The farcical judgment in the Bhopal gas tragedy case has come—25 years and 6 months after the accident.
We in the media pat ourselves on the back for securing justice in middle-class, urban, people-like-us stories like Jessica Lal, Sanjeev Nanda and Ruchika Girhotra.
Will the TV stations get into a similar activist mode on behalf of the 15,274 killed and 574,000 affected in Bhopal, especially when one of the eight convicted, Keshub Mahindra, is a major advertiser and the uncle of media darling Anand Mahindra?
Yesterday’s judgment has offered a chance for journalists to put things in perspective on a pre-television era tragedy.
Internationally acclaimed photographer Pablo Bartholomew writes in today’s Hindustan Times on how he got to capture the picture that defined the Bhopal tragedy:
“The Lok Sabha election campaign started on December 1, 1984, and I decided to start working in Patna and make my way to Amethi in the Sultanpur area in Uttar Pradesh.
“While in Patna on December 3, I heard on the radio: 30 dead in gas leak in Bhopal. Ignored it and took the plane to Lucknow.
“Drove towards Sultanpur to arrive at a dhaba by 9 pm. On a black-and-white TV, saw the most bizarre news footage of dead people being wheeled on wooden handcarts. Toll: 120 dead.
“Decided to go to Bhopal.
“Maybe it is a denial, a kind of guilt that I have not been able to do enough on a personal individual level for the people, the situation. And that is I guess the shallowness of 95 per cent of the journalism we do. We all tend to walk away. It’s the next story that we look to and the story is just a story.
“This experience really scared me. Showed the ugly side of modern development and what corporate greed and negligence was all about.”
Elsewhere, in the same paper, N.K. Singh, then a junior reporter in the Indian Express, pens a first-person piece on the trauma of reporting the tragedy.
The human tragedy waiting to happen in the city mosques had been prophetically predicted by the outstanding journalist Raajkumar Keswani (in picture, left) years earlier. “Bhopal jwalamukhi ki kagaar par (Bhopal on the edge of a volcano),” ran a headline for Keswani‘s piece in 1982.
N.K. Singh writes that he too was alerted to what was to unfold on December 4, by Keswani.
“I was fast asleep under a warm quilt in Bhopal when the phone rang. My friend Raajkumar Keswani, a journalist living in the old quarters of the town, sounded agitated, a little incoherent and was gasping for breath and coughing. He said there was a commotion in the street, people were running around and something had happened.
“‘I am having a problem breathing,’ he said….
“On the evening of December 3, 1984, as I sat on my typewriter to write the story of the world’s worst industrial disaster, tears started welling up in my eyes. That evening, and for many evenings after that, tears would keep rolling down my cheeks even as I hammered at the keyboard to meet the deadline of the newspaper.”
For his work on Bhopal, Raajkumar Keswani was later decorated with the B.D. Goenka award.
Last year, on the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, Shreekant Khandekar, the former Bhopal correspondent of India Today, recounted the experience in an article in Outlook magazine:
“I was just 28 and had to work alone because everyone else was busy with the forthcoming general elections. Thankfully India Today was then a fortnightly and my deadline was still a week away….
“I needed the dope for a detailed illustration, showing how things had gone wrong. I found a local studio that was Carbide’s official photographer. I bought more than a hundred photographs of the Carbide premises from every conceivable angle. I also plotted the layout of the plant on a sheet. Then, at the back of every picture I noted the angle from which a particular piece of equipment had been photographed.
“Meanwhile, I had located a former safety officer of Carbide who now worked in Delhi. I flew down and ran him through what I had. He said it sounded technically plausible. And when our artist put together an illustration based on the photographs and layout sheet, the safety officer was amazed by its accuracy.”
The Pioneer‘s Kanchan Gupta, then a sub-editor on The Telegraph, Calcutta:
“I was a sub-editor on the news desk of The Telegraph and have vivid memories of the tragic story unfolding through the day and late into the night of December 3. Those days there was no Internet and reports came via agency tickers. The enormity of the disaster emerged as PTI and UNI kept on updating the death toll. It was my third exposure to mass murder – the Nellie massacre was first; the anti-Sikh pogrom after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination was second.”
Photographs: courtesy iconicphotos, blogger
Pablo Bartholomew: We journalists just walk to the next story
N.K. Singh: ‘For several nights, I wept as I typed’
Shreekant Khandekar: The dead line