At midnight on December 2, 1984, Bhopal became a living manifestation of disastrous corporate negligence leading to the death of over 20,000 people and causing injuries to over 5 lakh, according to official and unofficial figures combined.
Twenty-five years, six months and four days later, the people of Bhopal eagerly anticipate what is being called a “historical” judgment by the City Judicial Magistrate (CJM).
On 7th June, i.e. on Monday, the CJM will pass judgment in the “Union of India through CBI versus Keshub Mahindra and others” case, probably the longest running criminal case of this magnitude in terms of the number of people it affected and continues to affect.
As the first judgment in any case related to the Bhopal gas disaster, it will indeed be historic. Another reason for it to be historic is the involvement of Keshub Mahindra, former Chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd, who, after Warren Andersen, is the prime Indian accused in the case.
Mr. Mahindra is now chairman of the Indian automobile giant Mahindra and Mahindra.
The case, based on a chargesheet filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on December 1, 1987 against 12 parties, was originally to be tried under Section 304 Part II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder leading up to 10 years imprisonment) of the Indian Penal Code.
This, however, was challenged by the accused in the Madhya Pradesh High Court but the court upheld the charges. Subsequently, the accused approached the Supreme Court which, in a September 1996 order passed by Justice A.M. Ahmadi, diluted the charges against the Indian accused to Section 304 A — causing death by negligence with maximum imprisonment up to two years.
There have been 178 prosecution and eight defence depositions before the court since 1996. Several activists working with Bhopal victims do not consider significant the two-year maximum punishment possible under 304A.
“It is the first judgment in the Bhopal gas disaster and so in a way it is going to be historic,” says Balkrishna Namdeo of the Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha.
“But even if the judgment does pronounce them guilty, what punishment would it be? Just 2 years against the 26 years of misery by the victims? And the accused can appeal against the judgment to higher courts,” says Namdeo with apparent scepticism.
Activists have also questioned the CBI's role in the matter as it has not been able to produce Warren Andersen, the then CEO of Union Carbide India Ltd and prime accused in the case, even after two arrest warrants were issued against him, the last one in July last year.
“The CBI seems to have been acting on an unsigned directive of the Central government,” says Abdul Jabbar, of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sanghathan, who has been working with the Bhopal victims since the tragedy struck.
Mr. Jabbar's organisation had filed an application to the CJM court to amend the charges against the accused and charge them under Section 304 Part II of the IPC based on new oral and documentary evidence (e.g. February 2010 deposition of defence witness T.R. Raghuraman who stated that Warren Woomer, the then works manager of UCIL, had ordered the shutting down of refrigeration systems on January 7, 1982).
The application was, however, rejected by the CJM on April 26, 2010 on the ground that it was not supported by the Public Prosecutor of the CBI and that no court had the power to go beyond the apex court and change the charges to 304 part II.
“A judgment such as this one, with a high-profile accused, has the potential to shape the future of how big business operates in the country,” says Mr. Jabbar.