Saturday, June 26, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Two Approaches to Bhopal

Just thinking about the Bhopal verdict makes me despair. If the worst industrial accident in the history of this country can be treated in such a cavalier manner, with every indication – going by the Nuclear Liability Bill – that lessons are wilfully not being learned, what can we hope for?

From the law and the institutions associated with it, the answer is: not much. I will resist the temptation to quote Dickens here. Instead, I will invoke Gandhi. In 1922, he was arrested for ‘attempting to excite disaffection’ against the British government on the basis of three articles he wrote in Young India. In his statement to the judge of the Bombay High Court, Gandhi pleaded guilty on all charges. “The only course open to you, the Judge, is […] either to resign your post, or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and law you are assisting to administer are good for the people". He also said, "I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a Government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system."

Many things have changed since 1922. For one thing, being a democracy, we can no longer openly acknowledge that the law serves, not justice, but those in power – as it always has done. It is capable of acting swiftly when it wants to – such as when it made it possible for Warren Anderson to leave the country. Equally, it is capable of a superb, deliberate bungling: after 26 years Bhopal is, in the eyes of the judiciary, the equivalent of a traffic accident.

If we believe that the central figures in this tragedy ought to be the people who died that night in December 1984, or those who suffered and still suffer severe health problems with no affordable healthcare in sight, or those who still drink the water contaminated from the chemicals that leached into the ground in subsequent decades, we are clearly wrong. What the people of Bhopal need is not justice but – according to the US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake – ‘closure’. Some newspaper editors clearly agree; an editorial in the Indian Express suggests that we build a memorial to the dead and then move on.

As extralegal activism goes, it’s hilarious. As a solution, it’s a pretty rotten one.


People frequently demand solutions. ‘What’s the solution?’ they ask, impatient for results! action! (even closure!) If something is wrong and someone is complaining, it is clearly not enough to talk it out and think it through. There must be a tangible outcome of all this bleeding-heart talk and thought – even if it’s only a memorial. After all, in the absence of outcomes, how is one to quiet the conscience, put it all behind and return to the alluring call of the daily grind?

There! I said the word: conscience. Real change requires that we examine our conscience – a Pandora’s Box out of which emerge words such as ethics and morality. These are words that have fallen into disuse, but the present is always a good time to polish and wield them again.

We have grown used to thinking most things are someone else’s responsibility; that, once we have paid our taxes, we have done our civic duty. To bring the conscience into public life is to acknowledge that our responsibilities are more far-reaching than we had supposed. It is not enough to want the law to do something; we have to do something ourselves, every time, both individually and collectively.

Action is not difficult: where Bhopal is concerned, there are many ways to help and can be found at But action is easy enough – there is always something to be done, in some way.

The really difficult thing about using one’s conscience is that it will not let one rest. There can be no talk of closure because one does not cease to be responsible. And this is precisely why it can be a more effective alternative to waiting and expecting the law to work. The law is not set in stone. It can change course. It’s our job to see that the course is not one of least resistance.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.) 


Extra reading

In no particular order. These are things I was thinking about while writing this piece

1. Hari Batti'' Bhopal post (of which there are many, but I'm picking this one). 

2. Juan Cole, talking about oil, but there are things about responsibility in there. [H/T: JP]

3. Rajesh Kasturirangan on expanding the moral commons.

4. Ananya Vajpeyi's review of Mithi Mukherjee's India in the Shadows of Empire: A Legal and Political History 1774-1950.

5. From SACW, a letter to Obama.

6. Mitali Saran's excellent column from a week or more ago.


I have to confess a certain discomfort with my use of the word 'we', as if I knew exactly who I was speaking for. My own inaction doesn't translate into everyone else's, nor can I claim to speak for more than a small number of people.

I also realise that I am sticking my neck out considerably, writing the way I am. I consider this a risk worth taking, however. At any rate, it feels better than wittering on about mangoes.


Anindita said...

Very well-written, Dala. Especially the bit about us wanting to find a solution so we can move on--how hard it is to instead continually examine the conscience. Thank you for this.

km said...

Let me add to your despair: most people have moved on. Bhopal is only a memory.

Yet, your conclusion seems fundamentally right and it is one that's been on my mind for some time now.

Let's forget "systemic" corrections, reparations etc for a moment. What can *each* *one* of us do to change the situation? It *does* come down to one's conscience. (Yes, I am starting to sound like Ye Olde Moral Science textbooks, but the truth is usually obvious, isn't it?)

We can sit around and wait for the perfect solution (from institutions that caused the problem in the first place) or we can do something about it.

Great piece, SB.

Falstaff said...

I don't see how you're sticking your neck out. It's not like you're actually suggesting anything radical - all I see is a vague appeal to conscience and the usual platitudes about doing 'something'. What exactly is the risk here? That someone's going to turn around and say, No! We should not have a conscience! No! We should not do something. Ya, right.

Space Bar said...

Anu: Thanks.

km: Thanks. Tho I disagree that people have moved on. Not the people who've been affected by the MIC and the water, surely?

falstaff: I wish you'd allow yourself the indulgence of a little thought before you dash off not-very-clever comments when you're pissed off.

To recommend individual transformation *is* a risk, because it can seem like I'm saying there's no room for collective action. And that is risky because it can dissipate civil actions and movements easily.

Of course, I don't expect you to see that.

Also, I'm not the one who is recommending that we should 'do something'. It just shows you haven't bothered to read the piece and are only interested in demonstrating your disagreement. If you don't have anything worth saying I wish you'd just keep quiet.

Falstaff said...

"It is not enough to want the law to do something; we have to do something ourselves, every time, both individually and collectively."

Read quote above. Now answer the following questions.

Q. Is SB saying that we should rely only on individual action.

Ans. No

Q. Is she therefore taking the risky stand of championining individual action over collective action.

Ans. No.

Q. Is she suggesting that we do 'something'?

Ans. Yes (see: "we have to do something")

Maybe you should read your own columns before you post them.

Still, since you prefer my silence, you have my word that I'm not going to read any more of your trite little columns. I just think it's a shame that someone who used to be a real poet has now turned into a platitude mouthing journalist.

Space Bar said...

falstaff: since that's a standard issue missing the wood for the trees kind of comment from you, i don't think i'll suffer from the loss.

dipali said...

Well said, SB.
The judgment and the paltry penalties awarded brought back the horror of those days, and underlined the fact that justice in India is often conspicuous by its absence. Surely the legal institutions and conscience keepers of the country need to grow both a conscience and a spine.

gaddeswarup said...

I am not a literary person.I studied in telugu medium and my English is not good. It is not clear to me what you are suggesting.

Sorcerer said...

wonderfully have given a lot of thought to it.

Very well written!

Hari Batti said...

Well said. I just have to say that I'm so glad someone else noticed that "closure" word! AS IF that's what is required!

(And thanks for the mention.)