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Voices from Bhopal: Review of Survivors’ Movement Study

Review of Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study (2009) Bhopal survivors speak: emergent voices from a people’s movement. Edinburgh: Word Power Books. 216p. illus.

Social movements are complex and messy, riven with tactical and strategic disagreements and divisions, often consumed with internal politics, point-scoring and personality clashes at the cost of joint –or sometimes any- action. Anyone who’s joined even a sedate committee knows the truth of this. On the left, this sectarianism seems endemic, with groups more suspicious of each other than their supposed joint enemies, state and capital. Over time these disagreements can harden to the extent that leaders of the same movement can grow to detest each other.

The situation with the movement in Bhopal, India, to obtain justice for those victimized by the toxic gas leak from US TNC Union Carbide’s pesticide factory –whose death toll is over 20,000 and rising- which is now in its 26th year, is no different. The BGPMUS (Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan) has little time for the BGIA (Bhopal Group for Information and Action) and the BGPMSKS (Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmarchari Sangh), and sees itself, GPNPBSM (Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha) and BGPSSS (Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti) as the only organizations working for the good of the gas victims. Meanwhile the BGIA criticises all the other organisations as lacking in democracy, while continuing to work with them. It’s an open secret that BGPMUS’s leader, Jabbar, has little time –to put it politely- for the BGIA’s Sarangi.

In these circumstances, no small congratulations are due to the Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study, and in particular to its two young members Dharmash Shah and Tarunima Sen, who obviously did most of the work, for being able to navigate the treacherous currents of the Bhopal movement and gain the confidence of the warring groups: as Dharmesh notes (p.20) ‘In our situation the team’s close association with the Sambhavna Trust, an organisation often associated with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, made this process more challenging’. Not only did they gain the confidence of all sides to this internal dispute, but they have returned with this book which allows 21 activists in Bhopal to share their experiences and lessons from the Bhopal struggle. Three activists present written essays, while the rest of the book consists of interviews, including a group interview with members of the youth group Children Against Dow Carbide. Twelve women and nine men speak, partly reflecting the fact that, in the Bhopal movement, while the vast majority of activists are women, most of the leaders are male. (Those wanting to hear only the voices of women are advised to look for Suroopa Mukherjee’s book, Surviving Bhopal –dancing bodies, written texts and oral testimonials of women in the wake of an industrial disaster, available from Palgrave Macmillan at the usual outrageous monograph price, in this case £52 or $80 for 224 pages. Request it from your public library).

This, then, is the real deal, distilled from 50 hours of interviews. Anyone interested in a description of a grassroots struggle by the grassroots would be hard put to find a better source. Here’s Rehana Begum, ex-member of the BGPMUS:

“When the women in the sewing centres first got organised, our union was called Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Congress-I [Bhopal Gass Affected Women Workers Congress I [Indira]]. We had no idea about the concept of a union or about the concept of a state or what the Chief Minister was. We chose the name Congress-I because the symbol of the Congress party [the palm] was very prominent and we were familiar with the symbol. It was appealing, so we picked that name and sign. There were no political affiliations…The name was changed from Congress to Sangathan only in 1988 as a result of Jabbar’s insistence –we were not that bothered what it was called!” (p 93).

Here’s either Razia or Ruksana Bee (the interview is an ‘amalgam’ of their responses):

“We got the idea of doing a padyatra [march] to Delhi from a big chairman from some political party. We can’t remember his name but he came from Delhi and suggested the padyatra. So we talked to all the women, and they agreed to go for the padyatra. I thought that if I joined it I might get a good, permanent job. Also Rasheeda Bee, our leader, would put pressure on us. She said if we did not join the padyatra and did not do what she said, then we would not be able to come and work here any more. So out of fear we did it.” (p.182)

Here’s Nawab Khan on the power of the women of Bhopal:

“One might have thought that family pressure on the women who participate would have held the movement back from taking on bold or dangerous actions but when women took the lead they shook companies and governments. During the Jhadoo Maro Dow Ko (hit Dow with brooms [campaign]) women attacked the Dow office in Bombay and they also demonstrated at the high security Bombay International Airport. Nobody had attempted that but women from Bhopal have done it.” (p.195).

Here’s Hajra Bee on the Indian government’s plans to incinerate toxic waste from Bhopal:

“If the government cleans up, where will it dump the poison? Pritampura near Indore, so another Bhopal, they are also our brothers and sisters…The government was talking about incinerating it in Gujarat, they are our brothers and sisters too, so why should we do that? We already have one Bhopal that is destroyed and we make Gujarat into another Bhopal? Or we make Pritampur into another Bhopal? This policy of the government is wrong.” (p. 145).

I could fill pages just quoting from the book but won’t. Get your hands on a copy and read it for yourself.

Of course, nothing’s perfect. The introduction by the editors (48 pages of a 216 page book) isn’t as good as it could be: something basic like a timeline or chronology (rather than talk about a timeline) giving the history of the movement would be very useful to those who aren’t conversant with the details of the movement’s long history, though in their defence they state ‘even such a seemingly straightforward idea as a chronology of events is contested’ (p.27): of course, just because something is contested doesn’t mean you don’t do it. I suspect in their effort to be neutral and fair to everyone in the movement, the editors have forgotten their obligations to those outside the movement who will actually buy the book. An index would also be a very useful tool. The placing of page numbers is irritating and I’m not convinced the text needed such wide margins. Understandably the book isn’t as good on the early period of the struggle as on more recent events, though there’s some fascinating material from a rank and file activist, Om Wati Bai (pp.174-175) and from Satinath Sarangi of the BGIA (pp.117-118) and Sadhna Karnik Pradhan of BGPSSS (p.157). We could have done with a few more rank and file interviews also to balance the interviews with the leaders. The other major limitation of the book is that only those resident in Bhopal are included: this limitation means that Sarangi is the only ‘outside’ activist interviewed, as presumably having lived in Bhopal for the 25 years since the disaster he’s no longer counted as a ‘blow in’. It’s a pity some attempt wasn’t made to interview some of the non-Bhopalis whose support was essential to the struggle: an interview with Deena of The Other Media, Delhi or Jayaprakash of the Delhi Science Forum or Nity Jayaraman of the Chennai support group would have been extremely useful, not only in terms of giving a view from outside Bhopal, but also in putting Bhopal in the context of people’s struggles in India over the period. Perhaps in the next edition?


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