In the dimly lit corridors of history, US diplomatic giant Henry Kissinger’s death yesterday has cast a long shadow. Kissinger, a maestro of realpolitik, navigated the treacherous currents of international relations with Machiavellian finesse, leaving behind a trail of covert operations and clandestine dealings.
In one such dealing, Kissinger, after the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy that caused deaths and impacted generations, played a controversial role in shielding the American chemical company Union Carbide from legal accountability and worked his cunning to leave the victims still running to courts for adequate compensation.
On the intervening night of December 2 and 3 in 1984, a toxic methyl isocyanate gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, claimed the lives of over 3,000 people and affected over 1 lakh others.
In the immediate aftermath of the gas leak, chaos and devastation descended upon the Madhya Pradesh capital. Thousands of residents, their eyes stinging and their lungs gasping for breath, abandoned their homes. Hospitals, were overwhelmed by a surge of patients battling respiratory ailments, skin burns, and blindness.
The death count continued to climb in the days after the tragedy. The precise number of fatalities remains a contentious issue, with estimates ranging from 15,000 to a staggering 25,000.
Among those arrested was Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide. However, Anderson was released on bail of $2,000, upon a promise to return. The Indian government then filed a claim for $3.3 billion in damages against Union Carbide in a US court.
Kissinger’s Union Carbide Connect
Kissinger’s consulting firm Kissinger Associates took on Union Carbide as a client following the disaster and lobbied on their behalf for years after.
A letter penned by Indian industrialist JRD Tata to then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1988 exposes Kissinger’s deep-seated concerns regarding the protracted compensation negotiations for the victims of the disaster. Kissinger thought Union Carbide was ready to extend a “fair and generous settlement” that “would effectively counter any attack or criticism” as it surpassed the sums proposed by Indian courts, Mr Tata noted.
“Dr Henry Kissinger, who is a leading member of the Committee and a good friend of mine, is, as you may know, consultant and adviser to many governments and large corporations, including Union Carbide in America. He told me of their and his own concern at the long delay in reaching agreement on the amount of the compensation to be paid to the victims of the Bhopal disaster,” Mr Tata’s letter read.
In February 1989, after 24 days of intense legal deliberations, the Supreme Court ordered Union Carbide to pay a final settlement of $470 million.
“Public opinion, he (Kissinger) thought, would strongly support such a settlement as it would not only give the victims a very generous compensation, for which they had waited for so long but would also give it to them now instead of after a long, further delay in litigation,” Mr Tata added.
The US government’s protection of American corporate interests, particularly Union Carbide and its current parent organisation Dow Chemicals in this case, has impeded justice for the Bhopal disaster victims by shielding these corporations from accountability.
The $470 million settlement was widely condemned as woefully insufficient in addressing the immense scale of the tragedy and its enduring impact on the affected communities. The settlement’s most glaring flaw was dropping all charges against Union Carbide and its managers, although this was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1991.
However, Anderson never really found himself in an Indian court of law and died aged 92 in the picturesque Florida town of Vero Beach in 2014.
JRD Tata’s letter is particularly important in the context that it exposes the complicity of the US government and Kissinger in the Bhopal disaster in offering a pittance as compared to what the victims and the generation that followed them deserved.