City City Bang Bang, Columns

Sham Outrage over Bhopal

In the month that has gone by after the Bhopal gas tragedy verdict, the reaction to the punishment handed out to the accused has been remarkable. After 25 years of apathy, we have seem to have re-discovered the pain caused by the callous disregard for human lives displayed by a large and reputed multinational. The reaction has been uniformly strident and has lasted longer than the standard two week cycle that most stories have nowadays. The government which did not anticipate the ferocity of the reaction has been forced to react. And while satisfactory resolution is no longer a possibility, could the national outrage be a sign that we do occasionally care about the right things?

Of course, it did take us 25 years to feel this way about the biggest industrial disaster of all time. In the meantime, Warren Anderson was virtually escorted out of the country the day after the tragedy and the Supreme Court reached a settlement with the company in 1998 that expressly ruled out any further prosecution of the company. In 25 years, we have still not bothered to detoxify the site and it still poses a threat to those living in the vicinity. So why the outrage now? Even this verdict could scarcely have gone any other way, since the court ruled out filing charges under a section that could allow for stiffer punishment. We are fiddling with the stable door, well after the horse has bolted and retired in a luxury home in New York.

And why spew venom on the government today? For decades, barring a small group of committed activists who were increasingly cast as being part of the tedious lunatic fringe banging on and on about a stale subject, few remembered the catastrophe and the money received as settlement found its way everywhere but in the hands of those for whom it was intended. We saw this, occasionally read about it and did not react. We remembered the tragedy only on occasions like anniversaries, most notably the silver jubilee, which happened a few months earlier and which received the usual two week air play without any real action.

But the verdict struck a different chord. 25 years too late, we woke up and demanded retrospective justice. Suddenly we bemoaned the low value accorded to Indian lives and looked for parallels with the US posture on the BP oil spill. And above all, we now want Warren Anderson to be extradited to be tried here. Of course, it might still take us another 25 years to get a verdict if that were to happen, but so what?

It is instructive that our outrage is still largely framed by the ‘insult to India’ narrative rather than a genuine concern for the victims. The ‘insult to India’ storyline has proved to be a particularly rich emotional vein nowadays, with our pride clearly being paper thin and subject to several assaults. So when Gandhi’s memorabilia is sold or Tagore’s work is put on the block we get outraged. In the 25 years that have gone by, the Indian view of itself has undergone a dramatic transformation and our reaction wants a price to be put to our new found status. Our anger is the anger of the neo-rich, which seeks an acknowledgement from the dominant elite that it too has arrived and is worthy of consideration. The fact that the key demand seems to have to do with Warren Anderson is particularly revealing for in his prosecution lies the symbolic salvation of our injured egos. By focusing on punishment rather than redress, we have converted the problem of the victims of Bhopal into our problem. The people who equate themselves with Indian sentiment now want to feel better about themselves; the victims are a device to allow this to happen. The desire is to teach the US and the contempt it professes for India a lesson and this is more easily achieved through the a symbolic act like Anderson’s extradition than the substantive one of looking after the victims of the disaster.

In any case, the reaction now is little more than petulant fantasy. There is very little real chance of legal action and given our experience with Headley, virtually no chance of the US Government paying heed to the demands of extraditing Warren Anderson. The reaction of the government, although slow to begin with is ideally suited to quieten the symbolic nature of the anger. Appoint a mega-mumble committee, which meets solemnly a few times, come out with a list of proposals that include some numbers and appear to initiate action on several fronts. Douse the symbolic fire with symbolic action and in doing so expose the shallowness of the apparent anger. It seems to be working.