This is an excerpt from my book which is in press. It's called Selected Essays, for want of a better title.
Delhi Diatribe:The Diorama of The Bhopal Union Carbide Victims
My former colleague at Hindu College, Suroopa Mukherjea, (an “obsessive activist, with a one point programme” on behalf of gas victims) asked me to sit with the Bhopal gas victims for a day. I went to Jantar Mantar on a cloudy warm summer day, and sat on a dhurrie for a couple of hours with some of the fifty persons who have walked from Bhopal. On 12 June 2008, it had been five months since they came to our glittering city of malls and luxury hotels. Their life, unlike the facade of the multinational hotel or business house, reveals everything on the kerbside. These are the citizens of a free country. They believe that the state will hear them. Half a dozen children play, no food is being cooked, old people lie in the glare of a Delhi summer. The clouds are transitory.
“When one has no one, then one has God” one woman told another. They walked for six days to get to Delhi. People on the way, in villages and towns and woods, asked them about their plight. They fed them, and helped them. On Parliament Street, in Delhi, outside the dusty shamiana which has housed them for these four months, fast cars speed by. I read Ananda Coomaraswamy’s The Transformation of Nature in Art as I wait for them to get used to me, as I use the time to observe them, while simultaneously preparing for this semester’s classes in my University. The book is about the coalescence of art and life, it is lessons from Chinese and Indian texts to show how art and life are merging constantly. And suddenly in a lightening moment, I realize these “victims” are in control. They are indeed citizens, with their shabby banners, and their survival instinct, fighting for the pittance which was allocated to them, but never fully given; these workers, clerks, labourers, children, housewives and seamstresses are saying that an accident is an act of negligence, an accident is a crime, an accident must not be condoned for reasons of convenience and statecraft. Neglect is a crime, and ignorance is no excuse.
This is an important lesson for us, because if once condoned, it can be made to happen again, and then there will be more victims. After about two hours, a man comes and sits down with the agitators, ten of whom are on hunger strike. He is from Indore, and he says that the gas affected them too in their town, so he can imagine how bad it was for those who were in the direct path. Again the stories are recounted, the cases so similar, the cough, the sealed eyes, and the lungs which dismembered. “So you have become good at nethagiri (politics)?” he laughingly says to one of the women. “How? When my brother died, and I can no longer see him, and if he were alive, I would see him everyday!”
These people, who wait for justice, can’t understand why anyone would want to keep their money from them, unless it is to accrue interest on the sum for themselves. Well, we are the state, and we are implicated. They received two hundred rupees for the first month, two hundred rupees the next month, and then eleven thousand rupees and then nothing after that. So where is the remaining money? The survivors say, as they come back after bathing in the favara or fountain, that their lives have been reduced to waiting. Everyday goes by, in making of the pavement, the diaroma of the dysfunctional state. And we watch, knowing that it must not happen again.