Finally an Indian judge is able to determine who were the guilty men of Bhopal gas disaster. 25,000 deaths and 26 years later these men have been sentenced to jail for two years.
The grief stricken victims of Bhopal are outraged – how could the men responsible for the world’s greatest industrial disaster escape so lightly.
They are genuinely shocked as many of them did not understand the full implications of what India’s Supreme Court did to them almost fourteen years ago.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of law could have known, as early as in 1996, that the scales of justice have been decisively tilted in favour of the accused. One has to ask the intellectual elite, the moral brigade and the self-congratulating media why this breast beating now.
In 1987, the CBI had charged 12 people with “culpable homicide” under Section 304-II of IPC, a charge carrying a ten-year jail term. In September 1996, a bench comprising Chief Justice AM Ahmedi and Justice SB Majumdar quashed these charges and directed the CBI to dilute them to “death by negligence” under Section 304-A with a maximum of two years jail term. The dice was cast. The guilty men of Bhopal had virtually won the legal battle in 1996. And now their tactics, backed up by some the best legal brains in the country, was to prolong the fight for as long as possible.
I am not one of those who could ever forget the Bhopal gas disaster. My career in journalism had just begun in the BBC World Service in London. On Dec 3, 1984, I was on my night shift when the news came of an industrial accident. Sifting through agency reports we could not find any details of what had happened. That night we failed to grasp the dreadful enormity of the disaster. Telephoning from London to cities like Bhopal was then supposed to be a cumbersome and unreliable undertaking.
By next evening the death toll had mounted to 700. A couple of days later it reached 3,500. For several days we didn’t know what had caused this accident. Nobody, not even Indian scientists were aware of the deadly impact of a gas called methyl isocynate.
Later the news filtered through, that 40 tonnes of this killer gas had leaked from a poorly maintained tank in the Union Carbide plant. Initial reports suggested that a disgruntled employee had intentionally done it by pushing a tap of running water into the methyl isocynate tank. Obviously, this was one of the many false reports being circulated to shift the blame away from company management.
The final death toll reached up to 25,000 and hundreds of thousands continued to suffer from breathing and lungs ailments, birth deformities and physical and psychological trauma.
Today, I feel deeply frustrated about the fact that we took 26 years to find the guilty men of Bhopal disaster. Me and most of my fellow journalists continued to blame the Indian judiciary, the Indian system, the CBI, the government and many other institutions for this failure. Whenever uncomfortable questions were raised we gave the clichéd reply that it was a ‘systemic failure’.
And that’s my central point. Blaming system or nameless institutions had been a familiar ploy to shield the guilty. There is always an individual or a group of individuals within an institution who circumvent the law. Unless we, the media people, identify those individuals and name and shame those who help the wrong doer, such things will continue to happen.
So we know that that justice Ahmedi and Justice Majumdar did a great favour to Keshub Mahindra and other Indian bosses of the UCIL. But we would also like to know, how come Union Carbide boss Warren Anderson managed to abscond from India. He was arrested for a while by Madhya Pradesh police. But then he was suddenly released on a personal bond of Rs 25,000. He was put on a state government plane and brought to Delhi. He then flew out of India in a private aeroplane, like a VIP.
The former CBI joint director BR Lal is accusing the Ministry of External Affairs for pressurising the CBI not to press for Anderson’s extradition. But that’s not enough Mr Lal. We need to know the name of the MEA official who made such a communication to you. Casting a shadow on the entire MEA is wrong and even immoral as it denigrates an important institution and shields the real culprit.
We need to know on whose orders Anderson was released. Who was the minister who should have stopped him? Also, we would like to know the name of the civil aviation bureaucrat who allowed Anderson’s aeroplane to fly out of India.
There are many other uncomfortable questions awaiting proper explanation. In 1989, the VP Singh government settled the issue with the American Union Carbide by accepting a compensation of $470 million. Union Carbide and its successor company Dow Chemicals had since maintained that this final settlement resolved all existing and future claims against the company. The nation must know the name of the minister who authorised this deal and who gave the final nod for this figure.
All these years I have never forgotten the forlorn figure of Warren Anderson. If he had a conscience, he must be having a seriously tortured soul. True that he brought in a dangerous technology to our country – a crime for which we have been indignantly demanding, for last 26 years, his head on the platter.
All these years we have witnessed numerous posters depicting Anderson as the
man-eater monster from America. We had seen angry mobs burning his effigies and carrying out his mock executions.
Here I would like to raise the central point of this article – why, in the past 26 years, we had never heard or seen anything similar about of Keshub Mahindra and his Indian colleagues, who were responsible for owning as well as administering the Bhopal factory.
On the other hand the former chairman of UCIL had lived and prospered happily. He is now the chairman of a highly visible company Mahindra and Mahindra Limited. In 2002, the Indian government wanted to honour him with Padam Bhushan, which he is said to have gracefully declined, perhaps because of the pending Bhopal case.
One must ask why, compared to Anderson, the outrage against Keshub Mahindra had been so muted? I see a lot of hypocrisy here. We know we cannot bring back Anderson. So it is easier to shout against him.
Altaf Ahmed, the then Solicitor General of India, who now lives in Dubai, told the Times of India that in the 1996 case he argued before the Supreme Court bench that these eight accused “shared common criminal knowledge about potential danger of escape of the lethal gas – MIC – both on account of the defective plant which was operated under their control and supervision at Bhopal and also on account of the operational shortcoming detected by the Varadarajan expert committee.” Clearly Justice Ahmedi was did a great favour to Keshub Mahindra and his co-accused.
More importantly the media and the moral brigade will have to shed its habit of blaming nameless institutions. It is morally and ethically wrong to denigrate our entire democratic set up for the transgressions of the few.
The criminals must be honestly named and shamed. The media must relentlessly follow their trail to keep public memory alive. That’s the only way to channelise public outrage into a just and sustainable legal battle against the crime and corruption. We cannot afford to run down our own house.