By Tania Bhattacharya
In 1984 India experienced her Chernobyl moment, with the Bhopal Gas Disaster. The tragedy unexpectedly unfolded between the night of the second of December and the early morning of the third of December. Toxic Methyl Isocyanate fumes leaked out from the plant of the Union Carbide company, an American conglomerate, that was operating from the city of Bhopal in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It is estimated that four thousand people lost their lives when asleep, while more than six hundred thousand individuals were maimed for posterity.
Union Carbide’s Chief Executive Officer Warren Anderson, was duly arraigned, and was scheduled to stand trial in India over the gargantuan mishap. It is no secret, that the ethics or the lack thereof, of Capitalism, enables it to function with considerable ease in the developing world, where industrial laws are lax. The gaping loopholes in the legal system that prevent safety measures in favour of workers from being enforced, are the very ones that lubricate the well-oiled machinery of Capitalist greed and misdoings.
In 2012, at the Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a fire broke out, engulfing and killing more than hundred of the underpaid staff toiling away at their sowing machines insides. More than fifteen hundred workers, mostly women from lower middle-class backgrounds but skilled in the art they were paid for, were cramped into a nine-storey building complex which had next to no equipment for containing a devastating fire, or other accidents of the like. Six years later, the survivors and the next of kin of those dead, are yet to be paid adequate compensation by the multinational behemoths that had employed them. The names would stun most of us; J.C. Penney, Walmart, Benetton, and others. Among the traits that Bengal has been well known for down the ages, is its booming textiles and handicrafts industry, something that every conqueror during the past centuries, has tried to exploit for profit. Bengal’s muslin is the world’s oldest cotton fabric and is indigenous to the region. Garments made by the underpaid factory workers in hell holes like Tazreen, are sold all over the globe including India, where we buy and wear their products, with scant concern for the makers’ welfare. In the same vein, the suffering of Bhopal was mostly ignored by a public desensitized through their familiarity with tragedy, that is splashed over news spreads every other day. Human Rights organizations were the only ones to take up cudgels for the cause of the victims’ rights in this case.
Anderson and the Nehru-Gandhis are not related. There was nothing thus, keeping the former from facing a trial in Indian courts for the deliberate lapses he had helped introduce which were at the root of the Bhopal tragedy. However, much to the amazement of the Indian public, Anderson never had to stand trial in this country. He was whisked away to his native United States, where he spent the rest of his life, unfettered by any guilt. Never did he have to pay a single penny for what he had unleashed on the inhabitants of Bhopal that fateful night in 1984.
The story of how an ace criminal operating in the developing nation of India, got away with murder, has vexed two generations of Indians, especially those who have been under the impression, that the Indian courts had let Anderson get away scot free. This was hardly the case, as we shall see.
A young, and well-connected man by the name of Adil Shahryar, had been sentenced to thirty-five years of incarceration in the early 1980s, by a United States jury, for trying to set fire to his own Florida based company, with the intention of committing insurance fraud. Indians are not familiar with the name and some background information on him is forthcoming. Adil Shahryar was the son of Mohammad Yunus, an INC (Indian National Congress) party member from its earliest days, who was a confidante of India’s first family, the Nehru-Gandhis. Yunus was inducted into the IAS (Indian Administrative Services) directly, by his close friend and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Hailing from the NWFP (North Western Frontier Province), today KPK or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, Yunus was born and raised in undivided India. Being a follower of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, fondly known as Bacha Khan and Frontier Gandhi, who had opposed the division of the Indian subcontinent along the lines of religious sectarianism, the two had stood against the formation of Pakistan. After the inevitable happened in 1947, Mohammad Yunus had relocated to India. He was an alumni of the prestigious AMU; Aligarh Muslim University, one of modern India’s celebrated institutions of higher learning.
When the Congress Party assumed the reins of administration post-independence, Yunus had been made privy to the classified documents maintained inside the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) at Teen Murti Bhavan in Delhi. Nehru’s personal communication, and the past dealings of a colonial India, were lying hidden inside carefully maintained folders, stowed away from the eyes of the Indian public, at the PMO. Nehru had entrusted his aide Yunus the responsibility of safeguarding the files and never letting them out of his sight. It can be assumed therefore, that the caretaker was meant to guard the secrets inside those files, as well, in case he had had the curiosity to peruse them. It seems Yunus served his master well, for he lied several times in front of various panels set up for investigating the unsolved disappearance of India’s greatest anti-colonial armed revolutionary, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, a name that evokes the kind of passion in Indian minds as that of Shaheed Bhagat Singh.
