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Bollywood digs up Bhagalpur blindings

Bhagalpur, Aug. 28: Over 20 years after police blinded 31 undertrials in Bhagalpur, their harrowing tale will be reprised in a fictional film.

But for Patel Shah, now in his late forties, the event of 1979-80 is no story. He was one of the 31 who had acid splashed in their eyes.

“I was 25 then. I was told to wash my face in gangajal that was brought to us. They (policemen) said I had committed a sin so I needed to be washed clean. But before I could do anything, acid was poured into my eyes,” Shah recalls.

Police’s extra-judicial attempt to control crime in a small town will come alive on the screen as Gangaajal, from the name the event acquired in the Bhagalpur blinding case — Operation Gangaajal.

Director Prakash Jha has assembled Ajay Devgan, Mohan Agashe and Gracy Singh, among others, to explore the uneasy relationship between the police and society, exemplified by this dark chapter in Bhagalpur’s crime history. “The film focuses attention on a district police chief (Devgan) caught in a moral dilemma over the short-cuts in crime control and the ambivalent position society takes on the issues,” Jha said over the phone from Mumbai.

“While the ordinary man does not cooperate with police in bringing an offender to book, he strangely becomes a silent accomplice in the brutalities that police indulge in,” he said.

Yesterday, Sadhu Yadav, brother of Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, moved Allahabad High Court, seeking a stay on the release of the film. Yadav, a member of the state legislative council, said Jha was trying to tarnish his image by giving the main villain of Gangaajal the same name as him.

“Being the people’s representative, I feel it is an insult to the MLC because the central villain of the film has his (Yadav’s) name,” a legislator who is close to Yadav said.

But Jha says the villain has nothing in common with Yadav other than the name, pointing out that his villain is “64 years old”.

Shah, sitting in his Moodichowk hut here, is not so much bothered about the film as the effect it will have on his life. “Is it going to rake up our case again'” he asks. He is crestfallen when he hears “no” for an answer. He was hoping that the film would somehow help increase his compensation from the meagre monthly Rs 500 he is getting now.

The Bhagalpur blinding case had made criminal jurisprudence history by becoming the first in which the Supreme Court had ordered compensation for violation of basic human rights.

“How far can one go on Rs 500'” Shah asks, the despair evident on his disfigured face.

Deserted by the media and social workers, who had once thronged Bhagalpur, Shah now prefers to avoid everybody. All these years later, he is still scared of the footfalls of an approaching stranger. His first words always are: “Aap thane se hain kya' (Is this the police')”

“When they (social workers) come calling, they pour out rhetoric, but nothing happens, no change in my life. On the street, too, there are not many sympathisers to offer alms,” he says. Jaimala, his wife, says she had to beg to get their four daughters married.

As 26 of the 31 victims – at least five are dead by now –- are reduced to a mere statistic in Bhagalpur police case files, their plight hardly bothers the town’s residents.

Elderly Atul Prakash says why: The 31 victims had several cases registered against them, ranging from rape to robbery and murder.

“I do not support the blinding. But one of the reasons why Bhagalpur residents had taken out rallies in defence of the police officers who were suspended in the case is that they (the residents) had suffered a lot,” Prakash says.

But Devraj Khatri of Ishakchowk, another victim, disagrees.

Accusing the state and social-action groups of ditching them, Shah and Khatri have now approached Supreme Court advocate Kapila Hingorani to plead for a hike in their compensation.

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