June 7 last was quite a watershed for the victims of the gas leak in Bhopal. On that day the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) of the city gave a verdict of 2 years’ imprisonment with assorted fines for the accused officials of the Union Carbide India, Ltd (UCIL) under the provision of the Indian Penal Code that deals with death(s) caused by criminal negligence. The case was registered in December 1984 against the management of the UCIL and its parent body, the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in the United States, after the lethal methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of the Bhopal-based factory in the early hours of 3rd December 1984 killing, officially, 15000 men, women and children, the unofficial count being in the region of 25000 to 30000. Thousands of others died later or were maimed for life and are still suffering from the after-effects.
All hell broke loose at the ultra-mild verdict. There was a sense of outrage amongst the victims who were present at the Court in strength. Their indignation was magnified because the convicts were bailed out within hours for a surety of a paltry sum of Rs. 25000/-. What agitated the victims most was that while they were still suffering from the after-effects of the gas that hit them 26 years ago, the accused were not even taken into custody. Worse, there was no mention in the judgement of the main accused Warren Anderson, the then Chairman of the UCC, who jumped bail and fled to the US. The ruckus, though, was inexplicable as all concerned should have known that the CJM could not have awarded a more severe punishment as the charges had been watered down by the Supreme Court in 1996 and were framed under provisions of law that carried only 2 years’ imprisonment.
The verdict exploded in the face of the Indian National Congress that was in power both in the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) (of which Bhopal is the capital) and at the Centre at the time of the disaster in 1984.The print and electronic media went on an overdrive as did the civil society and the political opposition. Sniffing an opportunity of going after the Congress, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) generously stoked the fires.
The flip side of the furore was emergence of a wealth of information on various aspects of the catastrophe, including the release of Warren Anderson, the then Chairman of the UCC. It seems Anderson arrived in Bhopal on 7th December 1984 only to be arrested by the local police who, instead of taking him to the police station concerned, deposited him in the luxurious UCC guest house. Within hours, however, Anderson was bailed out after he gave the assurance that he would make himself available whenever required for the judicial process. He was taken back to the airport by the local district magistrate in his car, driven by none other than the local superintendent of police, to be put on the plane of the state government and flown to Delhi. On the same night Anderson caught a commercial flight for the US, never to return to India.
After the verdict, the print media reported that a mysterious phone-call from Delhi to the MP Chief Minister Arjun Singh provoked the hurried action to bail out Anderson, even without observing the due legal process. It was evident that somebody very big had intervened on behalf of Anderson and that, as MJ Akbar, the respected journalist, surmised in a TV programme it could be none other than the then Prime Minister himself. Latching on to it, the BJP, with its barrage of allegations, drove the Congress into a corner. The result was a cacophony of statements from different Congress spokespersons and leaders, including Pranab Mukherji, the Finance Minister, all of whom denied the Centre’s involvement, putting the entire blame on Arjun Singh. Everyone was trying to fend off the charges against that iconic Congressman –Rajiv Gandhi. Hiding behind the Group of Ministers (GoM), constituted in May 2010 to look into issues involved in Bhopal disaster but having nothing to show for results, the Congress spokespersons not only lied but also became offensive, branding all those who blamed the Centre as “despicable”.
Tables were turned on the Congress when, first, Raj Kumar Keshwani, a veteran Bhopal journalist who had been cautioning the MP government about a possible disaster since 1981, when he said in a TV programme that it was all part of recorded history. He said that on Anderson’s arrest, the accompanying representative of the Bombay Consulate of the US got in touch with the US Charge de Affairs in Delhi who swung into action contacting big wigs in Delhi to have the accused released. This was corroborated by a statement later by Gordon Streeb, the then US Charge de Affairs in Delhi, which contained details of his efforts to have Anderson released in accordance with the assurance given to him of a “safe passage” to and from Bhopal. Even MK Rasgotra the then Foreign Secretary, Streeb’s interlocutor, said as much who, it seems even met Anderson after his release. Last of all, Arjun Singh, who all this while kept his counsel, made a clean breast of it saying that he had no “locus standi” in the release of Anderson.
Rasgotra has said he consulted Narasimha Rao, the then Home Minister. But, Rao, who later became Prime Minister, hesitant and careful as he was, was unlikely to have dared to order Anderson’s release. So far none has mentioned the name of Rajiv Gandhi, though it could well have been he. The GoM has since reported to the Prime Minister that according to the contemporary media reports Rajiv Gandhi was briefed about Anderson’s arrest and release only after the latter had left the country. A contemporary report of the universally respected newspaper, The Hindu, however, indicated that Rajiv Gandhi, camping in MP for the ensuing elections, was informed by his principal Secretary, PC Alexander, about Anderson’s arrest when the latter was still in Bhopal. The Hindu report, therefore, added that it was highly unlikely that Arjun Singh would have had Anderson released without consulting the PM. The PM’s later acts of forcing an out-of-court settlement for compensation to gas-victims in 1989 for only $ 470 million against the government’s own claim of $ 3.3 billion and extinguishing their rights to sue the UCC for just compensation and relief indicated his softness towards the company.
The gas-victims have been demanding extradition of Anderson as he was aware of the out-dated technology of the UCIL factory, lack of safety provisions in it, the cost-cutting that was undertaken at his behest compromising its safety features. Having assured “safe passage”, the Congress couldn’t have been expected to make any efforts for Anderson’s extradition. The intervening governments, including the one that was led by the BJP, made some feeble attempts that were squelched by the US. The GoM that has since had urgent sittings has now proposed to seek Anderson’s extradition.
In the Anderson saga one cannot really blame him or the US. It is Indians themselves, especially the nincompoops wielding power then at the Centre and in MP, who, unmindful of the death, devastation and misery to millions that he caused in Bhopal subserviently arranged his escape from the country. Uniquely, a criminal charged with manslaughter in the world’s worst ever industrial disaster was set free by top Indian government functionaries.