who they feel will be hard to convict and saying they were killed trying to escape.
The Bhagalpur blindings, said A. S. Abraham in a companion Times of India column today, shows that Indian society, widely thought to be nonviolent, rests on a "substratum of violence."
"Bhagalpur is so terrifying," he wrote, "because it rips off our self-imposed blindfolds and forces us to confront ourselves and reality."