Thursday, December 10, 2009

Crusader for Victims: The Truth of Bhopal Gas Tragedy and its Aftermath-Part III

Shams Ur Rehman Alavi

Middle-aged Laxmi Nirmala urgently required critical medical care and needed five injections, each of which costs Rs 25,000, but this wife of a mill worker had no means to arrange even Rs 5,000.

She turned to the only man whom victims of gas tragedy approach.

Abdul Jabbar, himself a gas victim, has all alone fought the nexus of corrupt bureaucrats, corporate brokers and the politicians who have over the last 25 years tried to silence the voice of the victims of the industrial disaster.

Jabbar doesn't have money. But commands enormous respect because of his lifelong struggle. Perhaps, it is his extreme determination to fight for justice, that makes the bureaucrats work--either because they know that at least this man can't be 'managed'.

Laxmi Nirmala got the injections and was saved. Raja Ram was unable to move and no hospital was admitting him but he intervened. Or take the case of young, 28-year-old Aqeel, who need dialysis every three days but was thrown out of BMHRC hospital that ought to provide it free of cost for life, Jabbar tries every method, even going up to Justice Ahmedi, who is chairman of the hospital trust, to get the man treated.

In a society where people seldom speak for others, he has worked like a maniac. Today he suffers from various illnesses, is diabetic and is barely able to read even headlines of newspapers. He however has the moral authority that when he calls up--either the police chief or the minister--they do listen.

After all, at the bottom of the heart they know that when it comes to honesty, this man has no parallel. Unlike NGOs and activists who hardly care for victims but organise protests like 'candle light vigils' which sell outside India a couple of times a year, Jabbar doesn't care about such gimmicks. His organisation has no website. He doesn't ask for donations either. Read senior journalist Hartosh Singh Bal's article:

Guest Article 'Bhopal: The Other Story'

During my first year in Bhopal as state correspondent for The Indian Express I was left bemused by the hostility and suspicion with which victims of the gas tragedy greeted the annual deluge of visitors from Delhi and abroad on the December 3 anniversary. By the time I left Bhopal I had come to share this attitude.

It is not as if the victims do not need help. Each day more than 6,000 still seek medical aid for a host of respiratory ailments at designated medical centres. For them the process is an exercise in daily humiliation and there is almost none to help them out. The Monitoring Committee for Medical Rehabilitation of Bhopal Gas Victims set up by the Supreme Court in 2004, a full 20 years after the tragedy, has been without a chairperson for the last year and a half.

Bhopal itself has two prominent organisations working for the victims. While both have moved the court in several cases to seek relief and justice, on the ground they operate in very different fashions. The Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, led by Abdul Jabbar, focuses on helping the victims in their daily quest for medical help. The other, the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, led by Satinath Sarangi, focuses on efforts to inform the outside world of what is unfolding in Bhopal.

Abdul Jabbar is a man who speaks little or no English, his organisation has very little presence on the Web, yet for the victims, he is the only one who can help out with their daily struggle. Satinath Sarangi is fluent in English, hosts a website that provides detailed information on every aspect of the tragedy and is the link between Bhopal and the outside world. His work in Bhopal is limited to an ayurvedic dispensary.

When I first reached Bhopal, I thought the two were an ideal foil for each other. But as is now common knowledge among activists, the two detest each other. Over the years this has resulted in the erasure of Jabbar’s role outside Bhopal simply because foreign correspondents, representatives of international NGOs as well as reporters from the English language Indian media reach Bhopal requiring pre-digested information. In the day or two they spend in the city they want their hands held by someone fluent in English who can mediate between them and the victims. Satinath fits this role perfectly, Jabbar doesn’t.

In 2004, reporting on the twentieth anniversary for Tehelka, I wrote of my fear that the outside world would mistake Satinath’s message for the reality of Jabbar’s Bhopal. As if in confirmation a few years later, Indra Sinha published his book Animal’s People that places a character clearly based on Satinath at the centre of the victims’ struggle in a city based on Bhopal. A part of the proceeds from the sale of the book go to Satinath’s organisation.

When I alluded to this problem in an earlier column, Indra Sinha weighed in with claims about the autonomy of fiction. But where events such as the Bhopal tragedy or the Gujarat riots are concerned, fiction loses its autonomy. No writer can claim he has the right to mould such material to his will.

However reasonable the intention, a half-truth in this setting is an abomination with unfortunate consequences. The victims themselves can hardly raise money to support the organisations working in Bhopal, funds flow in from outside and they do not flow equitably.

Thanks to patrons such as Greenpeace and Indra Sinha, Satinath is flush with funds, Jabbar has none. The money from the outside world goes mainly towards providing more information on Bhopal to the outside world while the man whose help the victims most need is left bereft.

No doubt I will hear from many indignant activists, but don’t be fooled. The people who Jabbar helps have little or no access to the English media or the internet, they won’t be writing in. If you want the truth, don’t pay attention to those who parachute in for a day or two or those who claim to understand Bhopal from London, don’t even take my word for any of this.

