This past week, we Indians have been forced to relive scenes from one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Despite having wreaked utter havoc over an entire population, the site of the infamous Union Carbide Factory’s gas leak of 1984 is reportedly still contaminated today. It’s been twenty five years and some of the victims of the tragedy were not even born at the time of the catastrophe. However, many of them are now either blind or physically handicapped as a direct result of the calamity. And yet what makes the disaster even more horrifying is the light verdict that was finally delivered after years of waiting for justice.
Announcing the verdict in a local court, Chief judicial magistrate Mohan Tiwari stated that “An American corporation cynically used a third world country to escape from the increasingly strict safety standards imposed at home.” After these strong words, which appeared to give an indication of the sentencing severity to come, the court went on to convict the seven accused guilty of criminal negligence. And what was the sentence? A fine of 100,000 rupees each and jail for two years! To add insult to injury, the convicted walked out within hours of the sentencing as they were all granted bail. Is this justice? Is this, by any means, just compensation for the lives of over 20,000 people wiped out in the world’s biggest industrial disaster? It was little wonder that a collective gasp of disbelief ripped through the population at how justice had been played out in the Indian court.
This is not the first time that justice has been delayed and then denied to the Indian people. Apart from token apologies and political resignations, nothing was offered to the relatives of those who fell victim to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Those responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent Bombay riots walked scot-free too. And many an election has proved that riots leading to the widespread killings of a specific community, are not reason enough to stop voting the ‘guilty’ party back into power. It seems like justice is something that we Indians should stop clamouring for.
The thing is then, who exactly are we expected to put our faith in? Our law enforcement agencies are not exactly reputed to be the most efficient as far as fighting crime is concerned. We have all heard the stories of officers refusing to take action against high profile criminals and requesting a ‘greasing of the palm’ to make a case move forward. On the other hand, stand our politicos. Elected representatives of a people who possibly believe that this might be the vote that gets them the leader that changes the way things are done in their part of the country. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are a handful that do. But the majority of them are just fake smiles and bodies dressed in Khadi kurtas, stereotypically corrupt to the core and indifferent to the plight of the common man that enabled them to sit on their political seats in the first place.
We all know that the corruption associated with political leaders is not an exclusively Indian phenomenon. But even then as we look to the West, to their reactions on environmental disasters and then back to ours, the comparison could not be starker. As American President Barack Obama visits the Gulf of Mexico for the fourth time and puts the blame squarely on BP’s shoulders while insisting on action, the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh is yet to comment on the Bhopal verdict. The only action he has taken is to form a group of ministers who have been asked to review the situation surrounding the verdict and revert back to the cabinet in ten days. Although, how does another ten days matter when the victims have waited for justice in vain for twenty-five years?
Yes, there have been protests from the common man and the trading of insults amongst political leaders as they try and exploit the pitiful verdict for their own gains. But then this just makes it just another high-profile case that has bagged all the headlines. What makes it different is that this appears to be the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back. After a slew of cases where justice has been one of the last priorities, it seems like we have finally realized that the judiciary is one of those pillars of our society that we cannot lean on any more. And the less said the better about the media and the press that moves on from one news story to the next depending on television ratings and circulation figures.
However, as depressing the thought is that we may just have to get used to injustice, we need to look at the one unofficial pillar that might just be our ray of hope. That fifth pillar that consists of ‘We the people’, without whom a democracy would not exist! In times like these it is up to us, the ordinary citizens no matter where we are, to band together and keep these issues alive and in the public eye. Then the idea of justice in India may not become a myth after all.