The allegation that the Rajiv Gandhi government had succumbed to U.S. pressure and allowed the former Union Carbide chairman, Warren Anderson, to escape from the country was “absurd,” a former official in the then Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said.
G. Parthasarathy, joint secretary and spokesperson in Rajiv Gandhi's PMO, told The Hindu on Wednesday: “The story of American pressure is absurd. Anderson was arrested at midnight and released early morning American time. Nobody in the U.S. administration would have disturbed [President Ronald] Reagan at that time unless the Soviets had attacked.”
Explaining the sequence of events on that fateful day, Mr. Parthasarathy said that after the accident, Union Carbide offered to send a senior official (Anderson) to India “to assess the situation and to see what the company could do to help out technically and otherwise,” provided he was assured “safe passage.”
The Ministry of External Affairs, he said, in consultation with the PMO, agreed to permit the official from the parent company of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), which was running the plant in Bhopal, to carry out an assessment as without that it would find it difficult to respond to any claim made. The offer came from Union Carbide, Mr. Parthasarathy stressed, and Mr. Anderson would not have flown into India without the assurance of “safe passage.”
The problem arose, the former PMO official (who went on to become India's ambassador to Pakistan) said, because this “assurance” was not conveyed to the Madhya Pradesh government, that Mr. Anderson was coming to assess the “magnitude of the calamity,” only after being assured “safe passage” and therefore, could not be arrested. It was only after he was arrested, that the Centre realised that the M.P. government was in the dark about the conditions on the basis of which Mr. Anderson had made the trip. The UC chairman, Mr. Parthasarathy stressed, would not have flown down to India had he known he would be arrested.
“You must understand the circumstances,” Mr. Parthasarathy said, “Mrs. [Indira] Gandhi had just been assassinated [on October 31, 1984], Rajiv Gandhi was out campaigning [for the general elections]. With the PM away, the institutional functioning was at a bare minimum, especially as there wasn't even a full Council of Ministers.” The former PMO official, however, pointed out that a distinction needed to be made between the granting of “safe passage” and “immunity”.
He also pointed out that when the $470-million out-of-court settlement with Union Carbide was made in 1989, it wasn't as paltry a sum as it looks today.
He, however stressed, he was “not condoning the absolute incompetence of the relief work” and that he was as critical as anyone else of what transpired through the 26 years.
Mr. Parthasarathy's revelations came on a day when TV channels played visuals from that period in which Mr. Anderson is seen saying, “House arrest or no arrest or bail, no bail, I am free to go home...There is a law of the United States ... India, bye, bye.” The former Chief Minister, Arjun Singh, is also seen standing outside the Union Carbide plant, saying, “There was no intention to prosecute anyone or try to … harass anyone.” Evidently, there was a context to these two statements.
At the daily briefing in the AICC, Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said there was no role for the Centre and the State government in Mr. Anderson's easy flight back home. “At the end of it there was a systemic failure and there is a need to address it...If we go into the game of finger-pointing, there can be no end. I can ask the BJP about the Rs. 1 lakh it received as donation from Dow as was reflected in the affidavit it filed before the Election Commission.”