Bhopal, Media and a “Training Manual”: Shalini Sharma

Guest post by SHALINI SHARMA

It hardly needs any corroboration that the Bhopal Movement led by survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster adheres to the principles of non- violence as dearly as they adhere to their demands of justice and accountability. However, on the 3rd of  December 2011, as thousands of Bhopal gas victims walked towards the city’s railway lines they had little idea that their act of civil disobedience, marking the 27th Anniversary of the disaster, would be sabotaged by the government and that they would be treated like a violent mob.

Anniversary actions are usually treated as rituals by the media. This occasion was different because even though chakka jaam (block the road) has been organised on several previous occasions, the call for blocking the trains or rail roko was an unusual decision. These survivor-led groups were asking the State government to provide the Supreme Court with the right data related to the number of deaths and actual extent of injuries due to the gas exposure.

The Context of the Protest: In the last 27 years, the Indian government failed to arrive at an agreement on the number of gas related deaths. In fact it presented different numbers for different purposes, particularly down-playing the figures before the court.  Last year, in the wake of public outrage following the 7th June High Court order, the Indian Government filed two curative petitions, which apply to the rarest of rare cases, in the Supreme Court of India. The first, Criminal Curative Petition, challenged the dilution of criminal charges against Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and its current owner Dow Chemicals.  The second, Civil Curative Petition, asked for reconsidering the civil charges against the company for additional compensation. In short, the first pressed for criminal liability against Union Carbide and the second for enhanced compensation.  For the first, State Government filed a figure of 15, 274 dead while for the civil curative government presented a figure of 5,295. This, even as Indian Council of Medical Research- government’s own agency- reports the figure to be 22,917 in its decadal study.

This number game isn’t new in fact it unfolded along with the ongoing tragedy. Let’s go back into the initial bone of contention i.e the 1989 Out of Court Settlement. The Rajiv Gandhi-led government settled on a Union Carbide proposal in 1989 which brought the compensation amount down to almost one-sixth of what was asked initially on the basis that the number of actual deaths were around 3,000. However when it came to distributing this compensation amount the figure became 15,274.

The mismatch in the figures related to different compensation categories is even more bizarre. In such circumstances, it is obvious that now when the Supreme Court is about to hear the curative petition on civil charges, the decision regarding the right amount of compensation cannot be made unless the government provides the basis for that compensation i.e the correct number of gas related deaths and the actual extent of injuries.  This is the context in which ‘rail roko’ action was called for.

The decision on the ‘rail roko’ protest by five organisations came after much deliberation from within the Bhopal survivors groups. Some opposed it because of the inconvenience that it would cause to ordinary people while others thought of it as an extreme option to be used when all alternatives were exhausted. Most of the other popular forms of appeals and protests had failed to evoke any action out of the government. In July they wrote letters and memorandums to both the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister. When they didn’t get a response they called for city wide ‘bandh’ in October. When that failed to move government they called for ‘Rail Roko’ and alerted the government and the public more than a month in advance.

Moreover they urged people to not travel via Bhopal on 3rd December. They carried this warning on their website, circulated email alerts, gave the information in their interviews to media, distributed pamphlets and placed posters in the community.

The Big Day

On 3rd Dec thousands of Bhopal victims squatted on the railway lines at six different locations in the city to stop the trains.  Soon the media was showing reports of the agitation turning violent at the Barkhedi railway line in Old Bhopal. At all other five locations the protest went off peacefully. The administration says that some anti-social elements in the protest started pelting stones, which forced them to lathi-charge. Activists claim that police lathi-charged women, which angered some male protesters who in turn pelted out stones at the cops.  Soon police under the BJP-led state government started arresting people stating that they had evidence of these men participating in the protest. Who turned violent first, or who instigated it and why remains contested.

While many other newspapers exercised caution, the national newspaper Indian Express went straight ahead to put the onus of the ‘violence’ during the protest onto the survivor-led movement.

The video: a training manual about violence or non violence?

Let us look at the Indian Express story dated 7th December 2011 titled, “Behind Violent Protests by gas victims, a video, a training manual” . The video in question is the Bhopal Rail Roko video. This is also available at the campaign website along with other related material.

The news story links “massive turn out” of people for the protest, not to the importance of the 27th Anniversary and their growing frustration with the government but, to “a training video and a seven-step instruction manual.”

The newspaper further claims that the poster used by the activists was designed “to lure the survivors to what turned out to be the most violent protest in the tragedy’s history”. How? According to the news report, the poster says:  “Walk Seven Steps to get the Right Compensation”.

What the poster in fact says is this: Bhopal gas victims will stop the rails to get right compensation from Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide. Take Seven Steps. Stop the trains on 3rd December. See how.

