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The Bhopal Gas Massacre and the Politics of Tragedy

Posted on July 1, 2010 in Politics

Abhirup Bhunia:

The powers in India have a propensity for making decisions under politically guided thoughts and thus, often, turn out to be a government highly insensitive to public sentiments. By giving precedence to political and fiscal corollaries over its citizens’ grievances, the authorities have garnered an anti-people image. Bhopal exemplifies that.

When the nauseating gases that seeped out from the factory which owed its parentage to the America based Union Carbide, now defunct, engulfed the city of Bhopal, and turned it into a chamber of death, India was a nation-state with little market value.

The Bhopal gas leak, the world’s worst industrial accident, took place in 1984 precisely. It made for the third lead on the front page of New York Times the very next day — present editor of Hindustan Times, Sanjoy Hazarika was the correspondent.

Millions were affected in the long run and thousands killed within days of the disaster. Affecting an entire generation and reportedly showing its effects even to this day, the Bhopal gas leak was more than a criminal negligence – it was culpable homicide under the Indian Penal Code. That would have amounted to ten years of rigorous imprisonment for the eight of them who have been offered a meagre two-year custody. And like there is always the worst to be stored for the end — all of them were granted bail immediately in exchange of Rs 25000 (500$ roughly).

What followed the Bhopal cataclysm was horrible. The charges against all the accused were diluted. Reasons, even more horrible. Industrialists meant investments and why would India want to muddle up the money-spinning prospects, after all the victims were poor. A poor man’s life is expendable — yes, indeed it is, at least that’s what one can gauge from the apathy demonstrated by the authorities. Rajiv Gandhi, the illustrious scion of India’s Gandhi dynasty was then (in 1984) the Prime Minister of India. He was busy resurrecting India’s growth. Credited as the architect of India’s Information Technology boom, Rajiv was actively engaged in bringing India in the global forefront, which in other words meant, making India a rich country. And it is waste of time to even mention that the process was inequitable — a callous disregard for the wellbeing of the poor. The poor weren’t complaining — but they couldn’t help but whine at what can possibly never be justified: Rajiv aided Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide group, the prime accused in the disaster that exterminated the heart of India, personally, as Anderson was flown off to USA. Forget justification, severe criticism of the act should fall short in this case. The then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, of which Bhopal is the capital, was the treacherous partner in the crime. It was in his official flight in which Anderson, the slaughterer of thousands of lives, made his way swiftly, unscathed to US.

And all this information comes from where? The classified documents of Central Intelligence Agency, the American resource center. How ironic!

It is more than just palpable that the decision came under terrific political forethought. India knew detaining Anderson could come in the way of Foreign Direct Investments in future; it could paralyze the nation’s wealth escalation and of course, it could mean a strain in the relationship with America which was anyhow mediocre at that time. It could turn off investors. So the government thought it righteous to give merchants the liberty to amass money, which also meant riches for them, in return for nothing — at least not liability in any case. But the people had to pay the most precious price — lives.

A lot has happened in light of the unforgivable slip up by New Delhi. Protestors rallied, activists raised voices, some shouted, and others cursed. And the resentment is all the more since the rather valued Rajiv Gandhi, from whom it was least expected, was the accomplice. And adding salt to injury was the fact that successive governments representing varied political dogmas overlooked Bhopal’s victims as if they were nonentities.

But seldom do governments learn lessons. In a blatant show of exactly that, the parties of the nation have engaged in mudslinging and blame shifting. The government has successfully acquired an anti-poor and apathetic image following these revelations, which some like calling ‘The Bhopal disaster II’ but shows little interest in making amends. Why would they anyway? After all the Prime Ministerial elections are almost four years away.

It is time they understood what mattered was the lives of people, the kin of dead, the little children who have been denied the right to lead normal lives, and much more, at least not what prevented them from doing what was natural, i.e. getting Anderson punished and sending out the message to foreign nations that nothing in India was of more importance than the interests of their citizens.

Last of all, isn’t it high time someone reminded the government that political upshots of everything can be regarded, but not of human tragedy? Till then let the world lampoon India and its patriotism deficiency! And did you notice the media has already gone quiet? But let us not do the same!

Abhirup Bhunia is a special correspondent at Youth Ki Awaaz. He takes a special liking to global diplomacy and international developments along with social issues. Follow him at or contact him at