Seventeen years ago this week, a cloud of noxious gas seeped out from a large factory in Bhopal. Swift and silent, it spread over the surrounding areas, where thousands of unsuspecting Indians lay asleep. Several thousand died. The health of many more thousands was damaged to the extent that they feel the effects even today; to the extent that their children born in later years feel the effects as well.
Books have been written about the Bhopal gas disaster of December 3, 1984, films made, talks given, seminars held, letters dispatched, demands made, radio programmes broadcast (I appeared on one such, all the way back in 1989) ... on and on, all kinds of things. And yet to me two features of that tragedy stand out today, seventeen years later. One, nobody of any particular significance has been punished for what happened. Two, there's a general impatience with the subject in India, a feeling that this is now ancient history and why is anyone bothering with it at all? And to me that second feature is far more disturbing than the first, which is bad enough by itself.
Nine years ago this week, a crowd of noxious goons gathered around a large mosque in Ayodhya. Swiftly but not really silently, egged on by some of the most prominent people in India today, they swarmed onto the mosque and tore it down. As swiftly, vicious rioting broke out in several parts of the country. The worst was in my city, Bombay, where about a thousand ordinary Indians were murdered over the next two months; another month or so later, a supposedly "retaliatory" series of bombs killed another 250-300 ordinary Indians.
And yes, books have been written about the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the violence that followed. Films have been made, talks given, seminars held, demands made, letters dispatched ... on and on, all kinds of things. And again, to me two features of this tragedy stand out today, nine years later. One, nobody of any particular significance has been punished for the crimes we all witnessed then. Two, there remains that general impatience with this subject as well, a feeling that it's all ancient history and why is anyone paying it any attention? And yet again, that second feature disturbs me far more than the first, bad as the first is.
Indeed: it is one great Indian shame that we remain profoundly unable or unwilling to punish those who commit crimes. In the case of Bhopal we can at least point at the unsuccessful, if feeble, efforts we have made to extradite the officials of Union Carbide. This leaves a number of other questions still unanswered -- for example, about the lackadaisical distribution of compensation money to victims -- but at least we have demanded their extradition. But in the case of so many other crimes -- whether the 1984 massacre of Sikhs or the destruction of the Babri Masjid or the riots that erupted afterwards or something else -- there is not even the question of extradition. We know who the guilty are, we have had inquiries that name them, they live among us right here in India -- and yet the years pass without even a sign that we will punish them.
The still greater Indian shame lies right there. In how we let the years pass, how we let that passing itself become reason to gloss over crime.
Yet we all mourn the increasing venality of our politics, the rising crime in our cities, the corruption that is endemic and everywhere. Why should we mourn? If we are both unwilling to punish criminals and willing in just a few years to forget they even committed any crimes, why should we mourn?
And for me, that's the lesson of early December, every year.
Every time December rolls around, I hear of meetings to remember Bhopal and the Babri Masjid demolition, some of which I manage to attend. 2001 is no exception.
On December 6, for example, Indians gathered outside the Indian embassy in Washington, DC, to "show that [they] have not forgotten Bhopal; demand the Indian government extradite corporate criminal Warren Anderson [once head of Union Carbide] to face charges in Bhopal courts; [and] demand the Indian government pursue Dow Chemical Company [with which Union Carbide has since merged] and its subsidiaries on criminal charges".
Also on December 6, Indians gathered at Ram Ganesh Gadkari Chowk in Dadar, Bombay, to "resolve to work for promotion of communal harmony and preservation of the democratic and secular fabric of our Constitution; [to] demand that the UP Government file fresh [cases] against the guilty of the Babri demolition forthwith; [to] urge the central government to bring to book any violation of the laws by communal organisations, whichever religion they belong to".
I read announcements like these and I can't help admiring these Indians, in DC and Bombay and elsewhere, can't help envying their spirit. I admire the dedication with which they pursue the hope of justice and keep alive the memory of these Indian tragedies.
But as the years go by, I also can't help the thought that their dedication comes to so little. The criminals they talk about so easily evade any possibility of punishment. On top of that, so many of the rest of us, let alone the authorities, nurse a sort of contempt for the efforts of the Dadar and DC demonstrators. A feeling that these misguided people are flogging horses that have been dead for a long time and in fact are best left that way.
Indeed, just the day before I wrote these lines, I got a letter that exclaimed in disgust: "We are in 2001 and you still want to talk about the 1992 riots!" Meaning thereby: "Why are you bringing up this stuff from the past? Stop bothering us with these trivialities that happened years ago! Don't you know India is moving ahead?"
How many of us, how many of you, feel just that?
And because so many seem to, in early December every year I wonder most of all about this way that India is "moving ahead".
Do we progress if we brush crimes under our carpets? Do we move ahead if we are willing to think the very passing of time means criminals need not be punished, justice need not be done? Will we get anywhere if we think justice for crimes committed, for all Indians, is a notion to be laughed at? Can we respect ourselves if we allow criminals to rule us?
In early December every year, the only answer I come up with for those questions are the few words a tribal activist friend of mine said to me some years ago. "A country that looks after all its people will advance," he said to me. "But we are not that way, so we won't."