Friday, November 23, 2007

'GangaaJal' Unstitches Baghalpur Blinding Wounds

'GangaaJal' Unstitches Baghalpur Blinding Wounds
Syed Ali Mujtaba

In otherwise insipid trappings of good verses evil of Indian cinema, Prakash Jha’s latest movie "GangaaJal" raises the issue whether the law enforcer can break the law to correct the ills of society. The movie tries to glorify evil for societal good and in the process triggers a national debate whether bad could be good or not? But it seems country has no time to look beyond the nose and remains busy debating mandir-masjid, terrorism-counter terrorism problems.

Contrary to expectations, a very innocuous debate was generated on “cultural policing”, when the movie was released in Bihar. Supporters of Chief Minister’s brother, Sadhu Yadav vandalised some cinema halls in Patna, objecting to the name of the villain who they said was deliberately kept to malign their leader. The supporters of Sadhu Yadav actually petitioned a court banning the movie but later withdrew at the behest of Bihar’s strongman Laloo Yadav.
Coming back to the movie set in the terrain of eastern Bihar and revolves around infamous Bhaghalpur blinding case of 1979-80, which had then shaken the nation by surprise.

"GangaaJal" attempts to celluloid a larger than life size story about police action in Bhagalpur and adjoining districts where operation code named "GangaaJal" was launched. This meant criminals when caught had their eyes splashed with acid rendering them immobile rest of their life, never to commit any crime again.

One of the 31 victims of the Bhagalpur blinding case, who survives narrates how he was taken to a secluded place and was told by the police that since he had committed a sin he need to be washed clean. He said police told him that gangajal (acid) was brought for him he should wash his eyes (headlights) with that. The victim adds that before he could do anything, acid was poured into his eyes. Since then everything has changed, the young criminal, now an old man, survives on a merger sum of Rs 500 hundred paid to him as compensation by the state government.

Bhagalpur prison was not the isolated place where such an incident had taken place. In fact, there were seven or eight police stations in the same district from where similar incidents were reported. It was extended to few other districts like Munger too. The villagers, of that region, buoyed by police justice, meted out the same treatment when they managed to capture some criminals then. Reports of making criminals permanently impaired were not so uncommon in those days in Bihar. It was only after the hue and cry by the judiciary about the blinding that such cases ceased to exist.

Even though many may not approve the Bahagalpur blinding case and many human rights activists may call it criminal, the fact remains when the case broke out in 1979-80, there was a massive public sympathy for the police officer who had had been suspended on these charges. Residents of Bhagalpur took out rallies in defence of the police officers saying their deterring act brought some respite into their daily sufferings. There was social approval for those resorting to such measures to prevent crime in the society.

In order to understand the reasons for Bhagalpur blinding, one has to understand the social nuances of Bihar in early seventies. The state was in turmoil due to the civil disobedience movement launched by Lok Nayak Jayprakash Narayan against the Congress government. People came out on to the streets, student’s boycotted classes, workers stopped going to the factories, hartal and bandh became order of the day. It was street fighting days in Bihar till the national emergency was proclaimed in 1975.

There was an uneasy calm built in those two years of emergency but the signal of gathering storm was ominous. The momentum generated from Bihar yearned for change all through the north India. This crystallised in form of a wave in favour of Janata party which swept Congress out of power in 1977.

However, the post emergency period also saw the rapid growth of crime and corruption which was more pronounced in Bihar. There was a general decline in the political and administrative system. Bihar instead of transformation clung to the feudal and caste moorings. Violent clashes with the groups and caste undergoing social transformation often started hogging headlines. This was the beginning of the Jungle raj in Bihar.

Criminals became the lap dogs of the politicians who gave them licence to commit crime. They were assured that even being caught they would be released without impunity, as it is the political clout which matters in the end. This gave rise of robberies, docities and even killings in the state. All this added on to the general sufferings of the people who remained silent spectators and strangely becomes accomplice in the brutalities that police indulge by launching operation "GangaaJal."

When the news of Bhagalpur blinding case broke, apart from usual noises being made and guilty police officer suspended, nothing actually happened more. The case was buried and guilty officers were neither charge-sheeted nor punished. When media broke story, state’s top brass claim they did not know about it, (which is very unlikely) the fact is such an operation could never take place without their tacit approval.

Whatever may be the antecedents, Bihar administration quickly swung into action, as happens in all the Hindi movies, when judiciary reprimanded it, ending one of the goriest incidents of state crime. 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.

In "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 on a police officer’s moral dilemma on the short-cuts in crime control.

Prakash Jha is known for portraying deeply disturbing expositions of the society and "GangaaJal" is no exception. The most provocative part of the movie is society’s ambivalent position on the blinding issue. Jha leaves for the audience to decide whether recourse to evil for societal good is right or wrong. "GangaaJal" definitely is a digression in otherwise hackneyed plots of India cinema.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a television journalist currently working in Chennai. He hails from Bihar and acctualy has witnessed some of the blinding incident near Bhagalpur. He can be contacted

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