‘My 1984’

For quite sometime I have been thinking about writing a book on the year 1984 as it unfolded in India from the perspective of a 23-year-old journalist, namely me. India is known to produce a thousand* stories a day for a journalist who cares to look. In 1984, even those who did not care to look stories grabbed them by the collar and said, “Here, report us.”

I have now just begun crafting an early outline of the book tentatively titled “My 1984”. I have added “My” because a) There is already a global masterpiece called ‘1984’ by the great George Orwell and b) It personalizes this particular account.

It is a useful coincidence that as I prepare to eventually write this book, we are in the midst of the anniversaries of so many dystopian events that happened in 1984 in India. I had written a piece for the IANS wire in June, 2010, when a magistrate’s court gave the guilt verdict in the Bhopal gas disaster case. That piece put this broad picture in perspective.

It struck me yesterday many of the powerful elements of 1984 have converged all over again now. Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In a little over a month from now, the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster will be observed. We have also just been told about the death of Warren M. Anderson, 92, the former CEO of Union Carbide Corporation, the once giant American corporation that owned and operated the Bhopal plant. There is also the first feature length movie in English about the disaster called “Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain” directed by Ravi Kumar getting ready for release.

Given all this, I thought it might be useful to reproduce the June, 2010, IANS piece as a gentle reminder to self to speed up ‘My 1984’. That piece was written against the backdrop of questions over how Anderson, who was under detention in Bhopal, was allowed to leave India at the instance of a telephone call from someone very high up in New Delhi. It has never been made known who made that mysterious call. Anderson managed to escape justice in India and is now no more.

By Mayank Chhaya

It is rarely, if at all, remembered that the Dec 2-3, 1984, Bhopal industrial disaster had capped off five weeks of what was probably the bloodiest time in independent India’s history until then. In a macabre sort of way, the Bhopal disaster seemed to provide perfect denouement to the series of dystopian events that preceded it during the Orwellian year.

For any democracy, least of all one as contentious as India, the brazen assassination of its prime minister by her own bodyguards alone would have dealt a massive blow to its own self-worth. But the sordid turn of events did not stop with the killing of prime minister Indira Gandhi on Oct 31. The assassination was followed by a systematic massacre of some 3,000 Sikhs as an unnervingly retributive reaction to the fact that Gandhi’s killers were her own Sikh bodyguards.

When Rajiv Gandhi took over as prime minister in the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death the country was profoundly wounded and, inevitably, the doomsayers in the West were waiting to sound its death knell. Even before Gandhi could sort out the personal grief of his mother’s death and begin to address the Sikh massacre as an archetype of all that could go wrong with India, a tank filled with the deadly but odorless and colorless methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas began leaking at the Union Carbide India Limited’s (UCIL) plant in Bhopal on the night of Dec 2 and morning of Dec 3.

The immediate official death toll was reported to be 2,259 with clear indications that the number would multiply several-fold in the weeks and months ahead given the lethal lingering effects of the exposure to MIC.

In peace times it is not common for a country to lose upwards of 5,000 people in a span of a few weeks to such a diversity of causes – one a complete socio-political collapse and the other an unprecedented industrial catastrophe. And these two on top of modern India’s least challenged assassination after the 1948 killing of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

When one considers that barely six months before, in June of the same year, the Indian government was compelled to order a military-style storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar overrun by heavily armed Sikh separatists led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, it puts the year in the proper perspective.

The guilty, albeit, light verdict handed down by a magistrate’s court in the Bhopal case has revived the interest in that period of India’s history but without the media providing a more detailed context to the story. The escape of Warren Anderson, the former chairman and CEO of UCIL’s American parent Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), has become a subject of quick analyses on broadcast channels. Although Anderson’s exit from India in questionable circumstances is definitely a legitimate issue, what is often not recognized is the context within which it happened.

By the time the Bhopal disaster took place, the Indian state had already been overwhelmed by the bloody culmination of Sikh separatism which had claimed thousands of lives in Punjab, provoked a hitherto unthinkable military intervention inside one of the country’s most revered temples and led to the assassination of a prime minister.

As if all this was not enough, what appeared to be a premeditated plan to murder a specific group of people was carried out for three days. A government that looked the other way as nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed in the heart of the capital was unlikely to have responded with all its force to a disaster at a pesticide plant some distance away. Deliberate inaction seemed to have become state policy during those weeks.

Anderson’s arrest and near simultaneous release on Dec 7, 1984, has become emblematic of all that has gone wrong with the case. The guilty verdict, which makes no mention of Anderson, has merely added to that story over a quarter century after it happened.

However, the larger issue here is how a government besieged by a virtual breakdown in state authority after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the Sikh massacre felt debilitated by the Bhopal disaster. It is entirely possible that Anderson was allowed to flee with official blessings under pressure from the US government. It is hard to conclusively prove a charge like that, if not impossible altogether. As much as his escape is symptomatic of the larger malaise, it does not tell the whole story.

