Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bhopal as a parable of compromise

(published in The Economic Times, June 11, 2010)

Even a child with an elementary sense of justice is bound to be outraged by the verdict by the chief judicial magistrate's court in Bhopal on the criminal case involving the various top officers of the Union Carbide India Ltd. Those who caused the death of over 20,000 people (3,800 in a single night and the rest over the years) and were responsible for several more thousands suffering from respiratory diseases and more with congenital disorders have been “punished” with two years in jail; to rub salt over the wounds, all of them were enlarged on bail within minutes after the verdict.

Former Chief Justice A M Ahmadi, meanwhile, claims he was helpless when he ordered that the accused in the case be dealt with only under Sec 304-A and not under Sec 304-Part II in the year 1996. Well. The point is that Justice Ahmadi was not helpless as he claims. On the contrary, the ambit of Sec 304-Part II was settled beyond doubt at that time.

The Supreme Court, in the Dalip Singh vs State of Haryana case (AIR-1993-SC-2302 ) had convicted under Sec 304-Part II. The case involved the death, in custody, of a man alleged to have stolen a buffalo, consequent to the physical torture by an SI of police and two constables. All three were convicted under Sec 304-Part II even though they did not intend to kill the poor man but ended up killing him in the course of beating him in the cell. Similarly, in S Mohanachandran vs State of Kerala (AIR-1994-SC-565 ), the Supreme Court held as proper conviction under Sec 304-Part II. This was a case where a victim of custodial violence was admitted to a hospital by the police themselves but the victim died.

The principle in both these cases was clear and as enunciated in Sec 304-Part II: that mere knowledge that the act will lead to the death of the victim was enough and it is not necessary to establish the intention to kill. And once it is clear that the accused was aware that an act would cause the death of the victim and irrespective of whether he intended to kill, the accused was liable to be convicted for imprisonment up to a period of 10 years and fine. This is what the law said when Ahmadi held (on September 13, 1996) that the eight accused be tried only under section 304-A and struck down the charge sheet under Sec 304-Part II, he was certainly in the wrong.

The eight accused, after all, were in the know that methyl iso cyanate gas was lethal and that it would kill a large number of people if it leaked out of the tank. The Varadharajan Committee had also established that the antidote to this poison that must have sprayed immediately after the toxic gas leaked did not happen because the officers had disengaged it as cost-cutting measures. In other words, they knew that their acts would cause the death of a large number of people and that happened in the night of December 2-3 , 1984. Such knowledge is expected from the executives of a plant as much as one would expect policemen to know that a person, beaten up by them, day after day or someone whose head is banged against the wall is likely to die.

The point is that the least that must have been done in the area of criminal cases on Bhopal was a trial under Sec 304-Part II and thus ensure a conviction of 10 years in jail. Justice Ahmadi ensured that this did not happen for reasons known only to him! Let us not blame the clerk in the Supreme Court who posted the case (Special Leave Petition by the eight convicted now) before Justice Ahmadi's bench!

There is also the bitter truth about the compromise brokered by Justice R S Pathak on February 14, 1989 (he was the Chief Justice of India on that day) between Union Carbide and the government of India by which the American MNC paid just Rs 705 crore to ensure that all criminal and civil cases against the corporation were dropped. It was a shame even then and the victims had to fight fresh battles to revive the case on which the verdict came last week. The compensation amount was a pittance given the magnitude of the damage. But then, the settlement was sanction by our own Supreme Court! Let us remember that the government of India, headed at that time by Rajiv Gandhi, was a party to that settlement.

This being the case, how does one blame Arjun Singh, under whose nose Warren Anderson managed to be let out of the jail on December 7, 1984, within seven hours after his arrest the same day. It may be noted here that most of the dead in the tragedy were not even cremated before Anderson was let off on bail and allowed to fly out of Bhopal in an aircraft that belonged to the Madhya Pradesh government. Arjun Singh, one may presume, acted under instructions from his bosses in New Delhi. Their concern must have been foreign investments in India, if not kickbacks into their accounts in the banks in Switzerland and in the Channel Islands.

