Police triggered violence
Bhopal: The observance of the 27th anniversary of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the world’s worst industrial catastrophe, which was marred by violence for the first time in more than last two-and-a-half decades has left the victims and survivors of the disaster bitter. Thereafter, the blame game has started as to who triggered violence leading to injuries to several people including elderly women gas victims and police and district personnel along with a dozen vehicles being torched.
The survivors have blamed the police of unleashing brutality on them in the shape of cane-charging, lobbing of teargas shells and firing in the air to disperse them who were staging a peaceful “Rail Roko” (Train Blockade) on December 3 last. The “Rail Roko” was organized as scheduled last under the banner of five NGOs working for their welfare at six spots in the city from Nishatpura to Berkhedi in deference to their long pending demands of adequate compensation, rehabilitation and proper medical facilities to all the victims’ kin and survivors of the tragedy. In this respect they have been pestering the Madhya Pradesh State Government and the Union Government to submit the correct figures of the dead and the injured in the curative petition pending in the Supreme Court of India. The government snubbed even the findings of the Indian Council of Medical Research, (ICMR), and followed the guidelines of the Union Carbide, the killer pesticide plant from where poisonous gas spewed out, in calculating the death and injuries figures.
The survivors are aghast at the government stance. According to NGOs working for the cause of gas victims, 22,917 people had died till the year 2009; 5,08,437 people became permanently disabled and 33,781 others sustained severe injuries. However, Government records show only 5,295 deaths, 4,902 with permanent disability, 35,455 with temporary disability and 527,894 with minor injuries.
Condemning the violence, the group of five NGOs said that it was precipitated by police action on “peaceful” protestors, announced at a joint Press conference that they will organise a detailed enquiry presided over by a retired judge of the High Court or Supreme Court. The enquiry is expected to help survivors in their attempts to gather evidence and initiate formal proceedings against those responsible for the violence, including the police.
However, the survivors’ groups were on the back-foot as they apologised to the media persons who were hurt, and said they will work towards ensuring that those responsible for the violence against media persons are identified and punished.
At the Press conference the media persons, especially those belonging to electronic media and photojournalists who became victims of mob violence, were up in arms of being put on the mat when they were targeted while covering the “Rail Roko” stir. They complained that their vehicles were burnt down, cameras & OB van damaged apart from being inflicted bodily harms on them when hell broke down after police started dragging elderly women and resorted to cane-charge, tear-gassing and air-firing to clear the rail tracks to resume train traffic on the New Delhi-Chennai and New Delhi-Mumbai route. This infuriated peaceful protesting tens of thousands of gas victims, especially the youth, who vent their ire by indulging in heavy stone-pelting and arson. The police apart from baton charge also retaliated with pelting of stones on the crowd in tit-for-tat fashion which is authenticated by photographs taken during the violence. In the melee that ensued several people including police and district officials were injured. About a dozen vehicles were torched.
Denying that the “Rail Roko” agitation was a “seditious activity” the organizations asked the government what administration was doing when they had informed it about blocking of train traffic more than a month ago. Secondly, they also said: “ Had we been violent we would have created the same scene at all the six places where we blocked the train traffic”.
Replying to a volley of questions Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, (BGIA), said: “We conducted the training so that the agitation remains peaceful and even administration knew about it”.
Calling the Madhya Pradesh Government’s actions vindictive, the organisations laid the blame squarely on the police for the violence that ensued on December 3. “The first act of the police was to snatch away our PA system through which we could have stopped protestors from responding to police brutalities through violence,” said Ms Rasheeda Bee, President, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh. Ms Rasheeda Bee said that she is an eye witness to the police instigating violence and creating a situation for criminal elements to join in.
Ms Rasheeda Bee introduced several women among the over 50 gas victims who were beaten with sticks and left bleeding while protesting peacefully. Even after peace was restored and the agitation called off, a large gang of policemen entered individual homes and shops in Umrao Dulha Bagh area and beat up people, damaged furniture, doors, windows and vehicles.
The representatives of five organizations viz. Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Group for Information & Action and Children Against Dow Carbide, who gave the call for “Rail Roko” agitation, jointly addressed the Press conference.
Meanwhile, a 15-year old boy Daoud has been seriously injured in hospital and may lose his hand after it was badly mangled by a rubber bullet fired by police. It happened at Berkhedi, one of six places where the survivors lay down on the tracks to stop trains. The attack on the women drove the younger boys and men to a fury and they began throwing stones at the police, who responded by throwing stones back at them. The police then fired rubber bullets directly into the mass of survivors on the tracks. This is when Daoud’s hand was injured.
Attack on elderly women and men
Among the survivors in this place were several older women, among the Goldman Prize co-winner and co-founder of the Chingari Trust, Ms Rasheeda Bee (55). Police attacked her with cudgels and fists. Her brother in law, coming to her aid, had his leg broken in three places.
Among the other older ladies attacked by police with cudgels were Ms Hazra Bee, a grandmother whose grandchildren suffer serious birth defects, Meena Khatoon with bandages on forehead and nose and swollen face, and Bano Bee (60), whose hand is badly bruised and swollen. In 2006 in Delhi, Ms Bano Bee was knocked unconscious by a police kick to her ribs. In hospital she was threatened being cut open. The 18-year-old Ms Rafat was dragged along the stony ground till her skin was scraped off. Ms Nafisa was also beaten. Like Ms Rasheeda Bee and Ms Bano Bee, Ms Nafisa has twice walked the 500 miles to Delhi to register protest with the Central Government.
Until the police attacked the women the action had been peaceful. Pictures and footage from Berkhedi clearly show the police attacking with cudgels first, after which the situation grew increasingly violent. The protests passed off peacefully at the other five locations.
The organisations appealed to all citizens who had recorded the violence on December 3rd on their cameras and mobiles to send them the evidence for successful prosecution of police officials.
The Chief Minister has gone back on his assurance to initiate an independent and impartial investigation in to the incident of violence. Survivors and their children, including those who were not even present at the scene, are being charged with trumped up offences. Balkrishna Namdeo, President of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogi Sangharsh Morcha, has been charged with murderous assault and other serious offences without any evidence.
“If the police can present one single photograph, video or any other evidence to substantiate their charges against Namdeo, we will ourselves walk him to the jail,” said Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, (BGIA). The organizations called for immediate withdrawal of false charges on innocent gas victims and their children.
They said that the 14 men who are currently in police custody include those who were arrested while returning home from their workplace and were not present when violence broke out. “The men were stripped to their underpants, and beaten inside the police station where they were detained for well over 40 hours. These young men were not allowed to speak to their parents or lawyer and every right of an accused was violated,” said Ms Rachna Dhingra also from BGIA.
Meanwhile, the organizations opposed the Chief Minister’s recent demand for inclusion of 20 wards of New Bhopal in the gas-affected area. They said the demand did not have any scientific basis and would weaken the gas victim’s case for compensation fr0om Dow Chemical.
It may be recalled here that 40 tones of methyl isocyanate, (MIC – a highly volatile toxic chemical), gas spewed from the pesticide plant – owned by Union Carbide India Limited, (UCIL), a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), USA – in the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984. The gas leak killed 3,000 people instantly and more than 25,000 over the years and inflicting grievous injuries on countless others. Many were deformed for life and many children born with the toxic effect are sick and with congenital malformations. It also affected 100,000 people that night and estimates are that more than 500,000 continue to suffer till date.