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On the Tenth Anniversary of the Bhopal Disaster

Interview with Jabbar Khan*

by Amrita Basu

Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars,
vol. 26, nos. 1-2, Jan.-June 1994

I interviewed Jabbar Khan at his residence in Jehangirabad on two occasions. Our first conversation, recorded below, took place in Hindi on 29 December 1991.

AB: Were you in Bhopal on 2 December? Could you tell me about your experience of the disaster?

JK: I was at my parents' home in Rajindar Nagar, which is one-and-a-half kilometers from the Union Carbide plant. It was around 12:30 at night when the people living near the plant reached our house. They had run from the plant in a panic, saying that we must all leave at once. About 40 or 50 of us walked a good 40 kilometers.

In the morning I started back toward Bhopal. At Habib Ganj, which is some 12 kilometers from town, I began to see dead bodies on the roadside. I will never forget that sight; it had a powerful effect on me.

My sister lived in Kazi Camp. I went there and helped her and her two children leave. All five members of my family were affected by the leak. I have suffered severe health problems myself.

AB: How did you become politically active?

JK: Just after the disaster I worked for about fifteen days among the victims. A year later I became active again in a more sustained way. The government's attitude came as a big shock to me. For a month people did not even get primary treatment. I would say that in one month 8,000 people died because of inadequate medical facilities. Journalists were coming from all over the world, and so to impress them the government would open up sewing centers. As soon as they left, it closed these centers down.

With the gas leak people did not just lose their jobs; they also lost their dignity. It made me angry me to see how officers would push people around like cattle as they stood in line waiting for their rations. Our slogan was: "We don't want the dole, we want jobs." I felt that the government should provide employment to people who could no longer work at their full capacity. We did a survey that showed that some 50,000 people needed work. I joined the struggle to get the government to reopen the sewing center. Finally in June 1987 we were successful. Today the government provides jobs to 2,300 women.

AB: I believe that 85 percent of the membership of the Sangathana [the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sangathana, the BGPMUS] is female. How has this come about?

JK: Throughout I have found that women have been more committed to the struggle than men. Men fought to have the government reserve jobs in a railroad coach repair center for those who had suffered injuries from the gas leak. But women have fought harder. I think it's partly because women feel so responsible for the family.

AB: Had these women been politically active prior to the gas leak?

JK: Not at all. Most of them were in purdah. When we started, 85 percent of our members were in purdah; now half of them have given it up. In fact, the orthodox Muslim community has accused us of being anti-Islamic.

AB: Did the Sangathana encourage women to give up the burqa [the veil worn by women in purdah to cover their faces and bodies]?

JK: Not directly. I think as women got used to being out in the streets for demonstrations, purdah didn't make sense to them anymore.

AB: What is the proportion of Muslims and Hindus in the BGPMUS?

JK: About 60 percent are Muslims and 40 percent Hindus.

AB: Have there every been any tensions between these two communities within the Sangathana?

JK: Rigt from the beginning Hindu and Muslim women have jointlyorganized all actions. I am quite skeptical of organized religionbut many of the women are very religious. I must admit that religion has not divided them. Often they even pray together. In the early days we did not give much thought to communalism. But we have had to take it up since 1988. All our members, but especially our Hindu sisters, are very opposed to the Ram Janambhoomi campaign [the Hindu movement to replace the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya with a Ram temple].

AB: How would you compare the Sangathana's stance with that of political parties on the legal negotiations concerning relief and rehabilitation for the gas victims?

JK: We were among the first groups to petition the 1989 Supreme Court judgment. Then came the next judgment. All political parties-from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Communists-were happy that the settlement had been reached and felt that the Bhopal chapter should be closed. But we were not ready to let go.

In the beginning the BJP supported us. But after coming to power it wanted to end the fight. When the BJP was in the opposition, it used to consult with me a lot. BJP members would tell me "If we are elected, we will rely on your advice."

But it did help us a lot to have the support of the Janata Dal. Even though the Supreme Court's new judgment was a big disappointment, the Janata Dal government helped us get interim relief.