The CBI that investigated the case after December 9, 1984, could not have worked wonders where Arjun Singh, the powerful chief minister of Madhya Pradesh failed. The CBI too acts under instructions. The CBI could not have gone against the Supreme Court judge Ahmadi's wisdom. Well. Chief judicial magistrate Mohan Tiwari could not have done anything more than what he did on June 7, 2010 given the case before him. He could have resigned his job in protest and allowed another judge to do what he did if he had that kind of conscience.

But then, Justice Ahmadi could have acted otherwise in 1996 and held that charges under Sec 304-Part II were in order. Arjun Singh could have acted in such manner that Anderson did not go away from Bhopal on December 7, 1984. Rajiv Gandhi could have instructed those concerned against signing a settlement that reduced the compensation to such low levels and also bartered away the right to pursue the civil and criminal cases. Chief Justice R S Pathak could have refused sanction to such a settlement. His Lordship would have been held in high esteem by the ordinary people of India and the victims in Bhopal for that.

All of them compromised and allowed the MNC and its men get away with murder! An antinational act by all means. But who will hold them guilty and inflict the punishment to such an act?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Have Not Blogged For A While. I Was Far Away From My Desk and My Computer!!!

The trip was thought of even before we looked into the logistics. I have heard, during my days in JNU, that the Himalayas are a wonderful place and that you do not have to be a believer to go through that spiritual experience. Well! I did experience that when I had been to Haridwar on an assignment. Long hours at the Har Ki Pauri, late into the night, had helped me delve deep into the various dimensions of our own cultural and civilizational past even as I sat there looking at the Ganges flowing so fast. I remember having wondered the reason why she was in such a hurry.

With that image in mind, I had reasons to walk up to the Har Ki Pauri as soon as we got off the train that evening. Santha and Chinku may not have made sense of my impatience before we reached there. Once there, it was a different story. Chinku woke up earlier than we did the following morning and left for the Har Ki Pauri. And a dip in the cold waters was a wonderful way to begin the day and the journey into the Himalayas! Rishikesh was only a short distance away and the share autos an easy way to reach there. Like the others, we too headed to the Ram Jhoola, walked across the hanging bridge and unlike the others, decided to walk down to the Laxman Jhoola and along the banks of the Ganga. Another dip in the river; the current was not as much as it was in the ghats in Haridwar.

Ajoy Ashirwad and Shobhita had given us a fair idea about the logistics. We knew about buses and jeeps (on share basis) from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi. I had also bought a map of the region before we left.

We were in a jeep before 2 pm and the drive up to Uttarkashi was exciting. The road, winding up the hills and alongside the Bhagirathi was scenic. And as we crossed Chamba, the sight of snow-clad peaks ahead of us made me happier. Snow-clad mountains had fascinated me when I saw them first in 1986; that was from Gangtok. I did enjoy the sight again last summer while at McLeod Ganj for a couple of days. But then, I was now going closer to those peaks; we were on our way to the Gangotri and to Gaumukh as per our plans and that meant that we were going closer than ever before to the peaks. To see the place where the snow melts into water and flows down the hills as Bhagirathi! Wow!

Gangaram’s lodge near the post office was a comfortable place indeed. And just as Ryan had told us, we got the room there for very little money. Rs.300 for the three of and that too in a lodge on the banks of the Bhagirathi was certainly a good bargain. We were also told by Gangaram that the price was that low because we had arrived ahead of the season. The temple at Gangotri was still closed and hence pilgrims have not started arriving. I did not want to hurt Gangaram and explained to him that it did not matter if the temple was closed because God was omnipresent! To be honest, we were innocent of the pilgrimage season and that the shrines were closed for at least six months in a year when we planned our trip this time. In any case, I shall plan my next rip to the same places in the same time I did now because it makes sense to spend less money on lodges and enjoy the serene hills with no one around you.

I have decided to go to Uttarkashi again and walk from there to Gaumukh; the trek would take a few days but then it makes sense to do that spending the nights at Gagnani, Harsheel, Gangotri and finally reach Gaumukh.

