Dispatches from the Supreme Court – Day 2

Blog from Shalini Sharma, Phd Candidate at SOAS who is currently on fieldwork in India studying the media experience and strategies of Bhopal Movement.

19-04-2011, DAY 2

Having reached the Supreme Court in time and securing a place in the public gallery I finally got some time to take in the general ambience of the Court. I learnt that the building is shaped to project the images of scales of justice. With three wings- East, west and the Centre- the Supreme Court building stands tall with a 27.6 metre high dome. Centre is where the Chief Justice’s Court is, it is the largest of the Courts and this is where the Bhopal Criminal Curative Petition is currently being heard before a Constitutional bench.

Everyone stands as the judges enter the Court. Before taking their seats Judges bow to the people in the Court who bow in return. No one sits before the judges do so. The bench opens the hearing by asking the attorney general G.E. Vahanvati to continue his argument from the first day.

He argues on the maintainability of the curative petition against the 1996 order of Supreme Court given by Chief Justice A.M. Ahmadi and S.B. Majumdar. Reasserting the point he made during the first hearing, he pointed out that because the charges were diluted by the 1996 order the Indian subsidiary and officials of Union Carbide were convicted under milder sentences (304 A of IPC) than they should have and that the crime was actually deliberate negligence leading to death (304 Part II of IPC).

The attorney general read out the order given by Supreme Court in the case of Hurra vs Hurra on 10 April 2002. Through this judgement Supreme Court evolved the concept of Curative Petition. He said that this order allowed review petitions that would cure “irremediable injustice” in the “rarest of rare case” where the principal of “natural justice” had been violated and the conflict of interest of judges who passed the order had not been revealed. He also said that the powers of the Court are not limited by Hurra vs Hurra and it can invoke its inherent powers to do complete justice.

The attorney general argued for expansion of scope of curative petitions and said that given the large number of deaths and injuries in Bhopal it was a rarest of rare case and the victims have been denied justice because of the September 1996 order. He then presented other orders of Supreme Court where petitions similar to the nature of curative petitions had been filed and judgements have been passed on them. He also stated that the accused were very much aware that conditions of disaster existed. He referred to the report given by Dr. Vardharajan Committee who identified following five factors as leading to the disaster:
1 high reactivity of MIC,
2 too large storage tanks,
3. choice of substandard materials of construction,
4 inadequate system of monitoring and control and
5 lack of proper instruments.

Justice Aftab Alam asked what exactly makes the Bhopal case different to be considered as ‘rarest of rare’ cases. To this Mr. Vahanvati replied that over 5000 people have lost their lives and this was because of cumulative acts of commission and omission i.e things done and those left undone. He questioned that when the company knew that MIC was so toxic why didn’t it ensure safety. He said it is these decisions of the Company and its officials that made the disaster inevitable.

He also pointed that the 1996 order did not pass the test of criminal jurisprudence because the punishment, of two years that was finally pronounced on the accused, did not fit the crime.

Chief Justice Kapadia asked attorney general: Are you saying that the court set aside the order of 13 Sep 1996 and the charge of 304 Part II against the accused is restored. To this the attorney general said that all they are asking the Court is to remove the obstacle of 13 September 1996 which restricts the conviction to a lesser charge and let law take its course. He also said that the judgment of September 1996 was inconsistent and it left no option to the Chief Judicial Magistrate but to restrict himself to sentencing under the charge of death by negligence.