In hindsight, the state failures over Bhopal are not just easy to anticipate and hence avoidable but even egregious in some sense. However, within the context they were taking place they were a consequence of a state which had suffered a traumatic head injury.

Nevertheless, the sense of siege that the Indian state seemed to feel constituted no extenuating circumstance for the failure of the national institutions in ensuring that Bhopal got the attention it deserved. Someone looking at just the weeks following Gandhi’s assassination could be easily persuaded to conclude that the Indian state had taken a leave of absence.

In popular perceptions, the passage of 26 long years for a court to pronounce guilty verdict against the top managers of the Bhopal plant could have been offset by the quantum of punishment. However, the fact that Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohan P. Tiwari sentenced eight former Union Carbide executives to only two years in prison and individual fines of Rs.100,000 has served to sharpen the feeling India would rather forget Bhopal.

This at a time when the country of the company’s origin, namely the United States, is calling for exemplary punishment for the petroleum giant BP for the relentless Gulf of Mexico oil leak from one of its undersea wells.

Had a disaster comparable to Bhopal happened in Union Carbide’s plant in the US, justice would have been long served, new stringent laws enacted, the guilty jailed and large sums of money paid out to the victims and their families.

****

I also wrote the following on December 4, 2009:

As a junior reporter working for a Bombay newspaper (The Free Press Journal) with a Bhopal edition, I had no prospects of covering the Union Carbide gas disaster from its location.

Cub reporters, as we were half patronizingly, half contemptuously called, were condemned to practicing "handout" journalism. In simple terms it meant turning scores of handouts or press releases into trivial little stories which were mainly used as space fillers around small display ads of "Monkey Brand" tooth cleaning powder and suchlike. Incidentally, in this particular variety of tooth powder, crushed coal was suspected to be the main ingredients. The way it worked was because the coal was so dark, even ordinarily yellow teeth would seem stunningly white out against that background once it was rubbed on the gums. I digress but I had to get it out my system.

Fortunately (and I say this purely from a professional journalist’s perspective), I got an opportunity to work for the Associated Press (AP) from January, 1985, barely a month after a tank at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant exploded into a historic leak. Being based in Bombay as the AP bureau chief it became part of my assignment to cover the story from the corporate angle. That meant establishing a contact with Union Carbide India Limited’s (UCIL) managing director Vijay Gokhlae.

When I first met Gokhale he had an air of befuddled amiability about him. If I remember it right he had just taken over the new assignment after spending some time in the U.S. He appeared to look for an ally in a representative of the iconic news institution of America. I am happy to report that he did not find one.

In a sense whatever I wrote of the Bhopal story was from the vantage point of a deeply embattled chief executive. There was a time when I used to meet him practically every week in his office near I think it was Charni Road station. The most frequently discussed subject between him and I was how the deadly Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas had leaked from Tank 610 at the plant. The tank had 42 tones of MIC liquid, which is colorless but has a pungent smell.

The initial explanation behind the leak was that a large quantity of water entered the tank setting off a rapid chain reaction with the highly flammable liquid. As the temperature inside jumped to 200 degrees C. (392 degrees F.) the tank became of a gigantic weapon. The tank’s vent worked the way they should have and began leaking the gaseous MIC into the air.

Ironically, some experts I spoke to at that time argued that under the circumstances they would rather that the vent did not work. That would have led the tank to explode at the site and may have limited the quantity of gaseous MIC as the still liquid water-MIC mixture would have seeped into the plant’s ground. It would have caused a localized gas leak which may have taken far less lives. I am not sure if this theory made any sense.

I recall Gokhale not able to fully explain how 42 tones of a deadly chemical were allowed to be stored in the first place. To be fair to him, I do not think the plant was under his watch at the time the disaster struck in the early hours of December 3, 1984. Many UCIL engineers were brought into his well attended office to explain to me how this accident could have happened. It was also subtly suggested that the leak may even have been an act of sabotage by some disgruntled workers. They had inferred that from the fact that so much water had gone into Tank 610.

One particular engineer, whose name has escaped my memory, was so convinced that it was an act of sabotage that Gokhale had to rein him in and reprimand him in my presence. Gokhale said something to the effect, "We cannot make any such claims right now" and told me to discount the engineer’s version.

Gokhale always had an expression of contrition every time I met him. It was almost as if he needed an independent outsider to see and recognize his personal pain and regret at what had happened. Initially, I did respond to his anguish but as time went by it came across as a pose. I am sure he felt what he said he did but it was still nothing compared to the thousands who died and were maimed.

In retrospect, I feel tragic that my very limited work on Bhopal was nothing more than sifting through polished corporate platitudes. Someday I hope to make it right.

* Do not take 1000 literally. It is a figure of speech.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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