Bhopal occupies the world: 27 years of campaigning for justice

By Swapna Kollu, ICJB Boston

December 3rd, 2011 marked 27 years since the night of the Bhopal Gas Disaster, which has since continued to escalate due to corporate negligence and government-bending by Union Carbide and its owner, Dow Chemicals.

2011 was also the year that Dow put another feather in its marketing cap by being an official sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics. However, due to the activists’ relentless zeal to expose Dow’s culture-washing, not to mention its toxic legacy in Bhopal and elsewhere around the world, many uncomfortable questions have been put forth to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). Among thousands opposing Dow's Sponorship are several prominent personalities, including members of the Indian and British parliaments, noted academic Noam Chomsky, and Olympians. A poll conducted by a London-based media outlet, The Guardian, showed that 91% of the general populace wanted Dow out of the Olympics. A Change.org petition asking LOCOG to drop Dow, initiated by Lorraine Close, has reached over 16,000 signatures.

Despite the depth and breadth of this fierce opposition, LOCOG refuses to drop Dow as a partner. The mounting pressure has, however, resulted in Dow dropping its logo from the stadium.

To commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster, events were held worldwide in solidarity with the survivors’ campaign.

View a slideshow of some of the events here.

Here are a few snippets:

  1. Bhopal, India: Unfortunately, the 27th anniversary observations at ground zero of the disaster were marked by incidences of police brutality against protesters who were holding a pre-announced train blockage, or "Rail Roko". They were demanding that the Central Indian Government publicly acknowledge accurate death figures, which its own agency had gathered, so that the Indian courts can mete out proper justice.

    Around 30,000 Bhopalis participated in the Rail Roko demonstration. On-the-ground videos demonstrate that police charged protesters, beating them with sticks. 60 people were reportedly injured in the violence, including a 17 year-old who was allegedly shot by the police. Police opened fire of real and rubber bullets on participants. The protestors retaliated by throwing stones, buring some motorcycles and media vans. A number of activists have been wrongly charged with attempt to murder, from elder women to youth. Although the Indian government continues to refuse to listen to the pleas of the Bhopalis and even resorts to trying to silence them, support for the Bhopalis continues to accumulate across the world.

