On Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1984, the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, was given safe passage out of India, despite the death of thousands of people following the leakage of phosgene gas in the Bhopal tragedy my fellow Indian Decade writers have talked about in the past week.
Those directly killed as a result of inhalation reached 15,000 in five years, while nearly 200,000 suffered permanent ill effects. It took 26 years before a derisory sentence of 2 years in prison was imposed on eight Indian officials from Carbide. In effect, this most likely means almost zero time in jail as bail was immediately secured for the appeal process, which in India can be expected to take about 20 years before it’s complete. As the eight are mostly in their late 70s or 80s, the odds that they’ll be around to witness the conclusion of such an appeals process (and go to prison if it fails) is not substantial.
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No US-based officer of Union Carbide was punished, despite the parent company having repeatedly refused to sanction funds for improvement in safety features at the antiquated plant, a fact that had been pointed out by local journalists for at least 2 years prior to this man-made disaster.
But who allowed Anderson to escape justice? When the issue of the scandal resurfaced on June 7 this year with the trial verdict, the Congress Party went into overdrive to pin the blame on the then chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh, with the argument that it was he who allowed Anderson to leave Bhopal for Delhi on a special flight. When retired US diplomats revealed that the safe passage for Anderson had been arranged via the External Affairs Ministry (headed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi), a new scapegoat had to be found–and he was. The then Foreign Secretary, Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra, who has for more than five decades been close to the Nehru family, now claims that it was not his minister Rajiv Gandhi but the then Home Minister P V Narasimha Rao who ‘ordered’ him to let Anderson go.
Diplomats are, it is popularly supposed, meant to lie for their country, and Rasgotra evidently agrees with Nehru family loyalists who equate the family's interest with that of the country. If Rasgotra is to be believed, he unauthorizedly took orders from a minister other than his own. If his admission were true, it would show him as having been a personal toady of Rao (which is a charge that none would level, given his closeness to the Rao-phobic Sonia Gandhi), breaking rules and conventions in crucial decision making and thereby disgracing the Indian Foreign Service, which has for long resisted the politicisation that other branches of government (notably the police) have succumbed to.
This columnist knows Rasgotra, and can confirm that he would never have acted without instructions from an individual he both loved and respected–Rajiv Gandhi. Those close to the courtly, reflective Rasgotra say that the attempt to divert the blame away from Rajiv Gandhi is simply more proof of his devotion to the Nehru family.
Hopefully, Rasgotra's fealty will be rewarded by him being appointed as the vice president of India when the current incumbent moves to the Presidential Palace in two years time. That is, if the public believes that the quintessential civil servant would have so broken the rules by ignoring his own minister in preference to the alleged fiat of a minister (Rao) who was known to consult Rajiv Gandhi even on such crucial decisions as ordering a second cup of tea.