We did not reach Gaumukh this time. We did not plan things properly; it was silly on my part to have presumed that a distance of less that 200 kilometres in the hills will be as short as the same distance in the plains. It was, hence not possible for us to walk up to Gaumukh and return to Gangotri the same day. So we walked up a few kilometres from Gangotri on way to Gaumukh and returned. But then, I know that I will be closest to the snow-clad peaks and the glacier if I reach Gaumukh and am determined to make it to there soon. For the same reason, we decided against going to Yamunotri the next day. Though our map showed a road from Gangotri to Yamunotri, it was not there in reality! One had to go to Uttarkashi, then to Darasu and to Hanuman Chatti and walk up to Yamunotri from there. We should do that some other time.

The bus ride from Uttarkashi to Srinagar through a by-pass road through peepul taal was indeed an experience. We were in that mini-bus sort of vehicle at about five in the morning and the climb was indeed steep. And peepul taal, as our vehicle meandered through the hill roads in Tehri district was a huge lake down there. And when our mini bus crossed the lake through a hanging bridge across that, I realised that the Ram and Laxman Jhoolas were small little hanging bridges. That hanging bridge, painted red, is indeed an engineering wonder! Srinagar is warm and dusty because of the construction activities and the fact that it is a big town. We spent as little time there as we could and with a few rotis in our belly we took a bus to Rudraprayag; to Gupt Kashi in a jeep; and to Gowrikund in a bus.

From Uttarkashi to Gowrikund; all in the day. A room in the Behl Ashram Guest House, a clean and compact place for just Rs. 250 a day for the three of us. And the hotwater spring was just a few yards away from our place of stay. I had experienced this natural wonder at Gagnani in our ride back from Gangotri the day before. And within minutes after checking into the room, we were under the spring; gharamkhund became an obsession to me. And we began asking people around about Kedarnath. We were advised to hire mules. But we had made up our mind that we are healthy human beings and 14 kilometres should be ``cakewalk’’ for those like us. All of us (me, Santha and Chinku) want to believe that we are not the ordinary-middle-class-urban-beings! So were were on our trek up the path even before six ‘o clock with aaloo-paranthas, dry fruits, biscuits and water in our back-pack.

The first seven kilometres up to Rambhada was fine. We were happy that we had crossed the half way without effort. It appeared that those who counted the miles did not include the kilometre long walk through the Rambada village. The stone showed 7 km as we entered the village and the same as we exited from there after walking almost a km. It is also possible that it was an illusion for us in the tired state of mind. The fact is we were increasingly tired and even a 100 metres uphill seemed to be a kilometre. And we were, in any case, in a place from where Adi Shankara came out with his Advaita Vedanta… All those things about maya; Shankara, incidentally breathed his last at Kedarnath and his Samadhi is there adjacent to the temple.

Well. The last mile was indeed an experience. My legs were refusing to carry me and even while I could see the temple at the end of the road and the cold wind that blew past the snow clad peaks made me feel so cold, I felt like sitting there. I was, however, persuaded to walk on by Santha and Chinku. I did manage to complete the trek but sat there, at the entrance to the temple, with a feeling of accomplishment. Did began wondering about Adi Shankara reaching this abode several hyndred years ago and when the roads were not laid and the path not yet paved. Well. He could not have carried a map either! And yet he came here, to the Himalayas, in quest of the truth. And lived here, in the hills and in the caves! And died here! He did all this to reinvent Hinduism (not Hindutwa for sure) from the Budhist and Jain influence. I also wondered if his efforts did any good because Hinduism with the caste system not only outlived Shankara but remained in its old self! And the Gangetic valley is where it survives in its form and content to this day.

The climb back was not all that difficult. We did return to our abode but our legs were weak and also aching. A dip in the hot-water spring was refreshing enough and the comforts of Behl Ashram Guest House too good for the night after a sumptuous dinner.