AB: How has the BJP government handled the distribution of relief and rehabilitation?

JK: The BJP is trying to use funds for the gas victims to increase its own popularity. It has actually named SC Varma [a high-ranking BJP leader], who was only slightly injured, as permanently disabled. The BJP also wants to have twenty additional wards where its constituency lives included among the gas-affected areas.

On the other side, the BJP wants to restrict funds for those who really are eligible. It is saying that people must show their medical certificates to get relief. But we don't think this is fair. Doctors will give medical certificates stating that people living in the hills 15 kilometers from the Carbide plant have been seriously affected, while claiming that people living in JP Nagar and Chola, right near Carbide, have escaped injury. We have seen this happen once already.

We say that people living in the thirty-six wards identified by ICMR [the Indian Council of Medical Research] should be considered affected without need for proof of their disabilities. A fixed sum should be automatically deposited in their bank accounts; those who have larger claims should take them to court. Just imagine the tangles that would be involved in having to prove where you were on the night of 2-3 December and having to specify exactly what injuries you suffered. We are forming local committees in each of the wards that will protect the interests of the claimants when the final settlement is distributed.

Then there is the government's scandalous misuse of the funds meant for interim relief. The money that has been sanctioned is supposed to be used to meet the victims' needs for housing, health care, employment, and so on. The state government claims that it has spent 1 crore 30,000 [10,030,000 rupees, or $601,800] that it received from the central government on rehabilitation. But what has it done with the money? People in the gas-affected areas continue to live in the filthiest conditions. Shouldn't cleaning this up be the first priority? You know what the government has done with this money? [He picks up an issue of Naiya Duniya and opens it to page 2.] Look at this tender notice, issued by the government's Division of Gas Relief. It is inviting applications from engineers to build bridges "in certain wards." Here is another notice on the same page to renovate an old tomb; the proposed expenditure: 1 lakh, 50,000 rupees [150,000 rupees, or $9,000].

The government has already spent 25 lakhs [2,500,000 rupees, or $150,000] from funds for rehabilitation to build a fence around the lake. It has also squandered these funds on street lighting. All of these costs will be deducted from the final settlement. Why didn't the government use this money to rehabilitate people within the city? There is plenty of land here, including a large vacant lot near the railway station.

AB: Tell me about the BJP's anti-encroachment drive. What motivated it?

JK: Babu Lal Gour wanted to beautify the city. He didn't realize that a city is beautiful when its residents are well fed and healthy. He thought you beautify a city by destroying people's homes and removing them. If there are no public facilities in the city, people will use the streets. How can a city be beautiful then? The government says that people who are squatting near the lakeside are polluting the city's water supplies. But why isn't it worried about pollution from industrial plants and the big hotels that dump refuse into the lake?

The BJP is not really worried about pollution. But it is worried about Muslims in Bhopal. Why else were almost all the families it moved to Gandhi Nagar Muslim? And then look at the cruel way the government carried out the evictions. But it's not even just Muslims that the BJP is after. I have seen it harass Hindus who have raised their voices against the BJP. I think when it comes to power in Delhi, the BJP will ask Hindus to produce certificates of loyalty.

If you look at the areas from which the BJP has evicted shopkeepers and then go to the places where they have been relocated, you will see BJP flags flying there. So you can see what the BJP's motivation was: weed out anti-BJP Muslims and cultivate Hindu BJP supporters. In time Muslims may leave while the Hindus will be sure to stay.

AB: How have the slum evictions affected the Sangathana?

JK: They have weakened us. Our Sangathana members who have been shifted to Gandhi Nagar find it hard to come such a long way to attend meetings. Sometimes we hold meetings there, but only a few activists can spare the whole day to travel out to Gandhi Nagar and back.

AB: Did the Sangathana resist the evictions?

JK: At first we staged dharnas [sit-ins]. But a few of the slum dwellers agreed to keep silent in return for puttas [land titles] in the city. At that stage we decided to pursue the struggle through legal means. We got a stay order from the Supreme Court. As a result of the stay order, the government has allowed some 10,000 gas-affected families who might have been moved to stay where they are.

