Bhopal: karmic comeback
by Sandhya Jain on 22 Jun 2010 20 Comments

Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s spin doctors should advise her that when things get tough, silence is perceived as fearful complicity. Once public outrage exploded over the niggardly sentences awarded to the Indian culprits of the Bhopal gas tragedy and it became known that Union Carbide’s American CEO Warren Anderson was given free passage to India, it was simply gross to deflect responsibility from the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.


Modern India’s worst human and environmental catastrophe was caused by sheer neglect of safety standards in a factory owned by the US-based Union Carbide, despite several warnings by journalist Raj Keswani (Jansatta). There were at least three mishaps in the plant before the main tragedy (a fire, two gas leaks), and two factory workers had died, a fact the American management would have known.


The anticipated accident occurred on the night of December 2, 1984, emitting toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas that instantly took nearly 3000 lives; about 30,000 died subsequently; five lakh are affected to this day and several thousands are grievously ill and incapacitated; the ground water is poisoned with pesticides.


The famed indifference of the political elite to the lives of the poor and judicial determination not to surpass bullock cart speed kept justice at bay for 26 long years, until a desultory verdict on June 7 broke the dam of public patience. Now, the piteous cries of victims are drowned by an irate nation demanding explanation for the paltry $470 million (Rs 705 crore) deal that the Government of India negotiated with the US multinational in 1989, and with Supreme Court sanction, quashed criminal proceedings against UCC.


As for the cash-rich Bhopal hospital built with profits from the sale of the plant in 1992, its life chairman is then Chief Justice of India, A.M. Ahmadi, who presided over a Supreme Court bench which diluted the charges against the Union Carbide executives in 1996 by converting the CBI charge under the stringent provisions of 304-II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) that provided for maximum imprisonment of 10 years, to Section 304 (a) (death due to negligence) with just two years maximum imprisonment. Law Minister Veerappa Moily said this was tantamount to turning a disaster into a car accident! Further, the judge personally dismissed a petition seeking review of this dilution of legal indemnity against Carbide, but when the controversy broke, tried to pin the blame on the government.


Of course the larger issue of public accountability concerns the role of the Government of India and then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The then US deputy chief of mission Gordon Streeb claimed that Warren Anderson flew to India only after receiving a specific assurance of “safe passage” and immunity from legal action during his stay. So when Anderson was arrested by Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh on December 7, possibly to earn brownie points with the electorate and unaware of the deal, the Americans cried foul and ensured his instant release; VIP passage to Delhi; and return to America. If we accept the American claim that Anderson wanted to come to India to show “concern for the victims”, he certainly expressed no apology or regret. When charged with culpable homicide, he never returned to face Indian courts.


The Congress party’s and Centre’s woes began when senior ministers rushed to rubbish the claims of B.R. Lall, then investigating officer and former CBI joint director, that the Ministry of External Affairs had directed the CBI not to pursue the extradition case against Anderson. Subsequently, former Bhopal Collector Moti Singh said the then chief secretary Brahma Swaroop had asked him and SP Swaraj Puri to bail out Anderson and see him off at Bhopal airport; the then Director of Madhya Pradesh Aviation R.C. Sondhi and pilot H.S. Ali, who flew Warren Anderson out of Bhopal, implicated Arjun Singh for Anderson’s release. The veteran Arjun Singh merely hinted at the hand of the Centre…


Former close aide and minister of state Arun Nehru asserted that Anderson had met then Home Minister PV Narasimha Rao and then President Zail Singh in New Delhi. The then principal secretary to the prime minister, P.C. Alexander, hinted that his boss knew of the release.

BJP’s charge that Congress is soft on foreigners (Ottavio Quattrocchi) and multinationals, and Anderson’s escape was not possible without Rajiv Gandhi’s consent, received a fillip from the then Foreign Secretary M.K. Rasgotra, who initially denied Gordon Streeb’s claim that he (Rasgotra) was the key liaison in the deal.


Though Rasgotra manfully tried to protect Rajiv Gandhi, one has only to read between the lines to glean the truth. Rasgotra says the US Embassy requested him for safe passage for Anderson, and that he agreed to consult the concerned authorities. Thereupon, he got in touch with the Home Ministry and the Cabinet Secretary, and managed to get the desired amnesty on the “same day.”


Sounds good, except that it is inexplicable that the Secretary of one Ministry (in this case External Affairs, headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) would directly approach the Minister of another Ministry (in this case Home under P.V. Narasimha Rao), and arrange such a sensitive deal, and then merely convey the decision to the Prime Minister-cum-Foreign Minister. It is unbelievable, and Rasgotra should not try to pull such a fast one.

His claim that the request for safe passage by Anderson was “understandable,” that arrest was “wrong,” and the release “in India’s interest,” is equally specious. So is the Congress claim of a ‘law and order crisis,’ a no-brainer of the kind used by Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit to stave off the hanging of Afzal Guru.


Ironically, matters have been brought into perspective by late Narasimha Rao’s son, Ranga Rao, who has aptly stated that his father would never have taken such a critical decision as granting ‘safe passage’ to the Union Carbide chief just days after the Bhopal tragedy, on his own. It is certain that Narasimha Rao would consult the prime minister and other colleagues (was the Law Ministry consulted?), and that Rao was more likely to delay a decision of this kind rather than hasten it! The ball is back in Sonia Gandhi’s court; she would do well to acknowledge what the nation already believes.


The author is Editor, 

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