Bhopal's residents remembered former Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson, who died in Florida last month, as the man who escaped punishment for a 1984 poisonous gas leak that killed thousands, thanks to a phone call that secured his safe passage to the US.
Anderson was under house arrest when the call was made that gave him safe passage. Activists blamed the government for failing to secure extradition for the man responsible for the death of around 15,000 people, besides the many thousands who were maimed in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
"The very fact that we came to know about Anderson’s death one month after he actually died shows the seriousness of our intelligence agencies and the CBI towards his extradition," said Abdul Jabbar, who works with the victims of the tragedy.
What also remains a mystery, 30 years after the tragedy, is who made the all-important call to the then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh directing him to let Anderson go, a decision that effectively ensured the Union Carbide chairman never had to face an Indian court for as long as he lived.
Singh, the only person who could have given an answer, passed away in 2011 after prolonged illness. In his autobiography, 'A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time', he named Union home secretary RD Pradhan, who, he said, called him "on the instructions of the then Union home minister PV Narasimha Rao".
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But Pradhan denied the allegation, saying that he was chief secretary of Maharashtra at that time and became home secretary in January 1985, a month after the tragedy.
Madhya Pradesh police arrested Anderson as soon as he landed in Bhopal on December 7, 1984, four days after the disaster, and whisked him away from the airport to the Carbide guest-house where he was kept under house arrest.
"The government has done its duty to thousands of citizens whose lives have been devastated by the criminal negligence of Union Carbide," the state government declared.
The corporate world, from the Danbury headquarters of Union Carbide to Delhi, was shocked. Anderson had travelled to India after receiving assurances of safe passage.
Singh was at an election rally in interior Madhya Pradesh, when he received the call and immediately asked his officials to release the American.
Three hours later, Anderson was released on a personal bond of Rs 25,000, put on a state government plane and flown to New Delhi.
“Normally a person is detained in a police station for interrogation but Anderson was kept in the plush guest house of his own company and later was flown back to Delhi. The superintendent of police and district collector escorted him to the airport,” said journalist Lalit Shastri, who reported on the incident.
In his bond, Anderson promised to return to India to stand trial in the case whenever summoned. He never did.
Senior journalist Rajkumar Keswani, who had written on the lurking danger much before the tragedy occurred, told HT that as a loyalist of the Gandhi family, Arjun Singh may have not been frank about who called him.