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The Truth Is Forked

M.K. Rasgotra’s disclosure veers the focus onto Rao. Is this the last word on Bhopal?

The Truth Is Forked
AFP (From Outlook, June 28)
The Truth Is Forked
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Their Role

Arjun Singh, then MP CM
He ordered  Anderson’s arrest despite the safe passage guaranteed to him. The chief minister calculated that his arrest would give him an edge in the 1985 assembly elections.
 

Gordon Streeb, US diplomat
As the US charge d’affaires in India during the Bhopal tragedy, he liaised with the MEA for Anderson’s safe passage and his subsequent release.

 

M.K. Rasgotra, then foreign secy
He was the primary port of call for the US. As Streeb’s “interlocutor” in the MEA, he signalled India’s willingness to grant Anderson a safe passage and then worked to release him.

***

In the melee of confused speculation over the release of Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson in 1984, facts have come in a painfully slow trickle. Now comes another nugget of information, in a curiously timed disclosure by M.K. Rasgotra, the foreign secretary at that time. According to him, it was P.V. Narasimha Rao, then home minister, who had guaranteed a safe passage for Anderson, and had worked to release him after his arrest in Bhopal. This twist in the tale comes at a time when then Madhya Pradesh CM Arjun Singh’s meaningful silence was being interpreted all around as an implied signal towards the highest office in the land.

Rasgotra, now president of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF), had given another version when Outlook contacted him two days earlier. “I may have met Gordon Streeb (the US charge d’affaires in 1984), but then I met so many of them as the foreign secretary. I don’t have any specific recollection. It was almost 26 years ago.” He denied having met Anderson along with Streeb, as reported by The New York Times on December 9, 1984. “I have nothing more to say on this,” he added tersely.

But later in the week, in an interview to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN, he claimed it was Rao who had guaranteed the US a safe passage for Anderson. So when the Union Carbide chief was arrested, Rao had to stick to his word. “Releasing Anderson was in India’s interest,” he told the channel, adding that Rajiv Gandhi, when informed later of the release, approved of it. He also dropped the hint that then US president Ronald Reagan may have telephoned Rajiv.

Since Rasgotra initially denied recollecting any specifics of l’affaire Anderson, Outlook dug up old reports from several American newspapers, including from the archives of The New York Times, and mined former Washington Post correspondent Dan Kurzman’s book A Killing Wind: Inside Union Carbide and the Bhopal Catastrophe (1987). Rasgotra indeed emerges as the primary port of call for the Americans. Streeb too told Outlook that Rasgotra was his “principal interlocutor” in the external affairs ministry when the US sought Anderson’s safe passage and subsequent release.

Matching this with information from other sources, Outlook has put together the reasons for Anderson’s arrival and departure. Extremely worried about the adverse impact on his company’s profile, Anderson wanted to visit Bhopal and offer assistance but not without an explicit guarantee from New Delhi that he would not be harmed or arrested while in India. Streeb took up this request with the foreign ministry. Streeb told Outlook: “I was advised that it would be a very welcome gesture if Anderson could come to India and that the Indian government could assure him that no steps would be taken against him during his visit. Based on these assurances, we advised Mr Anderson to proceed to Bhopal.” That assurance was conveyed to the US by Rasgotra, who, according to Kurzman, thought such a trip could be “useful”.

But as Anderson was making his way across to India, there were ever more strident calls for his arrest in Bhopal. Arjun, who knew of Anderson’s arrival, thought arresting him—even if for a few hours—would allow him to calm frayed tempers and, importantly, score with voters ahead of the state assembly elections in 1985. What better proof could there be of his earnest intention than pinning down the head of a US multinational corporation? That the Centre had assured him a safe passage was a minor obstacle. He could always be released. Says Raajkumar Keswani, senior journalist who had predicted the disaster and then reported it: “Arjun Singh was playing to the gallery. It’s clear elections were on his mind.”

On his arrival on December 7, 1984, Anderson was confined to a luxurious guest house where he was, writes Kurzman, offered “curry” for lunch. That’s when Jim Becker, a Mumbai-based US diplomat travelling with Anderson, alerted Streeb. The situation was fraught with the possibility of an Indo-US diplomatic fracas, and alarm signals were sent out at once. According to Kurzman, Streeb called Rasgotra. The latter, pausing in disbelief, replied, “But that is impossible. No order was given for his arrest”. Rasgotra then rang senior officials close to the PM. They included, according to  Keswani, cabinet secretary C.R. Krishnaswamy Rao. (Rao was unreachable on the phone.) The message that the Americans were upset reached the powers that be; Rao ordered Anderson’s release. His point made, Arjun complied.

In Delhi, Anderson was still very keen to meet government officials to see what his firm could do in Bhopal. Streeb arranged for a meeting with a reluctant Rasgotra, who asked Anderson not to speak to any journalist. (Rasgotra told CNN-IBN that Anderson thanked him for ensuring his release.) He left for the US the following day (December 9, 1984). Anderson, in a  press release issued on December 10, from Danbury in Connecticut, mentions meeting Indian officials but does not name anybody. “I want to stress that we were treated with the utmost courtesy and consideration. The reason given for holding us in the guesthouse was concern about my security,” he added.

The casting of Narasimha Rao as complicit in the whole drama meshes in with some facts. Earlier this month, after the Bhopal verdict, B.R. Lall, who was a CBI officer in Bhopal in 1994-95—the years of the Rao regime—alleged the mea had written to him, asking him not press for Anderson’s extradition. But again, could Rao be just a convenient scapegoat? Rao’s son, former Congress MP P.V. Rajeshwar Rao, told Outlook, “It’s unfortunate they are blaming him. As home minister, he couldn’t have taken such an important decision all by himself. There must have been other senior leaders involved.” Rasgotra’s word, then, is unlikely to lay the ghosts of Bhopal to rest.


By Debarshi Dasgupta in New Delhi and Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington DC

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