Democratic polity in India has been again exposed when the details of Bhopal gas tragedy have come out. There was a nexus between the judiciary, the executive and the bureaucracy. All the three joined hands to let chairman Warren Anderson of Union Carbide, the company which owned the gas plant, escape from India. They also scaled down the compensation that the company had offered and delayed the court judgment by 26 years.
This was like the emergency, a decade earlier, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi battered the polity on June 25, 1975, denying even the fundamental right. It was the same story: the judiciary, the executive and the bureaucracy falling in line to justify an authoritarian rule. Scant attention was paid to the democratic constitution. In fact, the organs of the state were part of the tyranny perpetrated.
On both occasions, the ruling Congress was in power at the centre and in Madhya Pradesh where the gas plant was located. And on both occasions the Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi, became law unto themselves and inflicted deep wounds on the democratic structure which is still recovering from the staggering blows it received.
Rajiv Gandhi is said to have told state chief minister Arjun Singh to let off Anderson, which what a top Congress functionary characterized as “US pressure.” Rajiv Gandhi consulted the cabinet subsequently, if he at all did. Mrs. Gandhi too imposed the emergency on her own, consulting the cabinet only subsequently. By the time she did she had already detained without trial thousands of people. She went even further: she gagged the press. The media has done more than its duty on Bhopal. But for its campaign, the Congress party headed by Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi’s wife, would not have been as defensive as today.
Both happenings show that the army does not have to walk in to make the judiciary, the executive and the bureaucracy to toe line. The Prime Ministers who can concentrate power in themselves can flout all the norms and rules which necessitate accountability.
Mrs. Gandhi had the Supreme Court uphold by 5 to 1 her authoritarian rule in the emergency like Pakistan Chief Justice Munir who justified the takeover by General Ayub through “the doctrine of necessity.” Such instances indicate that the judges are as much dictated by “other considerations” as civil servants. They are just afraid to stand up to the government’s aggrandizement. Chief Justice A.H. Ahmadi diluted the section under which the perpetrators of Bhopal gas tragedy were booked, from section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, which laid out a punishment of 10 years, to section 304-A, where the maximum sentence given was two years.
As far as the bureaucracy, including officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is concerned, it has become too hapless and too obliging, ready to ‘serve’ any party which comes to power. Over the years, it has got over the qualms of conscience, if it had any, and high ideals of service without fear or favour. Mrs. Gandhi issued illegal orders and it was obeyed without demur by all civil servants. This is the reason why Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan, who led the movement for morality in politics, asked the bureaucracy, police and the army not to obey illegal orders.
It was comical to find the same deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police, who put Anderson under arrest on arrival for the gas tragedy, escorted him to the airport to fly out in the state plane. The chief minister’s orders had made all the difference. None of the two stood up to the oath they had taken to uphold the constitution and the country’s integrity.
I have seen similar things happening in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The ruler counts, not the rules. The ethical considerations inherent in public servants have become generally dim and in many cases beyond their mental grasp. Anxiety to survive at any cost forms the keynote of approach to the problems that come before them. The fear generated by the mere threat and without its actual use is so pervasive that the general run of public servants in the entire subcontinent acts as willing tools of tyranny.
Accountability is the only way to ensure that those who violate the norms followed in a democratic system do not go scot-free. I have never seen an erring judge, a tainted minister or a delinquent civil servant getting punishment. They are chips of the same block, using all methods if and when they are arraigned even before any tribunal.
Mrs. Gandhi did not get any punishment for all the excesses and atrocities she committed during the two-year-long rule under the emergency (1975-77). Rajiv Gandhi was not even asked questions about Anderson’s escape. Now his secretary P.C. Alexander says that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi must have been informed. Why Alexander was silent for all these years? And it is not surprising that the old leaking US plant was installed at Bhopal during the emergency. All objections were rejected by Sanjay Gandhi.
In fact, the Congress has put all the blame on the then chief minister, also a Congressman. Even if the party is able to deflect the blame—as it did when it came to saving Mrs. Gandhi—there is something called the value system. True, political parties have substituted it with power. But then they must be prepared for the violent, desperate forces like that of the Maoists or the Taliban.
What hurts me is to see in Indian central cabinet some ministers, the people who were part of the emergency. Pranab Mukherjee, Kamal Nath and Ambika Soni, senior ministers of the Manmohan Singh cabinet, were among those who were instruments in the hands of Sanjay Gandhi, Mrs. Gandhi’s son, an unconstitutional authority during the dark days of the emergency.
Home Minister P.Chidambaram, appointed by the Prime Minister to preside over the Group of Ministers and look into the Bhopal gas tragedy was trying, as finance minister, to push through a decision that would absolve the Dow Chemicals, which had bought Union Carbide, of responsibility. By shouting down every critic, the ruling Congress underlines its arrogance of power. It must own the responsibility and offer apologies to the nation. At least, it can take immediate steps to rehabilitate thousands of victims still in the cold. The Congress must learn humiliation.
Yet, if the nation has to preserve the fundamental values of a democratic society, every person—whether a public functionary or a private citizen—must display a degree of vigilance and willingness to sacrifice. Without the awareness of what is right, there may be no realization of what is wrong.