While Champa Devi, Heera Bai and Kinnu traveled around to Pondicherry, Chennai and Houston to hand over brooms -- contaminated with the toxic waste of Bhopal -- to nonplussed ‘overseers’ of Dow Chemicals under the ‘Jhadoo Maaro’ campaign of 2002 one of the Yes Men hoaxed the BBC by impersonating a Dow Chemicals spokesperson on BBC in 2004 and publicly accepting Dow’s liability to Bhopal survivors… This is how tactical media can be used to catch attention and make a statement of resistance.
On the 2003 anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, over a hundred people lay down on Mumbai's Marine Drive sidewalk to recreate the horror of Bhopal where the streets were lined with corpses the day after the disaster, with activists carrying signboards saying: "Bhopal has become the icon for corporate negligence resulting in death and destruction, representing the thousand Bhopal-like disasters that take place all across India.” In 2006, 55 survivors marched 800 kilometers to Delhi, to notify Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the neglect and to ask him to set up an Empowered Commission to resolve infrastructural problems in Bhopal.
December 2011 marked the 27th anniversary of the world’s worst, and more importantly, still ongoing disaster, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy when leaking MIC gas from a Union Carbide factory resulted in the deaths of over 30,000 persons. This year, the protests took a different turn, with police firing during the ‘rail-roko/stop the trains’ protest on one hand, and with the debate concerning the boycott of the Dow-sponsored London Olympics on the other (Dow Chemicals has bought over Union Carbide, but states that it has no responsibility to the gas leak survivors.) On December 3rd, around 5000 people had assembled for a peaceful protest near Barkhedi Station in Madhya Pradsh, when the police attacked the women and men with stones, lathis and guns.
Every anniversary plays a crucial role in keeping Bhopal in the public eye. Compensations are yet to be negotiated with; justice is delayed, diluted and denied; children are still being born with birth defects -- the tragedy continues; but what needs attention, is the never dying flicker of protest and perseverance.
In the previous years, the protests have been met with police action and arrests -- 21 survivors spent 11 days in Tihar jail and 36 people including 12 children were beaten up at the Parliament Street Police Station in 2008. The case was even worse when they didn’t allow the protesters to put up tents at Jantar Mantar, due to the Commonwealth Games of 2010. From those games to the London Olympics of this year (for which protests have been ongoing and global), the story of injustice and indifference remains the same. But the point lies in how each and every anniversary brings more intensity to the voice of dissent, and the refusal to forget Bhopal as an ‘accident’.
One name which comes up when we talk about Bhopal, even before Warren Anderson’s, is that of Satinath Sarangi; perhaps because hope and stories of survival make more of a mark than those of blame and hatred. A research fellow doing his fieldwork, Satinath was on a train when he heard about Bhopal. He reached the affected area on December 4, 1984; and has been working for the survivors ever since. He started the Zehreeli Gas Kaand Sangharsh Morcha, and then the Bhopal Group of Information Action for documenting the effects of the gas and the gas tragedy of people’s bodies and lives.
Sathyu, as he’s popularly known, has thrown pamphlets at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Union Carbide in Dallas after the 1989 settlement with Indian government. He identified the propaganda behind www.bhopal.com and set up www.bhopal.net and www.bhopal.org to ensure that the voice of the survivors exists online, for the entire world. He’s appeared in almost all films made on Bhopal, and keeps writingon the issue. In 1995, he started the Sambhavana Clinic, which treats victims to date through its six community health centres.
Sunil Verma had lost five of his family members on the night of December 2, 1984. He was 15 when he started ‘Children against Carbide’ with Sathyu, and testified against Union Carbide in a New York hearing. He worked all his life to help the people around him and to support his two siblings; and in 2006, he committed suicide at the age of 27, wearing a ‘No-More-Bhopals’ t-shirt. Sanjay Verma, Sunil’s brother, now also works actively for Bhopal, by touring the US and creating awareness about the grave injustice half a million people face till today.
There are others who also work unceasingly for and with the Bhopali community -- Rashida Bi heads a trade union of women survivors called Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Sangathan; Syed Irfan used to head Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha; Balkrishna Namdeo arranges public meeting to address issues of aged survivors…
Organizations supporting justice for the survivors work in full cooperation, and international ones like ‘Students For Bhopal’ has taken the protest to a different level by campaigning outside Indian Offices, New York Consulates and embassies. A museum called ‘Yaad-e-Haadsa’ has been set up in Bhopal in 2005 to record the struggle for justice through personal narratives by photographs, memorabilia and documents. It’s traumatic to remember a tragedy, but we can never afford to forget it altogether.
Writers like Dominique Lapierre, Indra Sinha, Suketu Mehta and Arvind Rajagopal have written for Bhopal. Photographers such as Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh, Andy Moxon, Prakash Hatvalne, Richard Grove, Maude Dorr and others have given their photos to the Sambhavana Trust. The movement for justice in Bhopal has involved activists, doctors, volunteers, writers, photographers, artists and everybody who realizes the aftermath of the tragedy.
The current debate on the Dow sponsorship of the London Olympics of 2012 has also met with considerable resistance. Effigies of Olympic legend and London Olympic organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe and the Indian Olympic Association's Vijay Malhotra were burned on the streets of Bhopal during the protests of December 3 2011. The Indian Olympic Association has called for Dow’s name to be dropped. People like Jalaluddin Rizvi, a hockey Olympian at the 1984 Games, Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel, British artist Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor, a sculptor and a major donor to Bhopal Medical Appeal, have expressed their disapproval of the Dow sponsorship of the Olympics.
The diverse ways in which different people and organizations have held a plethora of democratic protests needs noticing. 27 calendars have changed, and so has the strength of the voice against the nexus of corporations and government, which put profits in front of everything else. Not only has it intensified, but also it adds meaning to the firm hope of ‘No More Bhopals’.
-- Rajashree Gandhi is a student at Fergusson College, Pune majoring in Sociology. She volunteers at Open Space.