The Supreme Court's decision to reject as “wrong and fallacious” the curative plea filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation in the Bhopal case has led to a lot of unnecessary hand-wringing by NGOs and activists. The government sought to enhance the culpability of those responsible for the December 1984 gas disaster from mere “criminal negligence” — for which they were convicted last year — to “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.” In dismissing the government's petition, the Supreme Court concluded that its 1996 verdict, which threw out the culpable homicide accusation, was the product of evidence presented at the time charges were framed. But it also told the CBI that if there were additional facts to conclude that a more serious offence had been committed, nothing would stand in the way of the sessions court framing graver charges. Should the sessions judge have reservations, especially given the passage of time, the Supreme Court has indicated that its 1996 verdict would not be a “fetter” against delivering justice to the victims of the calamitous gas leak. If the Chief Judicial Magistrate misread its earlier judgment as constraining, the revisional court “can certainly correct” that error, the highest court in the land has noted.
The CBI's inability to credibly explain why it moved the Supreme Court so many years after 1996 – or after 2002, when the instrumentality of curative petitions was created – hides an open secret that continues to shock all partisans of justice round the world. The truth is that successive administrations at the Centre, whether headed by the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party or the United Front, have not been interested in the guilty being punished. Equally damningly, they have cared little about justice being done to the victims. Once again, the ball is back in the government's hands. It is too early to say whether the beginning of the end to a long wait for justice has been set in motion for the victims of the Bhopal tragedy through the Supreme Court's verdict. All eyes will now be on the CBI: will it push for enhanced charges at the sessions court now that the legal picture has become clearer? It is up to the Madhya Pradesh and central governments to ensure that this matter is argued expeditiously and that any appeals which follow are fast-tracked. Later this summer, the petition seeking enhancement of compensation for the victims will be heard. Although the Supreme Court cannot easily conjure up a remedy for the manifest failure of the executive to protect the rights of the gas victims, it needs to remain engaged with the case until justice is finally delivered.