Mr Vivek Tankha appeared on behalf of Madhya Pradesh government. He said that the state government has had very little role to play. It seemed that the Court asked Mr. Tankha to limit his argument to legal issues as it was not going to pronounce anything on the merits of the case. Mr. Tankha argued that the work of criminal investigation was handled by the CBI. He also said that according to the state government at least 15000 people have died and not 5000. The permission of production of MIC that began on 5-Feb-1980 was given by Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers which is a central ministry. He said that several hundred thousand people have been permanently injured because of defects on all counts- design, structural and operational defects in the factory. He said that there were gas leaks even before 1984 and the disaster of December 84 was not a surprise for the management. Much before the 1984 leak, a worker Mohammed Ashraf Khan died succumbing to phosgene leak on 24-Dec-1981, he said. One of the Judges then asked the Counsel of MP State to restrict the case to only the most important facts and not indulge into every detail especially the ones that have already been put before the Court. Mr. Tanka responded by saying that judicious conscious- one of the highest test that Supreme Court seeks to apply to itself in order to do complete justice- gets affected by certain facts which in turn impacts the life of thousands. Not only evidences on record show that the Carbide officials had knowledge regarding the highly toxic nature of MIC and appropriate safety measures but also the fact that they chose not to apply this knowledge to ensure proper running of the plant. This in fact created a situation where the catastrophe was inevitable.

At this point the attorney for the accused, Mr Harish Salve, pointed out that the government nominees to the board of UCIL were never charged. Mr Tankha further stated that the 1996 order converted the disaster into an accident as if it came like a surprise to the management while the fact is that the management had prior knowledge of the likelihood of the disaster.

Mr. Tankha mentioned that the government of Madhya Pradesh had filed a revision petition before the session court in Bhopal for enhancement of charges from 304 A to 304 Part II and a appeal is pending in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh for enhancement of sentences. He said that in the event the court decides that a retrial, under graver charges, was necessary the government of MP will set up a special court with a special judge that will conduct the case on day to day basis and a decision could be reached without delay in a certain specified time period. To ensure this the State will fully cooperate with the CBI.

The lawyer for BGPSS and BGPMUS, Sanjay Parikh began arguments on the locus standi of the organizations in order to explain their right to intervene as petitioners along with the CBI and Union of India. He pointed out that the review petition against September 1996 order was not filed by the CBI but by the BGPSS, BGIA & BGPMUS. Just then lunch break was announced. It was abrupt but nevertheless a happy development.

The canteen at Supreme Court offers quite subsidized food which made me remember the food in the canteen of the Indian Parliament that Rachna and I would often have in July last year while Bhopalis were camping at Jantar Mantar opposing the 7th June verdict and two of us will make rounds of the Parliament to meet the MPs. An year later, we are in the Supreme Court comparing cost of a thali (plate full of meal) with that of one we had in the Parliament.

Some things appear almost predetermined for Bhopalis and among them the main one is that it is almost always in peak summers when Delhi is facing scorching heat that they are required to camp in close to one of the power corridors of the Capital to seek justice. This time is no different. I feel the hope, despair, struggle and determination visible on the faces of all the Bhopal activists present in the Court with an equally strange sense of trepidation. The others present in the Court, people like me, who have come to attend the hearing to either know more about the case or to witness a courtroom proceeding; to see how arguments are made in the court are often seen struggling to keep pace with the language of the law in order to understand the situation. It is in these shared moments of struggle that solidarity emerges. By now I know couple of journalists who are there to report on the case, young lawyers who come to the Court where nuances of CrPC are being debated in fine details, and the Law students for whom it is a glimpse into their future professional lives. We share notes in case any of us missed anything. We also share smiles and disappointment at the arguments made by different parties.

I said lunch came through as an abrupt development because so far the Court had only heard the petitioner and the interjections made by the defendant side. At that moment it seemed too much of a coincidence that lunch break came through just when a lawyer representing the victims stood up to make his case. Anyways, Mr Parikh picked up from where he had left and pointed out that the storage of MIC in large quantities was one of the main causes of the disaster and that all the accused had complete knowledge of this fact. He talked about the slack safety conditions and that it was made even more unsafe by shutting down the refrigeration unit. He asked for conviction of the accused under Section 304 Part II i.e culpable homicide and also called for day to day trials at a special court to add certainty to the delivery of justice within a given time period. He said that all fresh evidence required for the retrial can be presented by CBI and trial can be completed in six months.

