Monday, 16 May, 2022
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The lazy way to remember the Bhopal Gas tragedy

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It’s lazy pretending to recall that night, but duck inconvenient questions about injustice, writes the voluntary curator of Remember Bhopal Museum.

The memory of the horrific Union Carbide gas tragedy in Bhopal 33 years ago evokes familiar and widespread emotions of shock and sympathy.

But the consensus breaks when you ask how long to fight for justice in Bhopal. This can be a deeply divisive debate.

In fact, we have made a habit of this in India. Yes, 1984 Sikh riots and 2002 riots were terrible, everybody says. But justice? That is where the disagreements begin. Because justice would entail paying compensation, admitting political complicity and sending some prominent leaders to jail. When you begin speaking about justice, many will say it is time to “move on”.

Raise the issues of lingering injustice in Bhopal and it can split any group – here in India or in the United States. Activists can be dismissed as a grief industry, those who have made a dukaan out of injustice, protesting survivors of the tragedy can be lathi-charged and arrested, and those who speak about corporate crime will be labelled jholawala Lefties.

Memory is what you choose to remember. It is, after all, easier to remember the scenes that evoke pity but not convenient to remember the years of brazen impunity that followed.

Here is a sample of inconvenient truths:

· Even today, the widespread narrative is that justice was more or less done after Union Carbide settled with the Indian government in 1989 to pay $470 million toward compensation. Their liability was over. After all that is what our court said. It is another matter that the government had filed a suit for $3 billion in damages, but settled for a fraction of that amount. Survivors’ groups were not even consulted during the process and accused the Indian Rajiv Gandhi government of selling out. You can choose to never erase this from your memory.

What is worse, 95 percent of the people who have been compensated received only $500 each – after waiting for nearly two decades. Documents unearthed through RTI later showed that Carbide and our government colluded to chalk out the categories for compensations. No wonder, around 94 per cent of victims were placed under the category of “temporary injuries”.

· Then there is the shameful memory of the visiting Carbide chairman Warren Anderson being whisked away to the airport for a quick safe exit out of India by officials. Everybody shares the outrage over this. But many fall silent over what followed. In 1992, he was charged with culpable homicide, and an arrest warrant was issued. But he never appeared in court to face the charges. He was proclaimed an “absconder” from Indian justice. No successive government – Congress or the BJP – actively pursued the matter with the United States government. In fact the BJP government in 2002 asked the Bhopal District Court to reduce the charges against Anderson from culpable homicide to negligence.

For years, Anderson was the most wanted man in the Indian city of Bhopal, as survivors protest on the streets holding up placards saying “Hang Anderson” and “Extradite Anderson” and burning his effigies. But he was never brought to justice and died a free man in September 2014 in Florida at the age of 92.

· In 2001, Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide Corporation. Today Dow faces both criminal and environmental liabilities in the country. The Bhopal District Court issued summons to Dow in 2004 in a criminal case. Apart from this, in the civil case, the government is asking for a higher compensation and environmental clean-up of the toxic materials at the factory site. In 2008, the Union cabinet decided that because Carbide is an absconder, Dow is now liable.

But on this day, if all of us merely reconstruct the events of that fateful night of gas leak and do not remember the difficult, inconvenient questions, then we are merely engaging in what is popularly called “calendar journalism”. A Kenyan philosopher KW Waliaula has called it a process of deliberate “disremembering”.

This was the fear that some survivors’ groups expressed when the Madhya Pradesh government set out to finalise a proposal to build a massive memorial at the Carbide factory site in 2005. Survivors said not only were they not consulted, but that the government does not have the moral right to build a memorial because it was complicit in the injustice. They worried a state memorial may airbrush their struggles.

As a museologist, I had the interest and skill sets in curating social movements. And that is how the initial conversations began with survivors and activists to build a community museum.

As a result, three years ago, we opened a modest museum called the Remember Bhopal Museum. It took no money from the government or any corporation. It relied on private donations, and was an effort against this collective push to “move on”. How do you move on when justice is still pending?

The museum does not demand that you defang your anger before entering. But still, the museum is not all about anger either. It has thrown up remarkable personal encounters too.

Here’s a powerful story.

Earlier this year, a street performers’ troupe came to the museum’s neighborhood. They went house-to-house asking for chanda (donations).

The museum’s managers Safreen Khan and Tasneem Khan invited them into the museum.

The drummer in the troupe stood mesmerized in front of a black-and-white photograph of a woman on the wall and stared blankly. Then, he broke down, cried inconsolably for about 10 minutes. When the managers helped him and asked him if there is anything he wanted to share, this is what he said:

The picture was that of his dead wife. She had gone missing soon after the gas leak that night. He had not even seen her dead body. He has no photograph of the woman either.

After all these years, he saw her again on the museum’s wall.

Rama Lakshmi is the Editor, Opinion at ThePrint. She is also the curator of the Remember Bhopal Museum

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