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A dark night that tested resilience of Bhopal, India

In 1984, during the intervening night of 2 and 3 December in Varanasi, a modest barat from Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya arrived at the guest house of Banaras Locomotive Works. Kashi then was esteemed for its scholarly environment, where university professors and vice-chancellors were more revered than leaders, officials, or influential figures. The procession included vice chancellors from three universities, registrars, numerous professors, cultural figures, and journalists—a gathering unparalleled in its composition.

Interestingly, the groom, travelling in a car behind the procession, was largely unnoticed. His decision to not ride the customary horse or wield a sword diverted attention from him. Contrary to norm in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where weddings often span the entire night, the dwarchar and phere ceremonies were swiftly completed in a mere one-and-a-half hours at the bride’s place. At the dinner table, a friend of the groom whispered in his ear, “Today because of you I had to cancel my trip to Bhopal. Now I will go tomorrow.” But for him, that tomorrow never came.

During the wedding festivities, even as guests were finishing dinner with paan, some 800 kilometres away, in Bhopal, a catastrophe was waiting to unfold. At the pesticide manufacturing plant of Union Carbide Corporation, a tank holding 45 tonnes of methyl isocyanate sprang a leak. Most people in the neighbourhood had retired for the night. But as the gas spread, they woke up with a burning sensation in the eyes. Things soon got worse as the gas impaired functioning of their lungs. Now breathless and frantic, people began running out of their dwellings on to streets.

More than 3,500 people died in the immediate aftermath of the leak and about 20,000 more perished in the weeks that followed. The official death toll stands at 3,787, though. People exposed to the gas suffered irreversible lung damage and in many cases also suffered permanent damage to eyesight, kidney or the liver. For a city with a population of about 900,000, the loss of so many lives meant that every other household was touched by the tragedy.

Arjun Singh was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh then and Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister. Rajiv was a newbie, entrusted with power in the wake of the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi on 31 October that same year. Arjun Singh was expected to act strictly. Four days after the tragedy, Warren Anderson, then CEO of Union Carbide, came to Bhopal. Upon his arrival, he was briefly arrested and then permitted to leave the country on a special plane. Why did this transpire? Whose orders dictated this action? The incident deeply unsettled the conscience of every patriotic individual. However, politics operates not on sensitivities but on capricious decisions.

Subsequently, Rajiv Gandhi secured an unprecedented victory in the Lok Sabha election, winning 414 seats. The Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections occurred the next year, and under the leadership of Arjun Singh, the Congress once again succeeded in forming the government. This sequence of events indicates a clear message—the Bhopal gas tragedy failed to gain traction as a regional issue, let alone a national one.

The government inquiry committee reported, much later, that negligence in maintenance at the Union Carbide factory due to a shortage of personnel had rendered the six-tier system that had been in place at the factory ineffective in stopping the gas leak.

Meanwhile, the victims sought justice, supported by activist journalists and individuals passionate about fairness. Following an extensive legal battle, by December 2021, a sum of 3,066.63 crore had been allocated as compensation for 574,393 affected individuals. Future generations, though, may say: “A 37-year-long battle resulted in just this?”

Over time, the Bhopal gas tragedy faded from news and public discourse. But a forthcoming series to be released on OTT streams has refocused attention on this calamity. India has greatly advanced since 2 December 1984, but incidents such as Bhopal underscore that we must still prioritize every countryman’s life as the nation’s utmost responsibility.

Now if you are wondering what the barat mentioned at the beginning of this piece has to do with the gas tragedy, let me explain: I was the groom described. Each wedding anniversary brings my wife and me the sad memory of Bhopal.

My friend, who missed his trip to Bhopal that night, continues to reside in Varanasi. He is still unable to reminisce that night without a shudder.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. Views are personal.

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