The Bhopal in us
As a society we have never felt the venom of methyl isocyanate and other toxic gases like the Bhopal victims
I have picked up a bad habit in the past couple of years. After settling into my work station and responding to mails that call for an urgent reply, I click on to Facebook. I do not have a convincing reason for my behaviour, except the cliche of keeping abreast with my friends. It's almost the same everyday. Today—and yesterday—were no different. But amidst the birthday and wedding greetings, the wisecracks and perky graphitti, and the arguments for and against the new Aam Aadmi Party, was a post that reminded of that outrageous massacre 28 years ago. Bhopal.
That solitary post was telling. It's symptomatic of the way the media—the much vaunted social media included—remembers the world's worst industrial tragedy. As an ephemera, a solitary post or a tweet, as a snippet in inside pages of newspapers. It does get the frontpage on rare occasions when a court hearing raises contentious matter. We are then taken back to what happened on the midnight of December 2 and 3. But only ostensibly so. The purpose is actually to slam the government—or all the powers that be.
One could argue that's a credible mission. No doubt there is official complicity in letting those responsible for the carnage lead respectable lives. There is no questioning that those in cahoots with the perpetrators need to be bought to book. But one cannot help avoid the feeling that the hullaballoo also has something to do with the media's appetite for sensation.
But why just the media? The behaviour also is symptomatic of the way we as a society take to history. In episodes, snippets, as levers to settle political scores. We do not perceive an industrial carnage, a tragedy—or riots—in the past as part of our everyday lives. So we do not sense Bhopal in our manner of industrial development. Anyone ascribing the insidious influx of a variety of pollutants in our lives as part of the same regime that caused Bhopal would today risk being branded as ante-diluvian environmentalist.
Yes Bhopal raised certain basic questions. It led to a new generation of environmental laws, regulatory regimes and regulatory bodies. But as a society we have never felt the venom of the methyl isocyanate and other toxic gases like the Bhopal victims. Their anguish does touch us but only like that of distant relatives.
The thousands who continue to suffer in Bhopal do figure in our deliberations as targets for official compensation. But it would be terribly uncomfortable to see them as victims of our path to development. Doing so would place a lot of us in the ranks of culprits.
I am sure that lone Facebook post would have shaken quite a few. But that’s it. We are shocked, sympathetic, even outraged. But how many of us have ever felt a sense of community with those who were hurt on that terrible night and those who continue to suffer?
It's this failure that made us looks askance at calls for boycott of the Dow Chemical sponsored Olympic Games this year. It's this failure that made the hockey buffs hoping for medal at the Olympics forget that Bhopal was once the cradle of Indian hockey. It's this failure that we do not see the travails of the aam aadmi from Bhopal protesting at Janpath while we continue to deliberate the pros and cons of the Aam Aadmi Party.
As historians would say the past is always with us. So is Bhopal. We must continue to agitate for justice for Bhopal and its victims. But as the horrible carnage nears 30 years, it’s time we also recognise the myriad ways in which Bhopal lives amidst us all.
Read more: Bhopal gas tragedy