Abdul Jabbar, one of the oldest activists to mobilise the survivors of the deadly 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal and fight for their justice, died on Thursday. He was the man who taught the people exposed to the poisonous gas of the world’s worst industrial disaster how to come together and demand jobs, compensation, monthly pensions and medical relief.
It wasn’t easy. There was no precedent in India for this kind of a tragedy.
In terms of activism and modes of fighting against power structure, Bhopal was in a “pre-political” stage before the Union Carbide gas leak. Overnight, people had to learn to rise against powerful corporations and the might of the Indian and American governments. Early leaders like Abdul Jabbar helped turn thousands of demure and docile people of Bhopal into feisty warriors.
“There are two kinds of struggles here in Bhopal,” Abdul Jabbar had recalled in an exhaustive oral history interview in 2014. “One is a quest for self-reliance. The other is against the injustice of the government. On the streets and in the courts. We were not trained in any special manner in how to fight these battles.”
In the past three months, a severely diabetic Jabbar suffering multiple heart ailments moved from one hospital to another. I received a WhatsApp message from him last week saying a super speciality hospital like the Bhopal Memorial Hospital (BMHRC) had failed to treat him because they did not have the facilities. He called it “shameful”. As his condition worsened, and gangrene set in, the Madhya Pradesh government prepared to airlift him and take him to Mumbai’s Asian Heart Institute for treatment on 19 November, say his close friends. But he died before that.
‘Hum Bhopal ki naari hain, phool nahin, chingari hain’
The first time I saw Abdul Jabbar was in 1993, when he was leading a long, serpentine line of hundreds of women marching across the streets of Bhopal. Many of them had their faces covered in sari veils and burqas, and held up placards saying “Gas-peedit ko insaaf do” and “Hang Anderson”, referring to Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson. Jabbar, who was 37-years old back then, walked ahead chanting “Ladenge, jeetenge (We will fight, we will win)”, and the women repeated after him in their sing-song voices.
Then they shouted “Hum Bhopal ki naari hain, phool nahin, chingari hain. (We are women of Bhopal, we are fiery sparks not flowers)”.
The situation was dire.
The poisonous gas leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in December 1984 killed 8,000 people in the immediate aftermath, and nearly 25,000 over the next few decades. It also left over 1,50,000 people suffering with respiratory, hormonal and psychological illnesses. High incidence of cancer and disability was seen in the neighbourhoods of survivors. Jabbar had lost three people in his family in the gas leak, and suffered from lung and eye problems himself. (‘Health Effects of the Toxic Gas Leak from the Union Carbide Methyl Isocyanate Plant in Bhopal, Technical Report, Epidemiological Study, 1985-1994. Report by Indian Council of Medical Research 2004).
In the nine years, the families of victims and survivors had got measly amounts as relief from a corrupt and slothful bureaucracy, and were struggling under the tyranny of paperwork in dozens of overcrowded claims courts.
‘Gas-peedit ko insaaf do’
At first, the Madhya Pradesh government gave relief assistance of 200 ml of milk everyday, and 5 kg of food rations every month. That wasn’t enough. Abdul Jabbar gave the women a new slogan: “We don’t want pittance, we want jobs”.
“We went to the Supreme Court for the first time in 1988 saying that until people get their final compensation, they must get some form of interim relief. Our first success was to get tailoring centres for the women,” Jabbar said. About 2,300 women worked in these centres making zardozi strips and carry-bags. He helped women fight lawyers, doctors, bureaucrats and the police.
Abdul Jabbar represented the largest group of nearly 30,000 survivors, predominantly women, in Bhopal. From 1986 until almost his end, he held protest meetings every Saturday – first near Radha Cinema, then at Bhopal’s Yaadgaar-i-Shahjahani Park, a historic site where the battle against the British colonial rulers was staged in 1942.
Every week, women would gather at the park after lunch with their medical files and fiery speeches about tales of struggle. A cloth banner said: “Only those who participate in the battle can donate”.
It was a unique model. Jabbar asked each survivor to voluntarily donate 50 paise to the non-violent movement. External funding, he said, was like crutches, survivors must recognise their own inner strength instead.
He said the fight for justice was important not just for Bhopal but for all of India. “Do you want to set a wrong precedent that says ‘come to this country, play with people’s lives, health and the environment and go scot-free after paying a little bit of compensation.’ Or do you want to ensure that these culprits get punished?”
In 2001, Union Carbide became a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals. And the theatre of the struggle shifted. As protest styles of some groups in Bhopal changed and became global and networked, Abdul Jabbar struggled with old ways of activism and limited resources. He often lamented that without foreign funding and the steady stream of volunteers and interns from outside, his old files, posters, handbills and photographs could not be archived or digitised. Jabbar struggled with an old computer and his failing eyesight. The 35-year-old photographs on his office walls were fading beyond recognition.
He set up a Facebook account on his phone. But he insisted in his oral history session that “Facebook activism can’t bring a revolution. For that, you still have to fight on the streets”.
And the street had taught the survivors many lessons. Jabbar said the spirit of fight that the movement instilled in people didn’t just stay limited to the gas relief battle. Over the years, they were questioning everything.
“They have learnt to question the police too – why are you doing this? Why have you arrested my boy? Why do you want to beat me with your stick? They have learnt to go to the bank and ask why their accounts have just Rs 4,300 instead of Rs 6,000 rupees,” he said.
The author is the Opinion Editor at ThePrint. She is also the curator of Remember Bhopal Museum and has conducted oral history interviews with survivors and activists in Bhopal. Views are personal.