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If The Bhopal Tragedy Had Happened In The US? (Comment)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The Dec 2-3, 1984, Bhopal industrial disaster had capped off five weeks of what was probably the bloodiest time in independent India's history until then. In a macabre sort of way, the Bhopal disaster seemed to provide perfect denouement to the series of dystopian events that preceded it during the Orwellian year.

For any democracy, least of all one as contentious as India, the brazen assassination of its prime minister by her own bodyguards alone would have dealt a massive blow to its own self-worth. But the sordid turn of events did not stop with the killing of prime minister Indira Gandhi on Oct 31. The assassination was followed by a systematic massacre of some 3,000 Sikhs as an unnervingly retributive reaction to the fact that Gandhi's killers were her own Sikh bodyguards.

When Rajiv Gandhi took over as prime minister in the immediate aftermath of his mother's death the country was profoundly wounded and, inevitably, the doomsayers in the West were waiting to sound its death knell. Even before Gandhi could sort out the personal grief of his mother's death and begin to address the Sikh massacre as an archetype of all that could go wrong with India, a tank filled with the deadly but odourless and colourless methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas began leaking at the Union Carbide India Limited's (UCIL) plant in Bhopal on the night of Dec 2 and morning of Dec 3.

The immediate official death toll was reported to be 2,259 with clear indications that the number would multiply several-fold in the weeks and months ahead given the lethal lingering effects of the exposure to MIC.

In peace times it is not common for a country to lose upwards of 5,000 people in a span of a few weeks to such a diversity of causes - one a complete socio-political collapse and the other an unprecedented industrial catastrophe. And these two on top of modern India's least challenged assassination after the 1948 killing of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

When one considers that barely six months before, in June of the same year, the Indian government was compelled to order a military-style storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar overrun by heavily armed Sikh separatists led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, it puts the year in the proper perspective.

The guilty, albeit, light verdict handed down by a magistrate's court in the Bhopal case has revived the interest in that period of India's history but without the media providing a more detailed context to the story. The escape of Warren Anderson, the former chairman and CEO of UCIL's American parent Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), has become a subject of quick analyses on broadcast channels. Although Anderson's exit from India in questionable circumstances is definitely a legitimate issue, what is often not recognised is the context within which it happened.

By the time the Bhopal disaster took place, the Indian state had already been overwhelmed by the bloody culmination of Sikh separatism which had claimed thousands of lives in Punjab, provoked a hitherto unthinkable military intervention inside one of the country's most revered temples and led to the assassination of a prime minister.

As if all this was not enough, what appeared to be a premeditated plan to murder a specific group of people was carried out for three days. A government that looked the other way as nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed in the heart of the capital was unlikely to have responded with all its force to a disaster at a pesticide plant some distance away. Deliberate inaction seemed to have become state policy during those weeks.

Anderson's arrest and near simultaneous release on Dec 7, 1984, has become emblematic of all that has gone wrong with the case. The guilty verdict, which makes no mention of Anderson, has merely added to that story over a quarter century after it happened.

However, the larger issue here is how a government besieged by a virtual breakdown in state authority after Indira Gandhi's assassination and the Sikh massacre felt debilitated by the Bhopal disaster. It is entirely possible that Anderson was allowed to flee with official blessings under pressure from the US government. It is hard to conclusively prove a charge like that, if not impossible altogether. As much as his escape is symptomatic of the larger malaise, it does not tell the whole story.

In hindsight, the state failures over Bhopal are not just easy to anticipate and hence avoidable but even egregious in some sense. However, within the context they were taking place they were a consequence of a state which had suffered a traumatic head injury.

Nevertheless, the sense of siege that the Indian state seemed to feel constituted no extenuating circumstance for the failure of the national institutions in ensuring that Bhopal got the attention it deserved. Someone looking at just the weeks following Gandhi's assassination could be easily persuaded to conclude that the Indian state had taken a leave of absence.

In popular perceptions, the passage of 26 long years for a court to pronounce guilty verdict against the top managers of the Bhopal plant could have been offset by the quantum of punishment. However, the fact that Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohan P. Tiwari sentenced eight former Union Carbide executives to only two years in prison and individual fines of Rs.100,000 has served to sharpen the feeling India would rather forget Bhopal.

This at a time when the country of the company's origin, namely the United States, is calling for exemplary punishment for the petroleum giant BP for the relentless Gulf of Mexico oil leak from one of its undersea wells.

Had a disaster comparable to Bhopal happened in Union Carbide's plant in the US, justice would have been long served, new stringent laws enacted, the guilty jailed and large sums of money paid out to the victims and their families.

(12.06.2010 - Mayank Chhaya is a US-based writer and commentator. He can be contacted at m@m

If the Bhopal tragedy had happened in the US? (Comment)

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