I returned to Bhopal on 2 January 1993, just three weeks after the December riots. It was a Saturday afternoon, so I knew I could find Jabbar. We headed for Ladies' Park, where the Sangathana holds weekly meetings. About 250 people were assembled, listening to Jabbar speak: "The gas took many lives; we survived because of our unity. This time it will be harder to maintain solidarity; but without unity we will perish in this mandir-masjid dispute! [the dispute over replacing the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya with a Ram temple]." After the meeting was over, we chatted briefly and agreed to meet again the next day. The passages below are drawn from our discussion. Note that his account opens with a description of the events of 6 December 1992-exactly three days after the eighth anniversary of the gas disaster.

JK: I had gone to visit my mother on the evening of 6 December. Around 9:30 p.m. I saw a big Bajrang Dal procession in Vijay Nagar and heard people shouting slogans. [The Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the Hindu religious organization that has spearheaded the campaign in Ayodhya.] I called the police control room in Bhopal to track down the collector and SP [superintendent of police], but they were nowhere to be found. I filed a report with the subinspector of police. Meanwhile Bajrang Dal boys had started throwing stones at Muslims' houses. The police came and filed a report but didn't try to stop them.

The next day I went to the police control room. I met the commissioner, the IG [inspector general] of police, and other officials. I told them: "There is looting and arson all over the city. You must place forces throughout the city now!" The commissioner replied: "Don't worry, this is our job. We have the situation under control." I left the police control room and went to the old city. By this time a thick ring of smoke engulfed the city. I went to Hardenia's house and together we went back to the old city. We joined the local residents in fighting back the mobs.

That night the Bajrang Dal staged another big procession. In retaliation, Muslim youths looted a number of Hindu shops. The Bajrang Dal was well prepared. By four o'clock in the afternoon it had taken over the city. The police had ceased to be police, saying "our dharma [religion] comes first."

For the next several days there was looting and arson throughout the city. I called the BJP officials I knew and pleaded with them to do something. They all acted helpless.

In some parts of old Bhopal people successfully fought back the Bajrang Dal. But it made big inroads in new Bhopal. It's not that all Hindus were communal here. Many people felt terrified and helpless. After all, the BJP didn't care if some Hindus were killed in the process. In fact if some Hindus were killed, others could take revenge.

We could tell from the way people died whether the police or the Bajrang Dal were responsible. The police would shoot; the Bajrang Dal would burn. We visited Hamedia Hospital and found 70 people there. Most of them had suffered bullet wounds. We visited the jail: Muslims had been thrown into jail without even having been registered. They said they had not been given food or even blankets to cover themselves at night. Three thousand had been arrested, only 500 of whom were Hindus. The BJP staged a protest to have the Hindus released. Shouts of "Jai Shri Ram" [Victory to the god Ram!] filled the air.

Women and children have not been spared in this riot. The police grabbed hold of a young boy. His mother rushed out and confronted them. They hit her with a gun until she fell to the ground unconscious. Then they took her to the side of the road and killed her. In Vijay Nagar a mother and daughter, both in burqa, were walking down the street. Some goondas [thugs] attacked the daughter. The mother called the police to help her. They grabbed her, took her behind the gas-claims court, stripped her, and raped her.

Women from the Sangathana have been very active throughout. Some of them have physically confronted the police. Since the violence has ended, they have been distributing food and supplies for the injured. We are trying to hold onto our belief in unity. But it's getting harder all the time. We never thought of ourselves as Hindus and Muslims in the past, but this is how people are thinking of themselves now. How can we persuade those who have lost loved ones because they were Hindu or Muslim to think otherwise?

* Jabbar Khan is the convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sangathan (BGPMUS), the grass-roots organization described at length in the article by Amrita Basu and her interview with Jabbar Khan. The address of the BGPMUS is 51 Rajendra Nagar, Bhopal 462010, India.