Crime No. 1104/84 was registered by house station officer Surinder Singh Thakur while Union Carbide’s gas disaster was still unfolding across Bhopal. In the streets around Hanumanganj station, even as Thakur typed the name ‘Union Carbide’ onto the list of prime suspects, hundreds of innocent people were stumbling and falling, groaning in pain, choking and guttering out their final breaths.
On the day the crime was registered, five local junior officers of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) were the first company officials to see the inside of a jail. It is to America’s disgrace, and India’s shame, that they remain the last.
Diligent station officer Thakur could hardly have imagined that a crime so vast, so devastating, so clear, would within a year still be untried and unpunished. It is scarcely credible that this is still the case almost 40 years later.
For Bhopal, time has not been a healer. Instead, over the decades, the moral arc of Indo-US relations has bent the world’s largest industrial massacre away from justice, from scrutiny, and well away from accountability.
Chief accused Union Carbide has evaded charges of culpable homicide and other serious criminal offences in India for more than three decades and continues to hide in plain sight, inside the United States yet somehow, outside the law.
Union Carbide was allowed to sell its assets and leave India in 1994. It transpires that Union Carbide fled in name only, because it’s now known that it organised a third-party company to continue its trade and grow its Indian profits while still evading Indian justice.
When Union Carbide merged with another US corporation, Dow Chemical, in 2001, the clandestine Indian trade continued, until Dow finally inserted itself in place of the third-party company. To fool Indian officials, Dow managers discussed putting Dow labels onto products manufactured by Carbide, later claiming inb Indian courts that Carbide remained, after the merger, a separate, independent company.
The Bhopal criminal court has not bought the story. Since 2013 it has issued seven summonses to Dow to attend court in the absence of its wholly-owned subsidiary Union Carbide. All but one of the summonses have followed a process set out in a bilateral Legal Assistance Treaty signed between India and the US over 20 years ago.
Under the treaty’s terms, to summon a criminal accused India must ask the United States to serve papers on its behalf. But the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has so far ignored or obstructed every single notice intended for Dow.
Until this week, no Indian or US official has raised as much as a squeak about this reprehensible obstruction of justice. Now, a dozen elected members of the US Congress have called on the American justice department to end its covert protection of Union Carbide and its parent Dow Inc.
Their letter to the United States Deputy Attorney General insists that the DoJ finally fulfil the repeated request from treaty partner India to serve summons to Dow, which is required in Bhopal court on October 3.
The letter could hardly be more timely. President Biden’s attendance at the G20 provided Prime Minister Narendra Modi the ideal opportunity to directly address Dow and the US DoJ’s scofflaw contempt for Indian justice.
In their letter, the US Congress members state that the DoJ’s inaction is “creating an indelible stain upon our nation’s reputation for upholding international legal and moral standards that must be corrected.”
But the PM of what is claimed to be an assertive new India remains deafeningly silent on the violated rights of the thousands of Indian citizens killed, and hundreds of thousands maimed in Bhopal.
India’s staging of the G20, on which the world’s eyes rested, offered him an unprecedented opportunity to join the principled stand of the 12 US Congress members. He, however, let it go. In Bhopal, where they have waited 39 years for just one courageous champion in Delhi, there is little enough breath left to bate.
Madhumita Dutta is a volunteer with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.