Arun Nehru, who was a member of the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet at the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy, says the government must make clear who all accompanied Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson to the then Home Minister P V Narsimha Rao and President Gyani Zail Singh and what all transpired in the meetings before he left India.
However, Nehru quipped if he was a part of the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs before Anderson quit India. In an exclusive interview to CNN-IBN, Nehru discusses with Rajdeep Sardesai what all happened after Anderson arrived in Delhi from Bhopal.
CNN-IBN: Mr Nehru, both you and Pranab Mukheree who was a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government at the time, have already gone on record, saying the decision to release Warren Anderson was taken by Arjun Singh, then Madhya Pradesh chief minister, and Rajiv Gandhi's government had nothing to do with it. What's the basis for this claim?
Arun Nehru: First of all Rajdeep, let me put the fact straight. My information is based on the media reports and the press conference addressed by Arjun Singh himself. I think it's already come out in the media, both in the Times of India and the Indian Express.
CNN-IBN: Mr Nehru, it is one thing to allow Anderson to leave Bhopal as Arjun Singh may well have done because of law and order concerns in Bhopal. But how was he allowed to leave the country? Surely, that's where the role of the Rajiv Gandhi government at the Centre comes under the scanner.
Arun Nehru: Well, I think basically the fact is, you know there are two stages of this. So let's go step by step. Arjun Singh's interview says that he released Anderson because of the law and order position. Then he was sent to Delhi. Now if you see my press interviews 4-5 days ago, I myself asked the same question which you are asking me. That if he came to Delhi, he met the Home Minister, then the President. So, somebody has to give an explanation as to what happened.
CNN-IBN: So, if you are saying that Anderson met the then President Giani Zail Singh and Home Minister P V Narsimha Rao in Delhi after leaving Bhopal, it means that the Centre saw him as an honoured guest within 24 hours of arresting him under a non-bailable charge and virtually assured him safe passage out of the country. Isn't that where the role of the Rajiv Gandhi government at the time comes in?
Arun Nehru: I am asking the same question that may be, the Congress party or those in charge and I think it's much better like Pranab for instance, has clarified and said officially what Arjun Singh had said earlier in a press interview. Similarly, they can very well clarify as to what happened when Anderson came to Delhi. After all, you don't meet the Home Minister and the President, you know, as a courtesy call unless you are somebody.
CNN-IBN: The fact is Mr Nehru, the decision to allow Mr Anderson to go could only have been taken at the highest level, and I might point out here that Rajiv Gandhi was also the External Affairs Minister at the time.
Arun Nehru: He was also the Prime Minister and one can only, you know, what we are doing now is only speculating on what could have happened. Right? I don't want to go in the theory of speculation, but what I will say from the viewpoint of governance at the top, you know the Prime Minister does not interfere in any decision taken by the Chief Minister who is his man on the spot. Now if Arjun Singh takes a decision and says that for the law and order situation, and 'my priority is to save lives, I have arrested this guy and I have released him.' What do you expect the Prime Minister to say? To have a discussion with him and say you did the right thing or the wrong thing?
CNN-IBN: But sir, chief ministers don't take decisions to allow an individual, charged in such a major case, to leave the country. Our information is that there was a Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs that was held, and the assumption is that the CCPA, headed by Mr Gandhi, took the final decision on Anderson.
Arun Nehru: No. I think you can't draw that assumption Rajdeep. You know I have also been a CCPA member in 1990, so I know how the CCPA works. CCPA has got much better things to do than the arrest warrant and whether somebody should be released or arrested. You know CCPA is a political affairs committee. It does not deal with these matters. Now that is a localised decision taken. But let's not confuse the issue. Issue is Mr Anderson left Bhopal because there was a law and order problem. He came to Delhi and I have said this four days ago that if Mr Anderson was guilty of something, why would he be meeting the Home Minister, why would he be having tea with the President. I mean it doesn't make sense.
CNN-IBN: Mr Nehru, you were Rajiv's closest aide at the time, do you or do you not recall Rajiv Gandhi calling a CCPA meeting on Andersen and the Bhopal tragedy and taking the decision to allow the Union Carbide chief to leave the country?
Arun Nehru: No I think, first of all lets talk logically. If I am the general secretary of the party or even for that matter if I am a minister, do I know minute to minute every function which the government is doing on that day?
CNN-IBN: But will you accept that it is highly unlikely that Mr Anderson could not have left the country without the consent and knowledge of the Prime Minister?
Arun Nehru: No. I am not in the business of speculation. I am going by hard facts. The point is the man came, he met the Home Minister, he met the President. No body meets the Home Minister or the President without somebody taking notes. Now it is for the government to clarify this because if they don't clarify this, this issue will keep festering.
CNN-IBN: So, what you are saying is that the Congress, in stead of getting defensive, should come clean on just what happened in the first week of December?
Arun Nehru: Rajdeep I am not going to use words like clean and the rest of it. What I am saying is whatever happened on that day, unless they don't clarify the issue, will keep on festering. The point is it has happened. I am just saying one must know what was the Home Minister discussing with Mr Anderson. That will make the picture clearer. I am just adding further that the Congress party has said, everyone has said that the man must be extradited. We are already saying that we are going to make a request for him coming back. So I think there is no harm for those in the know to say when Anderson came to Delhi, who took him to the home ministry and who took him to the President. Because, eventually people will find out.
CNN-IBN: We've also been told that the Rajiv government came under intense US pressure to release Anderson, and it's that pressure that the Centre and the state governments succumbed to.
Arun Nehru: I find it very difficult that we are sitting in 2010 and passing judgment on something which happened 25 years ago. None of us were there. You didn't have 24x7 television, you didn't have mobile phones. You had a situation there in Bhopal. I can only tell you this if I was in the chief minister's chair and if I had 10,000 people dead around me. And, if I had to evacuate the city, I wouldn't have time for Mr Anderson or anybody else, or for the PM. My job was to save lives. Now what I would have done in that situation, I don't know, because I wasn't under the pressure. But the fact is that with the wisdom of hindsight or the ignorance of hindsight, you can't pass judgment on the past.
CNN-IBN: One last time sir, you were with Rajiv throughout that period, just weeks after Mrs Gandhi's assassination and in the run up to the general elections. Did Rajiv ever raise the issue of Warren Anderson and the need to let him leave the country?
Arun Nehru: Let me be very honest with you. I was looking after elections. We had 542 seats. I don't think I met Rajiv more than once in a month and people should understand governance. At the prime minister's level there is no time for these mythical meetings with 20 people and long discussions. It is a minute to minute operation. But knowing Rajiv, I can tell you this and I have no hesitation in saying that, he would not take a single decision which was not in the national interest.