Where were you in December 1984? It’s a question raised with regularity across the media over the last fortnight as the verdict in the Bhopal gas tragedy was handed out by a lower court. Octogenarian politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats — a majority of whom are well past their use-by date — have been wheeled out to try and answer a single question: who let Union Carbide boss Warren Anderson out of India within a week of the disaster? The answer doesn’t require a special investigation or a screaming headline.
The fact is that there’s enough documented evidence to confirm that Anderson was given ‘safe passage’ by the Indian State. The ‘State’ at the time comprised the Arjun Singh-led Congress government in Bhopal and the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in New Delhi. Unfortunately, instead of accepting this reality, we have had a daily exhibition of denials, contradictions and ‘revelations’ that would be almost farcical, if they didn’t concern a tragic incident in which over 15,000 people died. While Singh has maintained a Buddha-like silence, the Congress has gone into overdrive defending Rajiv, even as the Opposition has bizarrely likened the handling of Bhopal to the imposition of Emergency. Frankly, neither silence nor hysteria is justified. For Arjun Singh to suggest that he has no ‘locus standi’ in the matter is laughable. He was the tallest leader of Madhya Pradesh at the time, Anderson was flown out in a state government plane and the charges under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) were ‘deleted’ in the trial court by the state police. Surely, the country has the right to know why, and on whose instructions, Singh took the decision.
But what about the hysteria within the Congress and the Opposition at the alleged involvement of Rajiv Gandhi in Anderson’s ‘escape’? For the Congress, umbilically tied to dynasty, the very mention of Rajiv can spark off an angry ‘how dare you drag Rajiv’s name into this’ response. For the Opposition, which has survived on a hatred of the Nehru-Gandhi family for generations, the opportunity to embarrass the first family of Indian politics must not be squandered.
The irony is that there is nothing embarrassing about giving Anderson safe passage out of the country. If the decision was taken by Rajiv Gandhi — and it’s impossible to believe that a prime minister would be unaware of it — then it was one of the wiser decisions he took. You can blame Rajiv for opening the Babri Masjid gates, for allegedly conniving in rigging elections in the Kashmir valley in 1987, for his handling of the LTTE problem — all issues that had disastrous consequences. But on the Anderson question in Bhopal, he probably took the right option.
December 1984 is not June 2010. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated just weeks earlier, Sikh terrorism posed a serious security challenge, the national capital had been torn apart by a bloody genocide, the North-east was simmering, the economy was floundering and general elections were days away. We were a nation under siege.
Moreover, 1984 represented the high noon of American ‘exceptionalism’ — the belief that the US alone has the right to bring civilisation or democracy to the rest of the world. With Ronald Reagan as president, the US military-industrial complex was dominant and on the verge of winning the Cold War. A country beset with internal strife and a Hindu rate of growth could scarcely have challenged a mighty superpower. If Reagan did ring up Rajiv, as has been suggested, and ask for Anderson’s release, then letting him go was a pragmatic decision taken in the best national interest at the time.
The real scandal isn’t what happened on December 7, 1984. when Anderson was allowed to leave the country, but what happened in the 26 years that followed. The fact is that the Supreme Court happily brokered a meagre $470 million settlement between the Indian State and Union Carbide in 1989 as compensation for a little over one lakh victims at the time. The fact is that the total number of people eventually affected are more than five times that number but were never fully compensated.
The Supreme Court in 1996 also wilfully diluted the charges against the Bhopal accused but the CBI didn’t choose to challenge it. The fact is that former Chief Justice of India, Justice Ahmadi, who delivered the Bhopal judgement was later made head of the Bhopal Memorial Trust hospital, designed to benefit the gas affected. But, as recent news reports have exposed, it actually turned away some victims. The fact is that neither has the industrial site of the disaster been cleared of toxic waste nor has proper drinking water been provided to all those who live in the surrounding areas.
The fact also is that both the Congress and the BJP have ruled Madhya Pradesh since 1984, the Congress for a lengthy 19 years. If you travel through Bhopal’s J.P. Nagar colony, where more than 300 people died and several more were affected by permanent limb and respiratory diseases, it’s apparent that no government has made a serious effort to reach out to the victims. When two years ago some of them held a dharna outside the prime minister’s residence, they were whisked away and made to spend a week in Tihar jail. Who let Anderson out is a red herring. The real question to ask is: why did it take 26 years for the Indian State to wake up to the plight of Bhopal?
Post-script: Watching the 1984 Anderson video with a single camera tracking him makes one wonder: in the age of manic 24-hour news channels, would it have been so easy to let the Carbide boss smilingly slip away with a ‘Bye, bye India’?
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief , IBN Network n email@example.com The views expressed by the author are personal