Between 1980 and 1981, police officials in Bhagalpur town in Bihar poured acid into the eyes of 33 undertrials and convicts over a period of several months in a horrific example of extra-judicial punishment. The Bhagalpur blindings have since become a byword for police brutality, and, as Amitabh Parashar shows in his disturbing documentary The Eyes of Darkness, a perverse inspiration for vigilantes in present-day Bihar.

Parashar’s film follows up on reports that have been regularly filtering out of Bihar over the past few years – of ordinary citizens blinding their opponents and targets of ire through planned acid attacks. The victims are often men (and occasionally women) who have chosen to ignore their place in the social order. They include a labourer who was blinded when he had the temerity to demand the hundred-rupee payment due to him, an elderly man accused of theft, and another man accused of stealing a bicycle.

Some of the victims have criminal records – also used as a justification in the original blindings case. Parashar bases his account on one such history-sheeter from the Aurahi Hingna village in Bihar’s Araria district. Munna Thakur is a self-declared convict who robbed banks and committed other crimes in his youth. After going straight, Thakur, who is from the Nai caste, put up his wife as a candidate in the panchayat elections in 2012. On December 23, 2012, acid was poured into Thakur’s eye sockets, allegedly by the upper-caste family that was slighted by his boldness.

Munna Thakur.

The recent stories about blindings was the immediate provocation for the film, but Parashar says that the tragedy has been on his mind ever since the early 1980s. The former journalist and independent filmmaker is from Bhagalpur, and says he once saw one of the 33 victims crying for help after being left by the side of the road. “It was in 1980, and I must have been in the seventh or eighth standard at the time,” Parashar said. “I saw a man crying for help, and he had holes where his eyes should have been. He had been dumped there by the police. People had surrounded him, there were kids there too. I have never forgotten the moment.”

After Parashar moved to Delhi for education and work, he kept tabs on the Bhagalpur blindings, most of which involved the long and hard road to claim compensation and push for the perpetrators to be prosecuted. In 2013, Parashar decided to visit Aurahi Hingna, the birthplace of the renowned writer Phanishwar Nath Renu. “I heard that somebody in the same village had been blinded, and I decided to find out more,” the 48-year-old filmmaker said. “Someone told me that the crime was just like the one in Bhagalpur.”

As Parashar started researching the idea, he realised that “these incidents had actually never stopped in Bihar since Bhagalpur”. Many of the cases featured in the local press and had been picked up the national dailies. “I only give myself credit for seeing the big picture,” Parashar said.

The provocation for blinding can be breathtakingly mild. “Here is a recent story of a teacher who beat up his student and blinded him in one eye because he didn’t give a proper answer in class,” the filmmaker said.

Umesh Yadav, a recent victim of blinding.

Munna Thakur turns out to be an interesting case study through which to explore the issue – he neither hides his past nor does he refuse to accept defeat or submit to threats to drop his case. Thakur’s fight for justice takes him to Patna, to the Director General of Police and the state human rights commission. His quest to see his attackers behind bars – one of them his son’s school teacher, who threatens the boy with a similar fate – has the backing of Ram Kumar Mishra, who runs a legal committee to help blinding victims.

If justice delayed is justice denied, justice hurried is justice buried, Mishra tells Parashar while discussing the lax police action against the attackers and the ease with which they get bail. A culture of impunity has sprung up in the absence of fast track courts and strict prosecution, Mishra says.

The Eyes of Darkness opens up the debate on lawlessness, vigilante justice and the weaknesses in the law and order machinery in Bihar. The criminal records of some of the victims have worked against them. The acid used in the attacks is locally referred to as “gangajal”, and the cruel euphemism inspired the title of Prakash Jha’s partisan 2003 movie, which is loosely based on the Bhagalpur blindings and argues that the police were pushed to the wall by rampant crime and poor conviction rates and were only cleansing the muck.

Many residents of Munna Thakur’s village have little sympathy for his condition. “One reaps what one sows,” says an elder. A group of men jeer at Thakur as he walks by. One of the wives of the accused goes so far as to dispute his blindness.

The attitude that criminals deserve the vigilante’s sledgehammer rather than the judge’s gavel is reinforced by Bhola Chaudhary’s interview. He is one of the 33 victims of the Bhagalpur blindings, and he gets Rs 750 as monthly compensation. The Bhagalpur police called in doctors to ensure that the blinding was permanent, Chaudhary tells Parashasr.

Bhola Chaudhary, who was blinded by the police in Bhagalpur.

The plight of the sightless victims, most of them bread earners for their impoverished families, reinforces Ram Kumar Mishra’s views. One of the most perverse cases is of an elderly who had been blinded in one eye 22 years ago when he roughed up some children who threw colour on him during a religious festival. Twenty-two years later, when he was accused of theft, his accusers took out his other eye.

This is what is known as the “demonstration effect”, activists tell Parashar. Blinding has become an effective tool to terrorise lower caste and poor people into submission.

“Even in the Bhagalpur blindings, many locals supported the police because the victims were criminals,” Parashar said. “Bhagalpur showed that it was easy to get away with a crime of this nature. Ninety per cent of the victims are marginalised, and, in some cases, the victims are from the same community as the attackers. Blinding is a kind of instant justice, which is seen as having a deterrent effect on others.”

Munna Thakur, on the other hand, is not cowed down so easily. “Unlike other victims, he openly admits to his crimes, and, in fact, says that he had more respect when he was a criminal,” Parashar said. As Thakur repeatedly travels out of his village and tells his story over and over again to activists, police officials and journalists, he emerges as an unlikely hero in a story that needs one.

Amitabh Parashar.