BHOPAL, JULY 27, 2006
Sunil Kumar died in his apartment in Bhopal on the evening of July 26, 2006. He was thirty-four years old.
Sunil was a survivor of the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster, which took the lives of two of his brothers, three of his sisters, and both his parents in one night. Sunil was thirteen years old. In an interview in 1985, Sunil, who later founded the group Children Against Carbide, said that “The people must know who was responsible for the gas disaster- who killed their loved ones. And those who are found responsible must be hanged. What is the use of all the money if those who have killed so many go scot-free?” While those responsible for the disaster have still not faced trial, Sunil, troubled by mental health problems in his later life, was the one who finally hung himself. He was found hanging from the ceiling fan, wearing a t-shirt that said “No More Bhopals.”
Born in Bhopal in about 1972, the son of a carpenter, he was living with his family in JP Nagar, Bhopal, across from the Union Carbide pesticide factory when the gas leak occurred. Sunil was left to care for his one and a half year old brother Sanjay and his nine year old sister Mamta. The siblings survived mostly on the generosity of neighbors, both Hindu and Muslim. He managed to study until the 10th standard despite his responsibilities, and his home in JP Nagar became known as a safe haven for children whose parents beat them. Sunil, with his acute sense of irony and nose for the anti-hierarchical, would open the philosophical discussion: “Is it better to have parents that beat you, or to have no parents at all?”
Sunil gravitated immediately towards those who were organizing for the rights of gas victims, attending meetings, listening quietly and absorbing everything. In June 1985, it was Sunil who laid the foundation stone for the first People’s Clinic in Bhopal for treatment of the gas victims. In 1986 Sunil, a petitioner in the Bhopal civil suit, was sent by the Indian government to the USA to depose about the disaster before Judge John Keenan in New York. In 1987 he formed the group Children Against Carbide, which mobilized orphans and other young people affected by the disaster to fight for social justice. The group raised issues of compensation and health as well as demonstrating against the supply of bad food in daycare centers. He also became a long-term member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, and attended every single anniversary rally to commemorate the disaster – even when his illness became very severe.
Sunil toured the world in 1989 to garner support against the settlement made in the Bhopal case between the Indian Government and Union Carbide. He traveled to Ireland and Holland, toured the United Kingdom with Bianca Jagger, and was arrested in a Houston, TX, hotel for trying to deliver a environmental report to Union Carbide’s annual meeting. After hundreds of people called the Mayor of Houston, he was released and charges dropped. He also toured India, speaking out for those in need. Along with others orphaned by the gas, Sunil sat on hunger strike in Bhopal for six days in 2003, demanding the jobs that the government had offered years before.
Throughout his twenties Sunil earned money in small lending and retailing ventures. He was known for his generosity and affinity towards his friends and those in need. When the government finally granted him a house as part of a gas relief scheme, he gifted his home in JP Nagar, free of cost, to a homeless friend. Sunil had a exceptionally sharp mind and an uncanny memory to the end. He scanned each day’s newspaper for information about the Bhopal case, and could quote even the tiniest details many years later. He was a walking encyclopedia of information about the gas disaster. In recent years, he was also a volunteer at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic for survivors, working diligently and daily to fact-check medical folders and sometimes working in the medicinal garden. Although he had no source of income at that time, he refused to take money for his work.
In 1997, displaying his strong commitment to communal relations in the face of intimidation, Sunil refused to bow to extortion by a right-wing Hindu group that wanted him to fund the killing of a Muslim man from his gas compensation money. In turn, they threatened Sunil’s life, and his mental health took a turn for the worse. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; mental illness is common among those affected by the Bhopal gas disaster. Sunil began treatment at Sambhavna Clinic, and seemed to be improving. He also became a beloved member of the Sambhavna community, sometimes attending staff meetings and picnics. He was troubled by voices, and by constant fear and paranoia, and yet would still show courage to defend those he loved. When his activist friend had a bomb thrown at him whilst driving, Sunil insisted on riding on the back of his motorcycle for a month to keep lookout.
SUNIL, PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAGHU RAI
Sunil struggled and suffered terribly with his illness, but never lost his sense of humor. He was fully aware that the voices he heard were not real, but could not in the end control them. He made multiple suicide attempts and was finally successful. He left a note asserting that he was committing suicide because he was mentally unsound, but doing so with all his wits about him.
Sunil is survived by his younger brother Sanjay Verma, with whom he was living at the time, by his sister Mamta Verma, his brother-in-law Shiv Prakash Verma and their two children. He also leaves behind a large and loving community at Sambhavna, in Bhopal, and around the world. At his funeral, people of all religions, and leaders of organizations across Bhopal, came together to pay tribute to a remarkable man. Sunil struggled against the greatest of odds, and was an incredible example of strength, compassion, humor and intelligence in the face of unbelivable adversity. His death is an enormous loss and terrible tragedy. He will be sorely missed.