(Translated from the first slide of the instruction video: डाव केमिकल और युनियन कार्बाइड से गैस पीडितो के सही मुआवजा लेने के लिए भोपाल गैस पीड़ित रोकेगे रेल. सात कदम उठाए: ३ दिसंबर को रेल रोको; जानिए कैसे)

Further, the newspaper mention in its reports that the instructions included -“loosen your body when the police come to catch you”. This line has been deliberately manipulated to imply violent resistance while clearly it is an instruction for peaceful surrender. But, what can one expect from people when the police start lathi charge? Fortunately the picture in the given news story shows the cops with lathis even though neither the report nor this image shows any sign of tear gas, that activists claim, was unleashed on to the protesters.  If at all, this reveals the unforeseen situation that the movement faced. For 27 years it adhered to peaceful forms of action.  This is what it set out to do even now. When the frustration with the system is increasing, how one should reiterate the need for peaceful actions among the masses remains a crucial challenge for the movement.

The activists themselves did not anticipate that the protest would face such a violent situation. In accordance the instructions were also simply regarding peaceful arrests. Yet, not only does the newspaper attribute sinister motives to these instructions it also makes deliberate omissions. The context of the protest wasn’t mentioned in the entire story even once. The government’s failure to act in time on survivors’ just demands is also not pointed out. Similarly, the instructions that clearly emphasized the “peaceful” nature of the protest were conveniently ignored. For instance, no reference is made to the sixth and seventh steps that ask the protesters to chant slogans and court arrest peacefully if arrested by the cops.  What could be a more peaceful way of resistance than a peaceful surrender? If anything, this seems to be a manual in peaceful action.

It is important to note that the violence occurred only at one of the six protest locations. This undoubtedly would not have been the case if the manual was training people into violent actions. However, lathicharge decision by the administration only at one location appears to be strategic.

One of the easiest ways to tarnish the credibility of a movement and activists associated with it in India is to label it a ‘violent’ movement.  In the Bhopal case, a movement that has gone astray! With the first three paragraphs and a sensational headline the job was almost done. Now came the need for token objectivity. The routine practice: add a few voices from the other side. So the newspaper concludes the report by quoting a clarification from two of the Bhopal activists: to emphasis the point that the movement is on a back foot trying to defend itself, more than to be objective.

The news story came four days after the protest and positioned the said video as a sensational discovery – evidence of the activists’ conspiracy to instigate violence through a secret training manual.

Even a cursory search online is enough to contradict the claims made in the story.  Not only can one go and see the video for oneself, but one can also see when it was first made public simply by looking at the upload date. The action alert had been hosted on the campaign website since early November; the video had been available not only on the website but also on Youtube since Nov 25. I myself read the Indian Express story online and on contacting friends in Bhopal learnt that this video was also shown on the local TV channels days before the action.

So, what is the story?  The State government thrashed the survivors on the 27th anniversary of the disaster. This lathi-charge comes at a point when the government is being pressurized in a number of different contexts to act on the Bhopal issue.

–        In Bhopal, protesters were demanding the government to present correct data before Supreme Court that can ensure corporate liability and just compensation.

–        Simultaneously, another debate is inciting the Indian government in a very critical position internationally. The debate is on whether in the light of the Bhopal legacy the Indian government should boycott a Dow-sponsored Olympics.

Under these circumstances, the government first lathi-charged victims; and then started arresting people on charges of having participated in the protests, citing flimsy evidence. Finally in order to save face and tarnish the movement, they targeted activists associated with the movement, charging them with instigating violence.  Newspapers like Indian Express seem to toe the government line. Narmada Bachao Aandolan faced a similar campaign by the newspaper some years ago.  These cannot be dismissed as singular instances of bad journalism or a certain newspaper’s agenda.

If the documents and protest material weren’t made available on their website and other online forums by the Bhopal activists in sync with their offline actions, it would be difficult to understand the context, chronology and character of the event. This is a pointer even to the social movement actors to think critically and strategically about their online presence in current times when the government is trying to protect its self interest by calling for internet censorship in India. In reaction to this, Salil Tripathi wrote in the Wall Street Journal on December 9th, “While Mr. Sibal cloaks his censorship threat in terms of social harmony, political reputation may be more the point. In the first half of 2011, India made 358 requests to Google to remove content from the Internet, of which 255 dealt with criticism of the government. Significantly, India is now one of only four countries to ask to remove content critical of the government.”

With Kabil Sibal calling for internet censorship, this is how the government and mainstream media nexus will work to target peoples’ movements and activists.

(Shalini Sharma is currently pursuing PhD at SOAS, University of London.)

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