Go to Bhopal armed with a knowledge of Hindi and see for yourself. Allow yourself a month or two in the city to see how the victims who cannot obtain the medicine they need are helped by a story on the front page of the New York Times or a book on the Booker shortlist. Perhaps, you will also come to know why they remain sceptical of the hordes from outside who will descend to feast on another anniversary.

[Courtesy: The Open Magazine]

Also, read this article published a few years back:

For outsiders unfamiliar with the city, much of the focus of the work around the victims of the gas tragedy has been the efforts of international agencies and those working in collaboration with them. But for anyone who has actually lived in Bhopal, seen the smallest detail of painstaking relief and rehabilitation work being done there, the fact remains that the most effective work in the city is homegrown.

Without doubt, it centers around the remarkable figure of Abdul Jabbar, who on his own has done more work of lasting value here than several such bodies as Greenpeace put together.

It is a question often raised when such facts are brought up. But it is important to emphasise this over and over again. In this bid to put a united front on the work done in Bhopal, the contribution of Abdul Jabbar has been systematically overlooked or undervalued.

Jabbar is a Punjabi who was one-year -old when his father moved to Bhopal in 1958. In 1984, he had a successful tubewell boring business in the city when the gas tragedy took place. His family was among those affected, and he continues to suffer the after-effects.

Unable to devote himself to the business as he moved into the role of an activist, his business shut down. Ever since, he has been indefatigable. Through the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS), an organisation he set up in 1985, he has been involved with every important legal initiative taken up for the victims — from the compensation of victims to underwater contamination through the wastes lying at the Union Carbide site.

But to anyone who has attended the weekly BGPMUS meeting at the Yaadgar-e-Shahjahani Park in Bhopal, far more unforgettable has been his contribution in helping out individuals who have no one else to turn to.

Throughout old Bhopal tales of widows who have no-where to go, victims who cannot transport themselves to the ‘gas hospitals’, the elderly who cannot manage to fight their case for compensation in the courts are common. And there is only one person they can turn to — Abdul Jabbar.

His obduracy, his willingness to take on anyone head on for such individual cases, has meant that the bureaucracy in the state, the unfeeling medical staff at the hospitals and the corrupt clerks who take their share of the compensation meant for the victims — they all know they should not take him on. It has meant that his name has become a byword for anyone seeking help in the city.

That his contribution is not better known stems from a simple fact: his inability to cater to the requirements of the outside world. For a man always busy in the hectic course of each day, he has not been able to build up a record of documentation that journalists and activists outside the city expect to be handed to them when they waft in for a day or two.

Neither does he have the fluency in English that seems a crucial requirement for most persons to be heard in Delhi or New York.

And lastly, in the eyes of outsiders, he stands accused of the cardinal sin of self-respect. He does not kowtow to anyone and has always been far too involved in his own pursuit of justice to go out of his way to accommodate the ignorance of outsiders.

The price he has had to pay for this is heavy. He does not mind that international recognition has come the way of others who are far less deserving. But it has meant that the most important relief effort in the city, the only one that can really provide succour, has been underfunded, if funded at all.

For friends, it has been a common experience to chip in when Jabbar finds that the BGPMUS phone has been disconnected for non-payment of bills. For two decades his organisation has survived month to month, but it also speaks for his determination that of the nearly 50-odd workshops provided to ngos by the government after the tragedy only one continues to function and generate enough funds for itself. Again, no surprises: the workshop is run by the BGPMUS. The other workshops acquired in the name of ngos run by relatives and friends of those in power have long shut down.

Ask Jabbar and he will simply say, “I have never looked for funds. I am interested in the moral support that international organisations can provide, beyond that I have confined myself to my way of working.’’ It is a way of working that the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy can’t do without, but it is work that could benefit from money that comes to him from those who believe in the work he is doing. [Courtesy Tehelka weekly]


This post is a tribute to conscience-keeper like Abdul Jabbar, who devote themselves totally to a cause and live for others. There are several aspects of his personality. He hates self-projection. He also doesn't care about false and fat egos of journalists and has the moral strength to scold them without worrying that this might piss them off.

Ironically the man and his immense contribution has not been acknowledged in an era when marketing, self-glorification and publicity create public images and undeserving people get undue credit. Either it's pursuing ongoing cases in the courts whether about gas tragedy or regarding lack of treatment in hospitals, the voluminous petitions and revised petitions are filed with the meagre Rs 5 collected from the volunteers who come on their own at the weekly meetings of his Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan.

This was the third and the last post on Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Read the earlier posts 'Horrors of Bhopal Gas Tragedy 1984' and 'Injustice to victims, indifference towards survivors' on this blog.

[The murals on gas tragedy near the Union Carbide, the photos of which are seen in the post above, were made by Tiziana Stefanelli, Jennifer Spiegel, Yeshwant Sahu, Chunni Lal, Alizarin Menninga, Pragya, Corina, Nayan, Dede Minter, A Rehman, Madan Lal, Asif and Mausam]