Reflections on Bhopal: “Neither Victims Nor Executioners”[1]


(Photos are not mine)

(I will be presenting a paper later this year on the Bhopal Gas Leak of 1984. Below is the abstract to my paper presentation. It was written in the fall of 2015. By the presentation’s date, I am sure further edits will have occurred).

What I want to live and die for, is equal rights for all, equal possibilities to learn and work for poor and rich alike! Don’t you believe that to have done even the smallest bit for this, is more than all science taken together?

—Franz Boas, The Passion of Franz Boas


This written-reflection examines what it means to lament through the lens of the Bhopal Gas Leak on December 3rd, 1984, by studying the subsequent water contamination and the present day living conditions of the survivors and their progeny. I am not interested in reproducing ‘knowledge’ about the Bhopal Gas Catastrophe. Instead, what I am interested in is a way of viewing recovery and palliative care—the personal opportunities available after one has lamented. There are many articles and books that have documented the victims of the Bhopal calamity. The focus of this written-reflection is to shine a light on what it means to move forward, to heal and recover after lamenting, and to re-envision a hopeful future.

One source of information about the aftermath of the disaster comes from Pawas Bisht’s 2013 doctoral dissertation.[2] In it he focuses on memory-making and the contested ways it shows up in the historic context of the Bhopal Gas Leak of 1984, tracing these conflictual memories to the present. Though our research interests are different, the information he found during his fieldwork is relative to my fieldwork that focuses on recovery. Our approaches are similar but our interests and subsequent outcomes are different. He is interested in memory and memory-making. I am interested in the process of lamenting—what it is and how it shows up in Bhopal today. Bisht’s approach on memory-making is not as important as palliative care, at this juncture. Lamenting generates medical and psychological support for the Bhopalis future survival. Bisht’s focus is on the past through varied re-constructions on what it means to make memory; my focus is on future healing during lamenting. According to his report, “The survivors on their part have struggled to make sense of the violent disruption of their personal lives and social relations, the embodied experience of continuing physical suffering, and the long-drawn out process of claiming recompense for their losses.”[3] Bisht makes a plea for an ethnographic study of the Bhopal Gas Leak and says that such an investigation is crucial in understanding and uncovering essential information that links the past to the present:

How have state institutions, social movement organizations and individual survivors remembered the calamity? What factors have impacted the meaning-making and identity work undertaken by these collective and individual actors? What has been the interrelationship between these different remembrances of event? What kind of historical change is observable in this relationship?[4]

According to Bisht, such a study will enable a different future for the Bhopalis:

How have state institutions, social movement organizations and individual survivors remembered the calamity? What factors have impacted the meaning-making and identity work undertaken by these collective and individual actors? What has been the interrelationship between these different remembrances of event? What kind of historical change is observable in this relationship?[5]

Bisht’s concern is that:

The vast majority of literature on Bhopal has been written from the perspective of calamity management (Mac Sheoin 2010). There is a limited set of critical studies which can broadly be divided into anthropological and oral history accounts. While these studies have provided insightful accounts of how the state, social movement organizations and survivors have dealt with the calamity, they fail to fully engage with the interrelations between them and reproduce some of the above mentioned tendencies in the field of memory studies. He concludes his dissertation with this quote: “To ‘remember Bhopal’ today means not just collecting and understanding information about the calamity and its aftermath, but also critiquing it, teaching it, and using it in creative ways.” (Memorial Factsheet, ICJB 2005).[6]

The most interesting part of the above quotation for me is: “To remember Bhopal today means…teaching it, and using it in creative ways.” This written-reflection is a plea for a new perspective on the calamity of 1984, and for this reason I am interested in questions about lamenting—what does it mean to lament? Is there a duration for ‘appropriate’ lamenting? How can we lament and palliate simultaneously? I ask these questions after seeing the impoverished living conditions of many Bhopal natives, who are currently existing under the weight of trauma and they have been carrying that weight for quite some time. There is a heavy sense of hopelessness and fatalism that is in the air and in the words and vocabulary that the survivors choose to use. But one can also sense a feeling of perseverance and the desire to survive. This is the space I hope to enter and illuminate—this hopeful space where palliative care can occur without forgetting the past. Their care should be palliative because many of the victims are dying from severe complications from acute exposure on December 3rd, 1984. In addition, many of their progeny bear the cancers that are killing the victims, as well as other forms of genetic mutation. Thus, palliative care for two or three generations is necessary.

Lamenting has a future-directed dimension. I would like to make it clear that lamenting is not limited to recalling the past but it is a response that can generate future aspirations. It is important to develop future aspirations in order to create spaces of healing for the survivors of Bhopal, this is the only way to connect the older and younger generations.

My initial interest in visiting Bhopal and the Sambhavna Trust Clinic changed upon my arrival. Due to a few unexpected interactions, things unfolded beyond my control. I was left to roll with the tides and make the best of what was handed to me—one can choose to eat or spit. I ate.  Keep this in mind; there are two Bhopals—old and new. There are also two markets: Old Market and New Market. The distinction is obvious from the prices of things and the Westernization of the items sold in one but not the other: obviously, New Market is highlighted by Western attire and higher prices. The Old Market is traditional and prices goods moderately.

Who gathers in these two different Markets? By default, due to their birth date, many Bhopal individuals of the younger generation are unable to fully comprehend and grasp the magnitude of the utter devastation and the historical context of the Gas Leak. Their desire is for Bhopal to be another Indian metropolitan city, which speaks to the innate nature of youth. For them, the New Market is like a magnet. But for the Bhopal elders and those severely affected by the calamity, the New Market is a camouflage that hides  those who are terminally ill; the elders and the afflicted want justice and want to be relieved of the pain and suffering they have endured.

My guiding question became: How can healing begin when there are open sores festering? This disconnect between generations is occurring and as a result, there is a gap in their memories and their future aspirations. My visit to a colony directly outside the walls of UCC made that apparent. I met with a few elders and a few youths, and the experience was an eye opener. Women and children seemed most vulnerable, so when I speak of “Bhopalis” as a category, I am mostly referring to the women and children, because historically, women and children suffer and are disenfranchised during trying times, for example, during wars, in refugee camps and detention centres, to list a few.

My reflection on Bhopal as a city, and the manner in which palliative care is facilitated thirty years after the initial event, is grounded in my stay at Sambhavna Trust Clinic as a volunteer and in two of my visits to Bhopal Memorial Hospital. This written-reflection is a work-in-progress and the point is to advocate for a new, future-directed perspective on the need for continued care for those affected by the Bhopal disaster. Two reasons for this new perspective are support and affection for the survivors (especially in light of the death of Warren Anderson) and the new scientific medical reports scheduled for release.

[1] Albert Camus, 1946, in a series of editorials

[2] Remembering Bhopal: Calamity and the Dynamics of Memory, Ph.D. dissertation, Loughborough University Institutional Repository.

[3] Ibid: 9

[4] Ibid: 10

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid: 169


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