There can be no argument that the Bhopal disaster was a horrific incident, an example of industrial malpractice of the worst variety. Union Carbide Corporation deserved to be punished in the severest terms and there are strong grounds for saying that the compensation paid to the victims should have been greater and that certain individuals got off lightly. What is not clear is what bearing this has on Dow Chemicals and the present London Olympics boycott call. Union Carbide’s India division was hived off the main company and sold off. Seven years after the incident, the leftover parts of Union Carbide outside India were bought by Dow Chemicals. Legally, Dow Chemicals cannot be held responsible for Bhopal — which is why no one has filed a credible lawsuit against them over the tragedy. Morally, the credibility of the Olympics boycott call can only be questioned. The firm that bought Union Carbide India is not being targeted. And Dow Chemical operates openly across India.
Boycotts and other forms of civil protest require both an unassailable moral position as well as a sense of politics. The greatest practitioners of such activism, whether Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, understood this well. Neither ingredient is evident in the Olympic boycott call of various non-government organisations and the Indian sports ministry. There can be a case for arguing that the Olympics is the sort of high-profile event where a half-forgotten cause like the Bhopal disaster could receive publicity and potentially justice. British Prime Minister David Cameron ignores history when he says sports and politics should not overlap — the Olympics were politicised even in the days of Athens and Sparta. But he is not wrong in implying no one would notice if India made a no-show. Past Olympics have gone ahead successfully despite the absence of sporting superpowers like the Soviet Union and the US. The impact of an India boycott, a country wins one or two medals every four years, would be felt largely in the broken hopes of its own sportsmen. On top of all this, the sports ministry is only contemplating a boycott of the opening and closing ceremonies — tokenism of the worst variety.
Raising global consciousness about Bhopal is a worthy cause. A well-crafted campaign should have sought to draw in other countries that experienced similar industrial accidents. Tactically, boycotts only work if the target is economically or politically vulnerable to isolation. Otherwise, they tend to be invisible. The most famous Olympic protests were not boycotts by nations or individuals. They were by sportsmen on the field: Jesse Owens humiliating the racist doctrines of Adolf Hitler in 1936 and Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving black power salutes in 1968. Perhaps that is the template activists should consider.