On the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, over 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the storage tanks of the Bhopal-based Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), instantly killing 3,000 persons. Thirty-five years later, several independent agencies and campaigners insist that the gas killed more than 25,000 persons affecting 5,50,000 others several of them disabled in the capital of Madhya Pradesh.
Yet, the world’s deadliest industrial disaster has not become part of a national cultural memory either in films, books, music or theatre. It doesn’t even have a memorial. Unlike elaborate records, memorials and museums that the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Germany maintain to educate younger generations about the Holocaust, Bhopal does not have any such reminder clearly indicating society's cultural and emotional disconnect. Around 9,00,000 people lived in Bhopal in December 1984 when the lethal gas leak affected citizens living in about 36 municipal wards of the city.
For the past three and a half decades, various activists and NGOs have tried to fight this apathy and make the tragedy into a larger national/international story of anti-corporate struggle, anti-chemical factories' struggle and environmental injustice. But there is no Erin Brockovich here.
Thirteen years later, Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro came up with a bestseller, Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World's Deadliest Industrial Disaster in 1997. However, when the book was published in India, it faced legal challenge from Swaraj Puri and Moti Singh, SP and city collector, respectively, when the tragedy had occurred. Several Bhopal-based journalists and activists also questioned facts and sequence of events in the book.
Four other works of fiction — Amulya Malladi’s A Breath of Fresh Air, Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People and Annie Murray’s Mother and Child were partly set in post-disaster Bhopal but these failed to take a holistic view of the tragedy.
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain starring Rajpal Yadav and Tannishtha Chatterjee miserably missed its target. Similar was the fate of 1999 Hindi film, Bhopal Express starring Kay Kay Menon and Naseeruddin Shah was also off the mark.
A notable exception is Remembering Bhopal Museum situated a stone’s throw away from the defunct Union Carbide factory. The museum is no sprawling edifice. It is located in a flat and has pictures and memorabilia — such as the clothes of children who died — besides audio recordings of some 50 survivors. The museum, curated by journalist-cum museologist Rama Lakshmi, relies predominantly on oral histories of survivors as curatorial strategy.
"According to Rama Lakshmi, Bhopal gas tragedy has the misfortune of being dubbed as just one city’s grievance. Worse, the survivors and the NGOs working with these survivors, have been largely interested in compensation. Issues such as health, justice and environmental damage have "fallen on deaf ears".
The Congress and the BJP have ruled Madhya Pradesh for about 17 years each and created a Hindu-Muslim divide in the city. It further pushed the gas tragedy issue to the margins. This was not the case when the killer gas struck. Bhopal's oldest and most popular vegetarian restaurant, Agrawal Poori Bhandar, situated in Chintaman Chowk, had distributed free food for months. Owner Shyam Babu Agrawal is also said to have arranged for kafan cloth for hundreds of Muslims.
The present-day Bhopal seems to retain a silo mentality where political discourse revolves around whether one community/section of society was affected more or received the bulk of compensation. Unlike the Partition of India that had a larger resonance, affected two nations, dispersed several communities and defined politics, there are no clear villains in Bhopal. Everybody is complicit — various Indian political parties, bureaucracy, foreign corporations, Indian corporations. Hence, it is not an easy story to tell or sell to a global audience. In the end, for many it is just a story of poor people.
For the past two years, Bhopal has been winning awards by the Union Urban Development Ministry for being one of the cleanest cities of the country. This is despite the fact that huge stockpiles of toxic material, estimated to be 350 metric tonnes, are still lying at the Union Carbide factory in the heart of the city. There is no plausible explanation from either Narendra Modi or Kamal Nath governments on why clearing this toxic waste from Bhopal's now defunct factory has not been made part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
The gas tragedy has several elements that would still make a racy movie or a gripping web series. Sample this. On December 7, 1984, five days after the leak, Union Carbide's US-based CEO Warren Anderson came to Bhopal. He was arrested but a bail was hurriedly arranged. Within hours, a Madhya Pradesh state government-owned Cessna, piloted by Captain SH Ali, flew Anderson to Delhi's Palam airport, from where he took a commercial flight home to Bridgehampton, New York, never to return. Ali and others claim that a ‘phone call’ from a powerful person in New Delhi had forced local administration to let Anderson go.
Arjun Singh, who was then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, claimed later that it was Narasimha Rao, then Union Home Minister, who had allowed Anderson to escape. “I would like to make it clear that at no point of time did Rajiv Gandhi (then Prime Minister) talk to me about this matter (Anderson’s release) or intercede on Anderson's behalf. I came to know later that then Union Home Secretary R.D. Pradhan, upon instructions of the Union Home Minister PV Narasimha Rao, had telephoned Brahma Swaroop (MP's Chief Secretary then) to ensure Anderson's release,” Arjun wrote in his memoirs published posthumously, A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time: An Autobiography.
During his six-hour stay in Bhopal, Anderson, who wore a mask, appeared casual and showed “signs of arrogance.”" Ali remembers Anderson was carrying a garment box and a briefcase. “I remember police officers repeatedly requesting him to let them carry these pieces of luggage. Anderson said, ‘No, no, I will carry them myself.’ When the plane was about to take off, city’s SP Swaraj Puri and collector Moti Singh saluted him and wished him good luck,” recalled Captain Ali.
For 35 years, Bhopal gas tragedy has not been projected as a story of resilience. When the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi or the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat took place, there was a sense of outrage that continues to echo. The narrative also includes some political lessons drawn by the rest of India. But Bhopal offers no such political lessons.
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