The senior advocate Mr. U.U. Lalit who is representing five organisations- Bhopal Group for Information & Action (BGIA), Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh (BGPMSKS), Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangarsh Morcha (BGPNPSM), Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Pursh Sangharsh Morcha (BGPMPSM), Children Against Dow-Carbide (CADC) came next. He stated that applicant BGIA was also part of the review petition filed against the order dated Sep 1996 and has been assisting the prosecution for last 17 years. It is therefore essential that the case by them is also heard.

Mr. Lalit said that the order of 1996 made it an inevitable consequence that all accused were convicted under a lesser charge. He said that in the case of the accused corporation and officials had knowledge of imminently dangerous nature of the plant and the probability of causing death. Accordingly they needed to be held guilty of murder. He read out Section 300 of IPC that maintains that culpable homicide is murder when the person committing the act knows that it is so imminently dangerous that it must, in all probability, cause death or such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, and commits such act without any excuse for incurring the risk of causing death or such injury as aforesaid. He argued that It is in the interest of justice that the 1996 order should be set aside and the lower courts should be asked to apply their minds and decide whether the charges should be 304 Part II or 302 (murder). He also pointed out to the Court that while the 1996 order diluted the charge, to 304 Part A, the evidence brought before the CJM pointed towards graver offence. He also said that in the trial court judgment of 7th June 2010, the CJM expresses his anguish at the restriction imposed by 1996 order which charged the accused under Section 304 A. The Bhopal CJM felt his hands were tied. Justice Kapadia asked Advocate Lalit if there was the remedy that could be offered within the jurisdiction of the curative. He responded that it will take him a day to research and get back to the constitutional bench.

Most of us were surprised when Mr. Lalit made his argument. It was quite a different turn of events. While so far the debate was restricted to whether it should be Culpable homicide or deliberate negligence, this came through first as a shock only to settle down as a refreshing twist to the affair. Union of India had made a case for culpable homicide not amounting to murder by establishing knowledge. Lawyer of the accused defended by saying that his client had neither knowledge nor the power to act on the knowledge as it was a plant whose reins were controlled by American Multinational. In contrast to them, Mr. Lalit argued for charges of murder by indicating possibility of both knowledge and intention.

Now it was the turn of the defendant parties to argue their case. Mr. Salve, the senior advocate for Respondent 1, Keshub Mahindra, said that the curative petition must not be entertained in response to either public outcry or media outrage. He said that there are very stringent standards for curative petitions and there has to be evidence of “irremediable injustice” as a result of the September 1996 judgment. He said in the case of the accused UCIL and its officials the sentence under 304 A could have been altered by the Chief Judicial Magistrate by invoking Section 216 (altering of charges) of CrPc. He pointed out that the order of 1996 was legally not binding on the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal who convicted the officials and the company (7th June 2010) under Section 304. The CJM could have committed the case to the Sessions Court if he found the evidence to point towards graver sentence. Thus, the injustice if any could have been corrected. However it was already 4pm- time for the Court to break- so Mr. Salve stopped. He will continue his arguments tomorrow.

Outside the Court, sun was setting down and I saw Bhopalis engrossed in discussion with their lawyers. I too gathered my bags and books and started walking down the stairs. Through these same stairs I will be back tomorrow to the Chief Court when the sun will rise again.

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One thought on “Dispatches from the Supreme Court – Day 2”

  1. Under Section 323, if it appears to the Magistrate, in any inquiry into an offence or a trial before him, at any stage of the proceedings before signing judgment, that the case is one which ought to be tried by the Court of Session, then the Magistrate has to commit the case to the Sessions court. Under Section 216, a court may alter, add to or amend the charge at any time before the judgment is pronounced. What the Supreme Court seems to be saying is that the 1996 judgment is restricted to framing of charges, and if during the course of trial any fresh material on record indicated the possibility of a more serious charge, the 1996 judgment cannot be understood as protecting the accused even then. The proper remedy was not before the Supreme Court by way of a curative petition, but before the appellate or revisional court. Issues of corporate criminal liability were not specifically addressed by the Constitution Bench, but these issues – including attribution of knowledge/intention to companies, liability of officers etc. – are now likely to arise in the appellate proceedings.

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