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Posted at: Dec 3, 2017, 1:53 AM; last updated: Dec 3, 2017, 1:53 AM (IST)

Unrest in peace

Remember Bhopal, a community-led museum dedicated to the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy, offers lessons in public activism

Manu Moudgil

A pencil box, a woolen jumper suit, a war medal, a stethoscope, these are just a few static things that gain life when voices start telling their stories. As you pick the wall-mounted receivers next to them, things become belongings. So we have Savitri bai remembering her son Vinod who used that pencil box, Sajid’s mother can still feel him in the jumper suit, the war medal once decorated the chest of Aneesa Bano’s father and that stethoscope helped Dr HH Trivedi diagnose many who were condemned to live a slow death. 

At ‘Remember Bhopal’, the first community-led museum of India, voices of survivors lead you through the biggest industrial disaster of the world that killed over 5,000 people, maimed hundreds of thousands and continues to contaminate land and water even after 33 years. The leakage of methyl isocyanate gas on December 3, 1984, from the chemical plant of Union Carbide India Limited in Bhopal made it to the history textbooks, but it’s here that one confronts the enormity of this man-made tragedy. 

The place, managed by the Remember Bhopal Trust, came as a response to the Madhya Pradesh government’s announcement to build a museum on the factory site. “We feel that the government is complicit in this crime and hence its narrative would always be faulty. At the same time, we wanted a place to commemorate those who perished and also preserve the individual memories of loss and struggle,” says survivor activist Rasheeda Bi. 

These feelings resonated with museologist Rama Lakshmi who, having already worked on similar projects in the United States, offered her expertise. “Keeping the memory of trauma and lingering injustice is very important to the community of survivors. I am a vocal advocate of using oral histories and wanted to introduce a new museum template in India — one that chronicles difficult contemporary stories, and social justice struggles,” Lakshmi says. This collaboration transformed four rooms and one hall way of a rented duplex flat into a lived experience.

Immersive design

Dark walls convey feeling of the night while overhead pipes depict the factory. Voices start talking about the wee hours of December 3, 1984, when birds started dropping from the sky and infants died sucking on milk bottles. The Black Room has belongings of the dead and personal accounts of those who endured life. The earliest black-and-white photographs portray people with bandaged eyes and children sharing shrouds. A hallway next to the room is called the ‘Anderson Room’. Here journalists and activists talk about how the tragedy was waiting to happen and the ease with which company owner Warren Anderson flew back to America within 24 hours of his arrest. 

“We did not want to follow a timeline chronology in the layout. Immediately after the Black Room of the gas disaster, the logical curiosity of the visitor would be to see if people were punished. That is why the Anderson Room is the next. The layout follows a cognitive pattern,” she adds. 

The ‘Medicine Room’ has tales of survivors and their next generations who inherited the contamination and live with mental and physical diseases. They are joined by new families affected by the contaminated water as the factory site is yet to be cleaned of toxic dump. Empty medicine bottles and assistive devices form the exhibits and photographs form the backdrop. Ruby Parvez talks about her son who was born with deformed limbs: “We, the victims, alone know our mental condition. We will obviously support the other victims. That’s why I married one victim. Even with paralysed children we still support each other. We give hope to each other that in near future our children will be cured of all the ailments. We still have hope!” 

From the pits of tragedy and despair, a flight of stairs takes you to skies of hope and determination. The upper level of the building has walls decked with torches, loudspeakers, banners, brooms and various other art forms used by protesters over the years to jolt the society out of its business-as-usual approach. “Women activists have been the core strength of this struggle which is why they also get greater representation here,” informs Rasheeda Bi.

Songs of protest can be heard from the receivers, as also the strong voices of those who are willing to give a fitting reply. One song has a girl complaining to her mother about difficulty in climbing steps of the palace because her eyes are burning and throat gone hoarse with cough. Another one has a woman speaking for all residents of Bhopal willing to triumph over darkness. 

Activists, both from the affected and unaffected communities, become part of the narrative. On one wall hang painter Ganga Ram’s rollers and paint bottles, which he used while working with Dutch sculptor Ruth Waterman to make the iconic ‘mother-child’ statue that symbolises the gas tragedy. A lawyer’s handbook comes with voice of advocate Santosh Kumar who used it to fight cases of compensation for survivors. 

To bridge the class divide

There are not many places in India that commemorate a tragedy and subsequent fight back. Unlike the Holocaust memorials in many countries or the museums about atomic bombings in Japan, there’s little effort made to remember here as is evident from the 70 years it took us to have a museum about 1947 Partition. Bhopal has also become just another chapter in history textbooks with little bearing on industrial safety, as is evident from recent blast at NTPC power plant in Uttar Pradesh and collapse of a plastic manufacturing unit in Ludhiana. 

“At both individual and societal levels, we struggle against memory. The museum is here so that we don’t commit the same mistakes of ignoring safety procedures, of laxity in dealing with corporate crime as also weak healthcare and ecological response,” says Suresh Joseph, a member of the Remember Bhopal Trust. 

The initiative is also trying to bridge the class divide in Bhopal. The gas leak affected old city area, inhabited mostly by poor. “New Bhopal with its middle class families often see the gas affected as those who are always asking for compensation. The museum is changing that perception as more and more people, especially students, from newer part of the city are visiting us and getting informed about the inadequate relief measures,” Joseph informs. 

The contributors want to keep the museum’s narrative fluid as the tragedy is still unfolding through contamination of land and water. There was a plan to mount the items on a bus which would travel across the country for a year and collect stories from other industrial disaster sites, but there was not enough funding. “A lot more is required to be done. The second and third generation of the gas affected who are born with disabilities need greater representation. We should also run a documentary film on the tragedy,” says Rasheeda Bi. 

Despite the limitations, however, Remember Bhopal Museum can be an inspiration for other people’s movements on how to persist and preserve.

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