Byline by M J Akbar: Above the anger of Bhopal, the silence of Delhi
Can you hear the silence above the rising anger over the betrayal of Bhopal? The three most powerful people in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi have not said a word through a week of national outrage after a first-tier judicial verdict on a mass murder 26 years ago.
True, silence is also a statement, but one besieged by questions. Perhaps they have much to be silent about. The Congress party is not used to so much silence at the top. Unsurprisingly, the second-tier players made a mess when confronted by the pressure of public opinion. Sycophancy is not necessarily synonymous with clarity. By the end of the week, Congress activists had only prayer: that the quiet would speak up, and the loud-mouthed ordered to shut up.
Lip service is not the sort of service that always fetches you a complimentary tip. Jairam Ramesh, who loves his voice almost as much as his hair, thought he would help out by announcing that his proposed Green Tribunal would be located in Bhopal. It only served to remind media of the fact that on his only trip to Bhopal as Environment Minister, Ramesh had sneered at the anguish of the victims with a remark so utterly glib and insensitive that it fails comprehension. Ramesh said, triumphantly, “I held the toxic waste in my hand. I am still alive and not coughing. It’s 25 years after the gas tragedy. Let us move ahead.”
How fortunate for the nation that Ramesh was not sleeping in a slum on that night in December 1984 when methyl isocyanate seeped out of the Carbide plant, killing nearly 20,000 and maiming over a 100,000 more, before its eerie poison had exhausted itself. We must be thankful to the Lord that Ramesh was not a foetus killed in unknown wombs; or that he had not reached the age of 26 with twisted limbs and dark, angry eyes while a mother covered her son with a protective shawl in a helpless gesture of love. How fortunate that Ramesh never met Raghu Rai, the great and compassionate photographer who has done more for the helpless than the Government of India, with its mighty instruments of state, and the Government of United States, with its great commitment to human rights, have done.
But let us touch the toxic soil with a smile and move on!
The central truth is that Bhopal is a saga of contemptuous betrayal in which anyone who aided an American corporate interest over the anguish of Indians was rewarded. The stain of shame began with Warren Anderson’s arranged escape in a Government plane, but it was only the beginning of the story. The CBI chargesheet in 1987 sought a jail sentence for 10 years for culpable homicide, “not amounting to murder”. Chief Justice A.H. Ahmadi watered this down; it is ironical that a Muslim Chief Justice should have been used for the ultimate compromise in a case in which most of the victims were impoverished Muslims. Ahmadi was given handsome post-retirement benefits. Anderson was never unduly troubled by the thought of returning to face trial despite an extradition treaty between India and the US. His bond was only Rs 25,000, exactly the same amount that the guilty have been required to pay after 26 years. The first demand that the Government of India made on behalf of the victims was for $3.3 billion. It settled for $480 million.
Token crumbs have been thrown periodically before the poor. The latest is a reconstituted Group of Ministers, headed by P. Chidambaram. Guess who was head of the previous GoM? Arjun Singh. And what is Chidambaram’s claim to fame? As Finance Minister he lobbied, along with Kamal Nath, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Ronen Sen, on behalf of Dow Chemical, promising his Prime Minister rich rewards in the shape of American investment if Dow was forgiven. Why did Dow really want to return? To reclaim Carbide land in India, since it had bought Carbide but disclaimed Bhopal’s liabilities. Dow had kept aside over $2 billion for asbestos-victim compensation for Americans in another case, but had no money for Indians.
Why should it? Indians had no money for Indians. Jairam Ramesh, of course, is a member of the new GOM as well. They would have probably kept Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi as well, if he had been a minister, since Singhvi was a lawyer for Dow, and sent his missives on Congress letterheads. Indians were unconcerned about the truth that Carbide knew of the danger of a leak, but did nothing.
There is so much to be silent about.
The heroism of volunteers who have fought a powerful, sneering bipartisan system on behalf of victims, for no reward other than the calm of a conscience, is beyond words. Am I dreaming, or will there come a moment when every Indian conscience is touched by Bhopal?