Bhopal verdict: Where the buck stops
A 26-year-long legal battle, 178 witnesses and 3,008 documents in a case of one of the worst industrial hazards in the history of the mankind and what comes in the name of judgement is an insult to the injury. Just two years of imprisonment and a fine of 1 lakh rupees for eight convicts in the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy case, has called for agitations and animated debates on the TV channels. But in the light of the verdict though one can empathise with the sentiment prevailing outside the court room, the judgement can't be questioned.
The judgment may appear to be 'too little, too late' but the CJM court in Bhopal can't be subjected to criticism. The judgment is bound to be delivered on the charges labelled. Once the charges are proved according to the sections of the statutory provisions, sentence is expected accordingly. Here the charges slapped definitely force us to question the justice of the delivery system.
All the eight convicts were charged under Sections 336, 337,338 and 304A of IPC. Section 336 refers to endangering life or personal safety of others where punishment is of three months of imprisonment or fine upto two hundred and fifty rupees. Section 337 refers to causing hurt by a negligent act and provides for an imprisonment of six months or maximum fine of five hundred rupees. Section 338 deals with causing grievous hurt by negligence and lays down imprisonment upto two years or fine of one thousand rupees. Section 304A refers to cause death by rash and negligent act where punishment is upto two years or fine. So in this case if all the charges are proved and the imprisonment runs concurrently even then the convicts can only be subjected to an imprisonment of 2-3 years.
In the light of this judgement the obvious question comes to one's mind is that where is the judiciary? If the Delhi High Court can take a suo motu cognizance in Jessica Lall murder case, if the public uproar forces the trial court to reopen the Ruchika molestation and suicide case, then why can't the Madhya Pradesh High Court take a cognisance of this in the view of the larger impact of the Bhopal gas tragedy? Yes! Either the higher court may step in or the victims can again explore the possibilities of getting justice through judiciary. But it all is easier said than done. Once the Supreme Court of this country dilutes the charges against the accused, it is very difficult for a trial court to reconsider the grounds for enhancing charges and again this is an act to be carried out by the investigating agencies, not by the court. This takes us back to the 1996 judgement of the Supreme Court.
In 1996 the Supreme Court reduced the charges from under Section 304-II to Section 304-A of IPC against all the Indian accused. Section 304-II is a more stringent section with punishment of ten years for the offence of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. On Sept 13, 1996 the bench of then Chief Justice AM Ahmadi and Justice SB Majumdar held "Our finding is that the material pressed into service by the prosecution does not indicate even prima facie that the accused were guilty of an offence of culpable homicide, and, therefore, section 304-II was out of picture." The kind of reaction we are witnessing today must have been there 14 years back. But this judgment of the Supreme Court points out the sordid investigation. The CBI was handed over the case just three days after the tragedy in 1984 and today the investigating agency must have to explain much to the victims. As the apex investigating agency of the country is under direct supervision of Prime Minister the PMO needs to come out with appropriate answers to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy and also to the people of this country.
The irony is that the main accused in this case Warren Anderson, the then Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide, has been absconding and the trial court has declared him fugitive since February 1992. He has never been brought under trial in any Indian court. He was arrested on December 4, a day after the tragedy and was granted bail against US $2000 and escaped to US never to return to India again. In September 1993 Extradition request for Mr Anderson was sent to the Ministry of External Affairs, but the Ministry allegedly did not do much. In 2004 US rejected India's plea for extradition of Anderson. In July 2009 the Bhopal CJM court separated his trial from the Indian accused and issued arrest warrant for him. At the backdrop of the developments since 1993 to 2009 it is to observe that the successive governments in Centre have done a little to bring the accused to justice. For that matter as the present verdict appears to be a mockery of justice, both the political parties, BJP and Congress have to answer to the people.
The CJM court judgment in the Bhopal gas tragedy case is a travesty of justice patronised by nexus of government, judiciary and corporates. This verdict must be treated as a defining moment on two counts. Firstly to bring amendments to the offences of gross negligence, specifically Section 304A of IPC. Secondly to break the 'American Chauvinism' attitude of the Central government to bring all the 'culprits of India' to justice and not to serve India on a platter to the US corporate giants.
The battle of the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy for justice is far from over even after 26 years of relentless fight. This is not the fight against UCIL or the eight convicts but against the callous approach of the investigating agency (CBI), governments headed by both BJP and Congress, the judiciary and the corporate world. Everybody owes an answer to many questions. But the answers perhaps will come only when every Indian would seek an answer, not only the Bhopal gas leak victims.
More about Sahasranshu Mahapatra
Associate Editor, Print Research