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In defence of Rajiv

There’s no point searching for proof that Rajiv Gandhi was involved in Warren Anderson’s ‘escape’ from India on December 7, 1984. Whether it exists or not, it’s unlikely to be found except by luck. And you can’t determine good fortune. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Jun 19, 2010 23:12 IST
Karan Thapar

There’s no point searching for proof that Rajiv Gandhi was involved in Warren Anderson’s ‘escape’ from India on December 7, 1984. Whether it exists or not, it’s unlikely to be found except by luck. And you can’t determine good fortune. But, equally, you don’t need ‘proof’. Approach the matter through logical deduction and it becomes indisputable — indeed, almost unquestionably so — that he either knew or, at least, approved.

All you have to do is ask a simple question: is it conceivable that the prime minister was not aware that Warren Anderson was spirited out of Bhopal in a government plane and sent to Delhi — where he met the home minister and the President, if Arun Nehru is to be believed — and certainly the then foreign secretary, M. K. Rasgotra, who has admitted as much to me, before departing for America on a commercial flight? After all, we’re not talking of an ordinary tourist but the principal accused in the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster killing over 2,600 and injuring tens of thousands more (as the tally was on that date).

Rationally speaking, the answer has to be no. Rajiv Gandhi must have — indeed, ought to have — known. He was, after all, foreign minister as well as prime minister and, thus, Rasgotra’s boss. But let’s for argument’s sake assume the answer is ‘yes’. Unbelievable though it might be, he did not know. Two further questions now follow. First, what does this tell us about Rajiv Gandhi’s authority and control? To raise this is to answer it. There’s no need to say more.

The second question is the clincher. What did Rajiv Gandhi do when he found out? If he did not agree with the decision to let Warren Anderson slip away he should have blown a fuse. The prime minister’s anger should have been frightening to behold. Heads should have rolled. Inquiries should have been ordered.

But did that happen? No. So what does that tell us? Quite simply that either the prime minister knew or, at least, concurred with the decision and found nothing wrong with it.

Now, flip the discussion and let’s ask was this really such a terrible thing to permit? Before you answer, consider the following. At the time Anderson was only charged under Section 304A (negligence) and not 304-II (culpable homicide). Second, he could not have been kept under arrest indefinitely. Third, whenever bail was granted there was a chance he’d leave and never return, despite solemn promises to the contrary. Fourth, the risk this would happen was not a ground for refusing bail. Fifth, a prolonged arrest without bail would have smacked of persecution and, worse, put off investors who, at the time (and it was a very different era), India sorely needed. Sixth, and most importantly, he was granted safe passage — making the arrest a grave breach of promise.

For all these reasons you can credibly argue that letting Anderson go was the sensible thing to do, and in India’s interest. Alas, the Congress doesn’t realise that.

By refusing to recognise these obvious arguments the Party has tied itself into knots. In insisting that Rajiv Gandhi knew nothing of Anderson’s departure they’ve converted their icon into either a fool or a knave or both. And by failing to point out that Anderson had to be released and that it was, additionally, wise to do so, they’ve encouraged the impression it was a heinous thing to do.

Will someone please protect Rajiv Gandhi from his heirs and successors?

The views expressed by the author are personal