New Delhi: As anger builds across the country over what's being seen as the betrayal of Bhopal, the Congress party, which was in power in both Madhya Pradesh and at the centre in 1984, has been thrust into troubleshooting a diaspora of controversies.
For one, the Congress' senior-most General Secretary, Digvijaya Singh, told NDTV that while he was not in Bhopal when the gas leak from the Union Carbide Plant poisoned the city, he believes that "US pressure" could have been a factor in how the government tackled the disaster. A damning suggestion, to which the Congress' reaction was measured. "It's not about personal views and opinions; now, accountability must be fixed," said party spokesperson Janardhan Dwivedi. (Read: Is Digvijaya Singh targeting his own party? | Digvijaya defends Rajiv, says Arjun Singh should answer)
On Monday, a court in Bhopal sentenced eight executives of Union Carbide India to two years in prison for criminal negligence. One of those men is dead; the others were granted bail immediately. That featherweight sentence was loaded with the absence of Warren Anderson - the American who headed Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in 1984 and has never been brought to trial. Bureaucrats and pilots have shared details of how they were instructed, by Arjun Singh's office, to whisk Anderson out of Bhopal after he had been accused of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Why that transpired is becoming a tough question for the Congress.
Activists involved with the fight for justice for the victims of the Bhopal tragedy are also demanding an explanation for why Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a spokesperson for the Congress, is representing Dow Chemicals in court.
In 1997, the US-based Dow Chemical Company bought Union Carbide and its Indian investments. Since then, Dow has resolutely held that UCC paid its dues in a 470 million dollar settlement accepted by the Indian government in 1989 (India had originally filed a claim for 3 billion dollars in a US court). This has been challenged in court by activists.
There is a serious conflict of interest, charge NGOs. On one hand, the government has asked a group of ten ministers to investigate Monday's verdict and other aspects of the Bhopal gas tragedy. On the other, its spokesperson, Singhvi, is handling a crucial case for Dow, a company linked with the disaster. (Watch: There's no conflict of interest: Singhvi | Read: All questions on Anderson must be answered, says Congress)
Singhvi told NDTV, "I have no idea of this charge (conflict of interest), as you call it...it is laughable. This is an old case...it involves only the threshold legal question - whether Dow is same as, or even remotely related to - Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). For 3-4 years, these NGOs have been trying to prove Dow and UCIL are the same. Courts have not accepted this...the application is still pending."
Singhvi added, "I represent Dow Chemicals as a Senior Counsel, I don't deal with them directly with them."
When asked if he is rethinking his decision with Dow, he said, "My conscience is clear but I will leave this to my own professional judgement."
He also refuted media reports that he accepted the Dow case at the request of members of the government.
In 2004, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) asked that the abandoned UCC plant at Bhopal be purged of the tons of toxic waste still lying there. It also asked that all those affected by the gas leak be identified and compensated, and that surviving victims be given long-term health care.
In response, a year later, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, headed then by Ram Vilas Paswan, asked Dow to deposit Rs 100 crore for the massive clean-up required while the full extent of the damage was being assessed.
Dow has contested this, and the matter has yet to be decided.