  2. Boston, U.S.: Members of the Boston chapter for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) spoke about the disaster at Occupy Boston, drawing parallels between the struggle of the Bhopalis against Dow’s corporate power manipulating governments and the struggle of the 99% against unregulated corporate practices. They also screened the award-winning documentary “Bhopali” (2010), which describes the events leading to the disaster as well as its aftermath. Sanjay Verma, an activist and survivor from Bhopal, was present during both the events to discuss questions with people, urging people to continue to pressure the Olympic Committee to drop Dow as a partner.
  3. Amherst, U.S.: Volunteers in Amherst screened Bhopali. Sanjay Verma  engaged the audience in a passionate discussion trying to understand the issues through the eyes of a survivor. Most people in the audience signed the petition to drop Dow as the sponsor for 2012 Olympics in London.
  4. New York, U.S.: Members of ICJB and the Association for India’s Development (AID) screened the movie Bhopali, with Sanjay talking to the audience after the screening. Here, too, the response from attendees was warm and encouraging.
  5. Maine, U.S.: On December 3rd, 2011, a screening of the Bhopali documentary was organized at Colby College (in Maine) by the Colby chapter of Amnesty International, headed by Aquib Yacoob. Following the screening, attended by 15 students and a few faculty members, a question and answer session took place with Leonid Chindelevitch, an ICJB Advisory Board member. The Q&A session included a discussion of the roles of American and Indian governments, as well as the role of Michigan-based Dow Chemical, in the Bhopal disaster and its fall out. It also highlighted the power of individuals to make a difference in the struggle for corporate accountability globally, and the stuggle justice for Bhopal. At the end of the session, the attendees briefly Skyped with Sanjay Verma, a Bhopal survivor who lost 7 family members to the disaster and is a key figure in the documentary; he provided some recent updates from the ground. Sanjay concluded his message by asking everyone to spread the word about the Bhopal disaster.
  6. Maryland, U.S.: AID-College Park did outreach on Saturday, December 10th at the Student Union at the University of Maryland – College Park. Longtime AID elder Dr. Bhagat brought signs and photos from Bhopa. The group conducted outreach to students and families about the ongoing disaster, and advised people to: to avoid working for Dow; to let their friends know about the ongoing poisoning happening in Bhopal; and, the culture-washing truth story behind Dow's involvement in the 2012 Olympics.
  7. Austin, Texas, U.S.: Members of AID-Austin and ICJB staged a die-in to express their solidarity to the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster. They also requested people to sign the petition asking the Olympic committee to drop Dow Chemicals as a partner. In 2006, the Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly passed a resolution calling on the University of Texas at Austin to refuse to accept funds received from Dow, but President William Powers Jr. did not sign it. Voulnteers highlighted this issue as well bringing to light the role a University can have in empowering the gas disaster victims.
  8. San Francisco, U.S.: On December 3rd, residents from the Bay Area assembled at the Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy. They staged a die-in to symbolically reflect on the thousands of victims of this corporate crime. Readings of Bhopalis' first-hand accounts of that tragic night were conducted as passersby halted at various moments taking note of the unique die-in using the Olympic rings as wreaths for the dead. This time around, activists demanded that Dow Chemicals be eliminated as the primary sponsor of the London Olympics in 2012. The protestors also gathered almost a 100 signatures to a petition that demanded Dow's ouster from the Olympics.
  9. Philadelphia, U.S.: Occupy Philadelphia participants protested at the Dow Chemical building to highlight issues ranging from experiments on prison inmates to the Bhopal gas tragedy. Approximately 30 protesters arrived at the Dow Chemical building adjacent to Independence Mall to demonstrate and hold a silence vigil for victims and the survivors, who continue to be affected by the corporations negligence. Issues such as Dow's involvement in developing Agent Orange and Napalm (chemical warfare used in Vietnam), as well as more local grievances including the illegal testing of chemicals on unsuspecting prison inmates at Holmesburg Prison, a local penetentiary in the city, were denounced by the protesters.
  10. Toronto, Canada: On the evening of 2nd December, Torontonians gathered together at the welcoming Bloor Street United Church to watch the film Bhopali. Co-presented by the church’s Social Justice Committee and Amnesty International’s Business & Human Rights Group (Toronto), the film produced some terrific discussion, led by Ellen Shifrin (ICJB Advisory Board) and Reena Shadaan, both of whom have volunteered in and for Bhopal for several years. The audience was eclectic, with people from various areas of concern, including Indigenous Rights, Palestinian issues, chemical health issues, and spiritual concerns. Three people who attended are currently in Bhopal, doing a two-week project using the arts as a basis for community work.  The group also held a moment of silence, in honor of the survivors.

    The following afternoon, on December 3rd, Occupy Toronto hosted a rally and march – Occupy the Climate. Because it was 3 December, the anniversary of the disaster, Ellen spoke; she outlined the disaster, and then read out the letter of support from the survivors’ organizations.  And while the focus was obviously on the climate, the speech was well received, and later several people personally thanked Ellen for bringing this to the event.

  11. Ediburgh, Scotland: Scottish Friends of Bhopal held a memorial and tribute to those who have died and those who remain to fight on in the legacy and aftermath of the disaster, a memorial plaque for the victims of Bhopal. The plaque was unveiled in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh as part of a momentous occasion on the day of remembrance. The event began at The Quaker Meeting House, Victoria Terrace in Edinburgh before setting off on the short distance to Greyfriars Kirk. John Pinto, an attendee of the memorial, called it it “a moving and well-organised memorial at the historic cemetery of Greyfriars Kirk entrance.”

View a slideshow of some of the events on or around the anniversary.

Let’s hope that the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements of 2011 will galvanize the Bhopalis’ campaign in 2012 and bring Dow Chemicals and the Indian Government to clean up Bhopal.

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