Denials, contradictions & Bhopal tragedy

By Rajdeep Sardesai
29 June 2010 00:04 IST

Where were you in December 1984? It's a question raised with unfailing regularity across the news media in the last fortnight as the verdict in the Bhopal gas tragedy was handed out by a lower court. Octogenarian politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats - a majority of whom are well past their use by date - have been wheeled out to try and answer a single question: who let Union Carbide boss Warren Anderson out of India within a week of the country's worst industrial disaster?

The answer doesn't require a special investigation or a screaming headline. The fact is there is enough documented evidence - written and visual - to confirm that Mr Andersen was given 'safe passage' by the Indian state. The 'state' at the time comprised the Arjun Singh-led Congress government in Bhopal and the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government at the center. Unfortunately, instead of accepting this basic reality, we have had a daily exhibition of denials, contradictions and 'revelations' that would be almost farcical, if they did not concern a tragic incident in which more than 15,000 people died. While Arjun Singh has maintained a Buddha-like silence, the Congress has gone into overdrive defending its beloved leader, Rajivji, even as the opposition has bizarrely likened the handling of Bhopal to the imposition of Emergency .

Frankly, neither the silence nor the hysteria is justified. For Mr Arjun Singh to suggest that he has no 'locus standi' in the matter is laughable. He was the tallest leader of Madhya Pradesh at the time, Mr Anderson was flown out in a state government plane and the charges under sec 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) were 'deleted' in the trial court by the state police. Surely, the country has the right to know why, and on whose instructions, Mr Singh took the decision.

But what of the hysteria within the Congress and the opposition at the alleged involvement of Rajiv Gandhi in Anderson's 'escape'? For the Congress, umbilically tied to dynasty, the very mention of Rajiv is enough to spark off an angry, "how dare you drag Rajiv's name into this" response. For the opposition, which has survived on a hatred of the Nehru-Gandhi family for generations, the opportunity to embarrass the first family of Indian politics must not be squandered.

The irony is that there is nothing embarrassing about giving Anderson safe passage out of the country. If the decision was taken by Rajiv Gandhi - and it is impossible to believe that a prime minister would be unaware of it - then it was one of the wiser decisions he took. You can blame Rajiv for opening the Babri Masjid gates, for allegedly conniving in rigging elections in the Kashmir valley in 1987, for his handling of the LTTE problem - all issues which had disastrous consequences - but on the Anderson question in Bhopal, he probably took the right option.

December 1984 is not June 2010. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated just weeks earlier, Sikh terrorism posed a serious security challenge, the national capital had been torn apart by a bloody genocide, the north east was simmering, the economy was floundering, general elections were days away. We were a nation under siege.

Moreover, 1984 represented the high noon of American 'exceptionalism' - the belief that the United States alone has the right to bring civilization, or democracy to the rest of the world. With Ronald Reagan as President, the US military-industrial complex was dominant and on the verge of winning the Cold War. A country beset with internal strife and a Hindu rate of growth could scarcely have challenged a mighty superpower. If Reagan did ring up Rajiv as has been suggested and ask for Anderson to be released, then letting him go was a pragmatic decision taken in the best national interest at the time.

The real scandal is not what happened on December 7th 1984 when Anderson was allowed to leave the country, but what happened in the 26 years that followed. The fact is that the supreme court happily brokered a meagre $ 470 million settlement between the Indian state and Union Carbide in 1989 as compensation for a little over one lakh victims at the time. The fact is that the total number of people eventually affected are more than five times that number but were never fully compensated.

The Supreme court in 1996 also wilfully diluted the charges against the Bhopal accused but the CBI did not choose to challenge it. The fact is that former chief justice, Justice Ahmadi, who delivered the Bhopal judgement was later made head of the Bhopal Memorial Trust hospital, designed to benefit the gas affected but, as recent news reports have exposed, has actually turned away some victims. The fact is that neither has the industrial site of the disaster been cleared of toxic waste nor has proper drinking water been provided to all those who live in the surrounding areas.

The fact also is that both Congress and BJP have ruled Madhya Pradesh since 1984, the Congress for a lengthy 19 years. If you travel through Bhopal's JP Nagar colony where more than 300 people died and several more were affected by permanent limb and respiratory diseases, its apparent no government has made a serious effort to reach out to the victims. When two years ago, some of them held a dharna outside the prime minister's residence, they were whisked away and spent a week in Tihar jail. Who let Anderson out is a red herring, the real question to ask is: why did it take 26 years for the Indian state to wake up to the plight of Bhopal?

Post-script: watching the 1984 Anderson video with a single camera tracking him makes one wonder: in the age of manic 24 hour news channels, would it have been so easy to let the Carbide boss smilingly slip away with a 'Bye, Bye India'?    

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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The Bhopal Gas tragedy has brought out some bitter realities in our system where self introspection is necessary!

Taking 26 long years to give verdict in a case by the judicial system we have adopted is in itself a joke and is totally ridiculous by any standards and needs quick remedial measures by the Parliament . Merely passing buck for the long delays, wont solve the issue!

The second thing which comes out from the whole issue is the diluting of the charges by the Court and the concerned Judge taking up a lucrative post in the Trust set by the benefited party. This needs introspection by the concerned as to whether his actions are ethical, moral and are not against the highest values supposed to be cherished by the persons occupying the highest posts in the judiciary!

The third thing which comes out is that even in times of calamities and disasters, some of the bureaucrats and politicians compromise the suffering of the masses for their own personal gains. This needs to be condemned and the culprits punished.

The next thing is that when the needle of suspicion points towards Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, in allowing safe exit to Anderson,every congress person becomes hysteric. Is it out of love and respect for the man who sacrificed his life for the country or this hysteric reaction is for one's own selfish motive? Why such reaction is not seen in case of Mr. Arjun Sing and on the contrary everybody is condemning him for the safe escape of Mr. Anderson! Is this because of the fact that Arjun Sing's name no more would attracts votes?

The next thing which comes out is that the Govt continues to be indifferent to the sufferings of the people irrespective of as to which party it belongs to ! Because even after 26 years of disaster, the area has not been cleaned and made safe for the residents!

Long live our degenerated system!

- Vishwas Prabhudesai, Loliem | 30 th June 2010 09:37


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