Special to The Tribune
Rajkumar Keswani in Bhopal
The question was first asked in 1984 and is now being asked again after a gap of over 25 years. Thanks to the June 7 verdict in the Bhopal gas disaster case, which has brought the nation out of its deep slumber to be on the side of victims, who are fighting against the injustice.
Warren Anderson, the then chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation, USA, was in Washington with his wife Lillian. He had enjoyed the performances at the Kennedy Centre gala the previous evening. The next morning, i.e. December 3, 1984, he was to leave for Danbury.
He woke up in the morning only to be greeted by a bombshell of news: methyl isocynate gas has leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and killed a large number of people. This brought a few more wrinkles on the face of six-foot-two-inch tall, 63-year-old lanky man.
After a series of meetings, interactions and thoughtful exchanges with his company colleagues, Anderson decided to visit Bhopal. Those consulted included Keshub Mahindra, chairman of the Indian subsidiary UCIL.
Anderson wanted to have first-hand knowledge about the catastrophe, which he thought “will leave a stigma on him and his company”.
On December 6, Anderson reached Bombay. He was accompanied by a team of Carbide experts to review the situation at the Bhopal plant. Mahindra and other Indian officials of the company joined him at his spacious suite in Taj Hotel to draw out a strategy for the Bhopal visit the next day.
Anderson reached Bhopal in a regular Indian Airlines service flight around 9.35 am. The door of the plane opened only after Collector Moti Singh and SSP Swaraj Puri had reached the tarmac of the Bairagarh airport.
The door opened and two officers entered the plane. One of them pronounced the names of Anderson, Mahindra and VP Gokhle, managing director of the UCIL. They were asked to descend first while other passengers remained in their seats.
The visitors were greeted by Moti Singh and Swaraj Puri with smiling faces. After a warm handshake, they were taken to the car of the collector at the tarmac itself. Three visitors occupied the back seat and the collector sat in the front with his SP, who was on the driver’s seat.
“Thank you very much” were the words of Anderson for the two, who thought the officers were taking care of him out of courtesy for a company chairman who has flown to Bhopal, all the way from America.
The car went straight to the luxurious guesthouse of the Carbide, overlooking the Bhopal lake at Shyamla Hills. But yes, it was just midway that the soft-spoken Moti Singh informed the visitors of his real intentions. They were under arrest, he said.
It came as a huge shock to the three on the back seat who, hitherto, thought they were being treated like VVIPs. Mahindra asked in an almost screaming voice: “What the hell you are talking about?”
This, however, was futile. The two officers were acting under instructions from Chief Minister Arjun Singh, who was a worried man due the rising popular sentiment against his government. He wanted to gain some sympathy by acting tough.
They were escorted inside the guesthouse and were not supposed to communicate with the outside world. In fact, it was the turn of the Chief Minister to communicate. He, through a press note issued soon after the arrest of the three, declared that “…we are convinced on the basis of facts already available that each one of them has constructive and criminal liability for the events that have led to the great tragedy at the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal. The government cannot remain helpless spectator to the tragedy and knows its duty towards thousands of innocent citizens whose lives have been so rudely affected by cruel and wanton negligence. The power of the state is committed to fight for its citizens’ rights”.
This was election time in India. Arjun Singh has been on a campaign trail with the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was in the state to hold election rallies. He communicated his orders to the authorities in Bhopal for the arrest of the three on arrival. The rest of the job was done by his PR department. They were talking tough and were assuring justice for the victims.
But the language dramatically took a new turn. It was due the dramatic events that were happening fast in Washington, Delhi, Bombay and elsewhere. James A Becker, a Bombay-based American diplomat, had accompanied Anderson. He, after the arrest, also reached Carbide guesthouse, but was refused entry by police personnel manning the gates of the place.
Disappointed, Becker swung into the action fast. Then, I presume, the scene from a 1927 Fritz Lang film “Metropolis” was enacted; a chain reaction of picking over phones, one after another. Once, the things got little settled, Gordon Streeb, charge d’ affairs, holding the forte in the absence of the ambassador, picked the phone once again to dial foreign secretary Krishna Rasgotra, to express his country’s displeasure at the arrest of Anderson, besides seeking his immediate release.
Rasgotra, in turn, acted fast by passing on the information to the Cabinet Secretary to be communicated to the Prime Minister, who by then had reached Harda, a constituency in Madhya Pradesh.
And then started the action replay of the entire act. Prime Minister spoke to the Chief Minister immediately, who in turn communicated to his officers in Bhopal, sounding soft this time. This was bail time for Anderson.
The bail on record for Rs 25,000 is in the name of one Carbide employee AN Kuruvilla, who later informed the court that he was made to sign the surety papers forcibly by the local police. That, too, on December 8, when Anderson was already out and in Delhi. However, his surety amount was forfeited by the court.
Unaware of this entire drama happening in different parts of the world, we, the mediapersons, were standing out at the gates of the Carbide guesthouse. In disgust, when finally I climbed a remaining wall of some adjacent collapsed structure to have some kind of a peep into the guesthouse, to my utter amazement, there was no activity visible at all.
I shouted from there to my journalist colleagues to inform about that. As soon I came down, Mark Finn of Philadelphia Journal (I hope I remember this correctly) arrived on the scene to announce that his sources in American Embassy had informed him that Anderson has been released.
This enraged the waiting mediapersons. We decided to confront the police and gatecrash to enter the guesthouse. The police force failed to stand before a unanimous and joint action of the media and the doors got open to disappointment.
Anderson was already whisked away from the side exit in the collector’s car to the Bhopal Airport.
The state plane, kept ready for flight to New Delhi, was waiting for the VIP passenger under the orders of the Chief Minister’s Office. He arrived, looked back at the people out on the tarmac and waved to say goodbye. An officer responded to this with a salute. And then, Captain SH Ali flew Anderson to New Delhi, where someone from the Embassy was already waiting. He was driven straight to the Embassy, where Gordon Street had been waiting for him.
Later in the day, the state government issued another press release. This time, it was without the Chief Minister’s statement. It said: “…the arrest was in implementation of the law in letter and spirit. He (Anderson) has been released because he was not required here for the investigations in the case.”
Anderson, later in a press conference on December 10 in Danbury, said, “I want to stress that we were treated with the utmost courtesy and consideration. The reason given for holding us in the guest house was concern about my security.”