What a fall!
What a fall!
By Raajkumar Keswani
He is an “Angel’ who fell in Bhopal 25 years back, without any realisation about his fall. He hounded all those who talked about his fall, till the realisation dawned upon him 25 years later.
One of our leading jurists, Fali S.Nariman, regrets his decision of accepting the Union Carbide brief in Bhopal gas disaster case of 1984. He sounds candid enough to acknowledge that he had no ‘foreknowledge’ of everything of the case while accepting the civil liability case. He said in a recent interview to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN; “I’m a fallen angel in Bhopal episode.’
How this statement suddenly brings back a few disturbing images of the past, when the angel in question was playing the devil’s drummer in the Bhopal district court.
It was May 6, 1987. District judge M.W.Deo, was in the chair, hearing the 3 billion dollar civil suit filed by the Government of India against Union Carbide. It was a business, like any other day till the group of Union Carbide Corporation lawyers made an unexpected move. The Lead counsel for Union Carbide Corporation, USA, Fali S. Nariman dropped a bomb by moving an application before the judge.
It asked the judge ‘…to rescue himself from further participation in the case and disassociate himself from the case’. He said ‘that pending disposal of their application, …no further directions be given nor proceedings taken before his hounor judge Deo.’
The judge, aghast with an expression of hurt on his face, however, informed the defence lawyer Fali S.Nariman, in a firm tone that it was for the first time that he was hearing about such an application. He said ‘…if a party thinks the judge is biased it should approach the higher court for transfer of the case to some other court.’
Sticking to his guns Nariman launched another blunt attack on the judge. ‘We want to give you first opportunity of disassociating yourself from the case.’
The judge, however did not allow himself to get bullied by this arrogant carbide move. He went ahead with the case after advising the defence lawyer to move the higher court.
This is what this ‘Fallen Angel’ did in those years of Carbide case. A case, he had no foreknowledge of all facts while accepting the brief. Once he had the full knowledge, he adopted an aggressive posture to defend his client, who refused to pay the proper compensation to the victims of Bhopal but never did refuse to compensate its lawyers ‘properly.’
I do remember Fali Nariman landing in Bhopal as Carbide’s lead senior advocate and appearing in the district court with his equally expensive lawyer colleagues with a sense of pride on their faces. I, as a reporter covering the Bhopal gas case, have been a witness to the impact of the presence of these imminent lawyers from legal skies.
Everyone in the court campus was quite attentive and focused towards the court room of the District Judge. Everyone, amazingly, was trying to behave out of his or her character to match the manners of the visiting legal eagles from metros. They were the faces hitherto heard and seen on the front pages of the newspapers.
Visitors too were all aware about the value and impact of their presence on the scene. They did not disappoint their watchers either. They did talk from their high pedestal even while defending the red handed Carbide.
They, Fali S.Nariman, along with Bomi Zaiwala , Anil Deewan and half a dozen other lawyers, without any doubt were well prepared, equipped and charged vis-à-vis the victim’s side represented by the Government of India. Initially, there was some glare on this side too with Attorney-General K.Parasaran participating in the case. However, his presence would not deflect the Carbide lawyers from displaying their contempt during the hearing of the case.
Journalists covering the case still reminisce about the attitude of these high profile lawyers in general and Fali in particular. The lawyer, with a great background of being a human rights activist, who quit Additional Solicitor General’s job to protest the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975, was on the wrong side of the issue this time.
‘Champion of the Human Rights’ till the other day, unfortunately, chose to side with the perpetrators of the genocide in Bhopal.
Judge Deo remained the main target for Carbide lobby and Fali was the firing machine for the purpose. The reason of the ire was Judge Deo’s passing an order for an interim relief package of Rs. 350 crores for the victims. The judge was impressed the plea of the victim’s organizations that there was an urgent need to help the survivors of the disaster.
UCC did create a situation of a legal chaos in the case. Their delaying tactics at every level forced the Madhya Pradesh High Court to intervene. The court asked in a suo moto order in November 1987 why it should not try the case in place of the Bhopal district court ‘to avoid any delaying tactics’ of the UCC.
But that was not to be. Since master of the game was playing the captain of the Carbide lawyers team. The captain, Fali Nariman, regrets it today. But as my friend Bharat Desai asks: ‘Fali, after 25 years, what’s the Nariman Point?
And to close, I would borrow from Fali Narimans recently published autobiography ‘Before Memory Fades’. In a chapter dealing with Bhopal episode he talks of the criticism and controversies he had to face in the wake of accepting the Carbide case. He quotes Oliver Cromwell to speak for him at the beginning of the chapter, who had commissioned his portrait by a leading artist of his times:
“Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”
I hope, he would pay me for painting him the way he desired. However, let me be candid about my fees: ‘Fali Baba, I won’t accept any fees with red finger prints of Union Carbide. Yes, there is a way to compensate me and rest of the Bhopal gas victims. Give up on the past and stand up for us. It will give you some solace too.’