We had decided not to rush out the day after. And hence were in the bus stand by about 8 o’clock in the morning. A jeep to Gupt Kashi, another one to Rudraprayag and a bus to Joshimath. It was when we passed through Agasthmuni, where the army was holding a recruitment mela did it occur to me that the Garhwal Hills send a large number to the Indian army. My knowledge about the Hills were restricted to a few things: That H.N.Bahuguna belonged to this region as well as M.M.Joshi of the BJP. I also recalled the tragedy that met the people of this region in 1995 when they were attacked by Mulayam Singh’s police and the women raped; because they demanded a separate state and were on their way to Delhi for a demonstration; and that there were many soldiers from this region who battled against Bhindranwale’s mercenaries in the Operation Bluestar in June 1984 and died in the process of saving the nation and its integrity. We were at Joshimath early in the evening.

We thought of checking into the GMVN guest houses but could not because the workers were on strike. And ended up at the Morning Calm Hotel; our abode until our last day in Uttarakhand adjacent to the mutt that Adi Shankara set up more than 1000 years ago. The cave where he lived and the kalpavriksh under which Shankara meditated and the shiv linga that formed out of spatika (ice hardened over the years and does not melt now) are all there and being there was indeed an experience. Shankara had been here, all the way from Kaladi in Kerala, in times when he could have only walked. Shankara lived for only 48 years and in that short life he traversed so much both spiritually and materially! I would have lived that long soon.

Well. We also had rava dosa to eat at a restaurant in Joshimath!

The trip to Badrinath was by jeep. And we were welcomed there by a hail-storm. The hot-water spring came to my rescue and some black tea in the tea shop made a lot of difference. Close to the snow-capped peaks and just a few kilometres from Mana, India’s last village in the Indo-Tibetan border. I shall call it Tibet (NOT China) for I am convinced that Tibet is an independent nation! And we drive back in another jeep.

The day after, we were at Govindghat even before 8 o’ clock. A light breakfast there and began walking up to the valley of flowers. The experience was almost the same as it was on our walk up to Kedarnath. We did the first half rather effortlessly. Byundhar village was deserted. Not a soul there. We do not know why. But we began feeling weak and desperate from there. The climb turned steeper and the path too treacherous. May be we were weaker than when we started. But we had no other go. To reach Gangria and park ourselves there was the only option. And unlike the path to Kedarnath that were lined up with shops all the way, the season was too far away insofar as the valley was concerned and hence there was nothing on the way. Oh! We had the Alaknanda for company all the way. Water as clear as the crystal and flowing down in a hurry! And somehow reached Gangria. There was only one hotel open: Gangotri and we checked in there without hesitation. Rs. 300 for the three of us for a night.

Some food immediately and some more for dinner; it was far too cold there than we had prepared and the only option was to get into the quilt. Began walking up to the valley early in the morning. The path was not paved so well and the Garhwal Scouts had begun setting the broken bridges right and clearing the landslides on the way. We three walked the last 3 kilometres up to the valley, enjoyed the flowers along side the path; some of which were just blooming and experienced the valley. All the mountains, the snow, the trees and the river seemed to be our own. There was no one else there. Far from the crowd, the dust and the noise. No books. No computer. The mobile phone too outside the coverage area. Watched the Alaknanda, just being born, melting out of the glacier; the Pindari glaciers are not very far from there. I dipped my hand into the river. It was freezing cold and it took a while to get my hand back to normal. And all this standing by the mountain that rose like a wall to several metres; an imposing sight and made me humble.

Walked back, most of the time in a trance; somewhat sad too that we were in the fag end of our trip. On a mule from Gangria to Govindghat and rather painful; but saved time and were back in Joshimath early in the evening. Another long bus journey the day after and at Haridwar, from where we started by evening. The Maha aarti on the banks of the Ganga where thousands from all parts of the country and cutting across socio-economic groups gather every evening was again an experience. And the train back to Delhi! Already beginning to work on another trip to the Himalayas! A spiritual quest? Yes. I think so! I feel like sitting there on the banks of the Ganga at Rishikesh and stay for a while at Harsheel on way to Gangotri from Uttarkashi.