When the Khosla commission was looking into the matter in the 1970s, Yunus was summoned for extricating the required documents that had been hitherto classified by the state. He told members of the commission that what they were looking for had been either misplaced, or destroyed by a fire. It is difficult to ascertain the veracity of such a claim given the loyalty of Yunus to Nehru. Even after the demise of our first Prime Minister, Yunus had faithfully retained the documents the former had entrusted him with.
It is not difficult to gauge then, that Mohammad Yunus, a Nehru-Gandhi lackey, was in possession of knowledge about the fate of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose; the mystery surrounding his departure from India and subsequent disappearance in East Asia, and who may have been instrumental in keeping Bose away from his motherland. It can be tentatively assumed that documents so assiduously well-guarded, may have also disclosed the name of the person, who had conspired in the possible assassination and demise of Bose. Yunus in other words, was a crucible of information on the most sought answers to the biggest mystery of post-colonial India; the fate of Netaji.
When the Union Carbide induced tragedy struck Bhopal on that cold December night in 1984, Yunus’ only child, Adil Shahryar had just received his thirty five year sentence and was living out his days in a United States gaol. The father saw a golden opportunity in the tragedy that had unfolded, and which involved the trial of a high profile American businessman, Warren Anderson.
Nehru’s grandson the late Rajiv Gandhi has found his name being enmeshed in a fair number of scandals that had gripped his government. There was Bofors, followed by the Shah Bano case, and most famously, the order he gave for unlocking the gates of the disputed Babri Masjid complex, with a clever eye at wooing his Hindu votebank, completely unaware of the far-reaching consequences of what he had done. Among the three, to Indian minds, the Bofors deal, tainted with kickbacks, nepotism, and perjury, rests as the one that proved to be his undoing. However, the unknown machinations of Rajiv, in tandem with those of his family friend Mohammad Yunus, pertaining to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, is far worse than any of his other ‘misdemeanours’.
It seems the clever Yunus, had approached the Rajiv Gandhi administration, and had requested his old friend, in negotiating the release of his wayward and criminal offspring, Adil Shahryar, a childhood buddy of Rajiv’s dead brother Sanjay Gandhi, from his incarceration in the United States. Given the nature of Shahryar’s crimes, which included charges of felony, it was next to impossible to simply pull a few strings and get him released. Rajiv had communicated this to a heartbroken Mohammad Yunus. It was then that Mohammad Yunus, gatekeeper of Nehru’s personal secrets, had played his master card.
Yunus threatened Rajiv Gandhi, that if he did not secure the release of Adil Shahryar, Yunus would hold a press conference and blow the lid off the whole damned thing. The ‘damned thing’ in this case, being the direct involvement of India’s first Prime Minister, Mahatma Gandhi’s chosen heir, Rajiv Gandhi’s esteemed grandfather, and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s bitter rival – Jawaharlal Nehru – in the disappearance and demise of the beloved Netaji.
Rajiv’s hands were tied by this utterance. He must have seen his political career and a possible one for his two children, being torn to shreds, at the point of Yunus’ insinuations and future press conference over Nehru’s criminality in the Bose issue. It was the last straw. Rajiv had caved. The entire reputation of India’s first family had been at stake. He could do nothing, but comply with Yunus’ demands.
And so we reach the present state of things. It was the eve of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to the United States, to have a one-on-one with Ronald Reagan, when Adil Shahryar, after a life of crime, walked out from his US prison after being granted a presidential pardon from Reagan. The case was closed. A father welcomed his son back home. And the cloak of secrecy surrounding the disappearance of one of India’s greatest sons, remained in place.
But what is the price that India had to pay to secure Shahryar’s release? Well, the price was Warren Anderson. As Adil made his way to India, Anderson retraced his steps back to his home country, as designated by the exchange deal that Rajiv and his American counterpart Reagan, had initiated. Anderson romped free for his remaining life, safe in the knowledge, that he would not have to contribute a single penny for indemnity towards his many Indian victims. Nor would he have to mark time in an Indian prison for life.
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Adil Shahryar and his father Mohammad Yunus, are long gone. The son died from depression and living in excesses. The father passed away in 2001, after an incident of being rebuked by Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s Italian wife, and a co-conspirator in the Bofors scandal, an incident that had heavily compromised the efficiency of our Armed Forces.
Those who invoke history, will be heard by history, goes a famous axiom. Lovers of justice can only hope, that this is not the last of the Bhopal Tragedy Case, that we have had to confront.
Tania is a freelance writer with a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies who has a wide range of interests.