Twenty-six years after the terrible tragedy, the verdict in the Bhopal gas disaster finally came. The judgment seemed a mockery of justice, as the culprits got away with only meagre sentences.
In an exclusive interview with Biplob Ghosal of Zeenews.com, ace photographer and Padmashree awardee, Raghu Rai recalled the scenes of the world’s worst industrial disaster. He not only described them as being similar to an aftermath of a chemical warfare; he also blamed the government for letting off the main culprit, former chairman of Union Carbide Warren Anderson.
Biplob: We have some very startling pictures snapped by you. How difficult was it for you to emotionally capture the painful images of Bhopal gas leak?
Raghu Rai: The difficulty was not emotional, because if you get emotional and sentimental, then you cannot do your work cleanly and clearly. Emotions have to be frozen. You have to look at the situation with a cool eye and a warm heart so that you capture the tragedy the way it is unfolding itself. Emotions and sentiments are something that a professional cannot indulge in and in fact should not indulge in. If you have to deliver something meaningful and powerful, it is only possible when you are alert and sensitive.
Biplob: What was your initial reaction on seeing the affected people of the Bhopal gas leak?
Raghu Rai: It was something that one had never seen or visualised before. Oh my God!, aisa bhi hota hai!,(this also happens!) - so many dead animals on the road, bloated bodies, many sick people being brought to the hospital, dead bodies lying in the hospital. It was death all over. Now when we look back, we can imagine that if ever a chemical warfare happens, the situation would be similar.
Biplob: Describe, for our readers, your feelings when you clicked that famous photograph of the child buried neck-deep; the picture that has now become a symbol of the Bhopal gas tragedy?
Raghu Rai: Children are the most tender parts of our lives and evoke more concerns and emotions in people. So this was one of those situations where such an innocent face with his eyes wide open and looking almost alive, almost dead was being buried. What can one make out of it? So, it was a sad kind of experience, as when we look at it we ask, oh my God, is he alive or dead because his eyes are open? And that became an iconic image of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Biplob: Did you ever think it would become an iconic image?
Raghu Rai: No, you just work with sincerity for a purpose and a cause.
Biplob: You have witnessed the pain and chaos that had engulfed Bhopal at the time of the disaster. What do you have to say on the court’s verdict?
Raghu Rai: The verdict is a joke. If we term it as the world’s worst industrial disaster, and a nation or our law takes 25 long years to give the judgment, then the people involved must be corrupt, sick and useless. People say justice delayed is justice denied, but I would say justice delayed is justice and evidence both destroyed. Do you think they can get back the details, what happened exactly on that day, how he (Anderson) ran away or whatever happened?
They delayed it so that the damn thing dies its own death. But they didn’t realise that even after 25 years, it will become such a big issue. The government thought that the incident will die its own death. So, this is total dishonesty and corruption and everybody in between has made money.
Biplob: Whom do you blame for this - the government or the judiciary?
Raghu Rai: I can’t say about judiciary, but the CBI was doing the investigation. CBI is a tamed bull and it acts when it is told to act. If they have deliberately not collected the evidence or destroyed it; and only minimal evidence is given to court, then what can the judiciary do about it? Thus, I can’t really pin-point.
Biplob: What’s your reaction to the steps taken by the government for the affected people?
Raghu Rai: Nothing, they are lethargic… a corrupt nation where human life means nothing to anybody.
Biplob: You recently visited Bhopal. What’s the present situation there? Has it improved or worsened further?
Raghu Rai: Things have improved marginally. There are ‘pucca’ roads and clean colonies next to the plant, but the plant and the tanks have been rotting there and the water has got contaminated. If there were no NGOs, no media, everybody would have been busy making money and building their own empires. We are a nation of corrupt people. In fact, we are not a nation. If you look back, it has taken 25 years to deliver the judgment. It’s a nation with no dignity and self respect. If you first allow Anderson to run away and then expect Americans or Europeans to treat us as equals, how can they do it? You don’t deserve to be treated as equals. You are worse than those birds dying in the BP oil spill.
Biplob: How do you view Anderson’s exit? Do you agree with the theory doing the rounds that releasing him and allowing him to leave India was in the national interest?
Raghu Rai: I don’t give a damn if one American gets killed. Because of them 7-8 thousand people were killed in the first week itself, 25000 people died in all. What are we talking about? They are all slaves, that’s why they talk like this. Is this the answer one should give? ‘Ye ghulam nation aise bolte hai’ (it just reflects a thinking enslaved in the colonial mindset).
You should then not hang Afzal Guru, send Kasab back to his home. Because there will be a reaction, Muslims will kill you. We are a nation of cowards.
Biplob: How does one cope with such situations?
Raghu Rai: Unless people have self-awakening, awareness and join hands, nobody can make a difference because the entire system is corrupt and wicked and it cannot deliver justice anymore. What about all those politicians who have made billions out of corruption. Has anyone of them ever been hanged? Whether they are from the BJP or Congress or from any other party, they all support each other.
You do your level best and feel helpless at the end of it all. What can we do? You have to be strong, committed and do the things the way they need to be done. That’s all.