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India’s worst terrorist attack occurred not in Mumbai last month, but in Bhopal 24 years ago

by Latha Jishnu, 7 December 2008

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Business Standard, December 6, 2008

Latha Jishnu: Stop! Take a deep breath

India’s worst terrorist attack occurred not in Mumbai last month, but in Bhopal 24 years ago - and it’s the kind of carnage that goes unheeded.

What determines the gravity and enormity of an outrage? Is it the number of casualties? Is it the brutality with which the attack is carried out? Is it the ideology of the perpetrators along with their religious affiliation that determines the scale? Or is there some other yardstick, like the magnitude of human suffering and its long-term consequences?

Last week’s terror strike on Mumbai, according to a well-orchestrated campaign, was India’s 9/11, the equivalent of the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the US eight years ago. The facile logic offered for this claim is that the three-day siege of the hotels and a guesthouse in Mumbai were the worst terrorist attacks on the country, and thus India’s 9/11. As such it also seeks a Rambo-like response of hot pursuit and vengeance in which India slams terrorist cells here and across the border.

Class has a lot to do with this perception. The current hysteria emanates mainly from a slice of society that suddenly finds itself as vulnerable to massacre and mayhem as the working class travelling in overcrowded commuter trains have been. For the rich it has been a disaster without parallel: their iconic playgrounds have been violated and nothing appears secure any more even in their gated universe. The hitherto unstated fear and loathing is out in the open now, with society’s elite seeing terror slithering out of the slums sprawled at the foothills of their luxury towers.

But there has to be more than class at play when a country can chose to turn its back on the worst disaster of all times and pretend that it is part of the civilised world. December 2 marked the 24th anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak tragedy and not all the terrorist strikes in recent years can equal the horror and magnitude of that event. On the night of Dec 2, 1984, a date that ought to be seared in the collective Indian memory, around 30 tonnes of methyl isocyanate and hydrogen cyanide, deadly gases both, leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory and enveloped Bhopal, turning parts of the city into a gas chamber. The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), a solidarity of volunteers fighting for redressal, says around half a million people were exposed to the gas and over 20,000 have died so far as a result of their exposure. Among the 150,000 seriously affected, at least 50,000 are too sick to work for a living. Worse, children born to gas-affected people suffer from serious congenital defects. Some have no lips, ears or noses, others no hands or feet.

Around 3,000 are estimated — does anyone keep a proper body count in the slum areas? — to have died in the siege of Bhopal as people ran blindly across the city on that bitterly cold winter night with no official assistance or security forces to guide them. Would TV cameras have provided non-stop coverage of this terrorist strike by an American corporation and their Indian partners who have refused to accept culpability? It would have called for battle-like readiness, gas masks and all, to venture into such a zone where no sound bytes would have captured the full horror of the scene.

As TV channels go ballistic about an inefficient and inept government that allows Indian territory to be used for increasingly daring terrorist strikes, there is a deep irony in this for survivors of the gas tragedy. For 24 long years they have been fighting for justice, thwarted at every stage by their own government that has done little to bring the US multinational to book. Instead, it brokered a shameful deal with Union Carbide for an out-of-court settlement that provided compensation of just $470 million against an initial claim of $33 billion. Yet, yesterday, they were celebrating the hardy spirit of women who have battled companies destroying the environment with their annual Chingari Award.

Their courage and determination offer many lessons. This is something that the class of people who are hoping for a US-like response to the terror strike and government need to learn. The crisis of survival for millions in Bhopal, in the wake of what many consider the worst peace-time disaster of the last century — albeit one perpetrated by a corporate entity — poses a tremendous challenge for India. It requires a wholesale clean-up of the government machinery and not just the security set-up, as indignant Mumbai citizens are demanding. It involves getting something as basic as clean drinking water for the sick and dying victims of Bhopal to a more complex environmental, economic and medical rehabilitation programme. To prevent other Bhopals, one would need to tighten the working of practically every department and enforcement agency of the government, from state pollution control boards to the sanitation and water departments. Does Middle India, myopic and self-serving, have the stomach for a campaign of this nature?

The Bhopal survivors have shown courage and perseverance of a rare order, battling legal systems here and in the US, official apathy and corporate deviousness with steely resolve. Earlier this year, they managed to wrest a landmark victory by getting the government to agree to set up an Empowered Commission on Bhopal, and take legal action on the civil and criminal liabilities of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical. This commission, however, is yet to be set up, marking what could be another phase in the battle for justice.

It would be interesting to see how far Corporate India is willing to go in rebuilding systems and society. To the Bhopal crowd and their global supporters, multinationals and Indian companies have become synonymous with deceit and irresponsibility. In 2001, Dow Chemicals took over Union Carbide but it has rejected the claim that it is responsible for Union Carbide’s liabilities. Instead, it has sought the help of industrialists like Ratan Tata to bail them out of a sticky situation. This has only served to besmirch the Tatas, who have become a target of the Bhopal campaign.

Frustration and anger is the zeitgeist of the times. At both ends of the spectrum, Indians are disenchanted with a system that is indifferent to their well-being and security. How the government responds will determine how successful the terrorists have been. If the government can undo the damage in Bhopal, then it would have learned to take on the terrorists as well.