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Warren Anderson Fiasco:
Making Narasimha Rao Scapegoat?
|by Rajinder Puri|
Without approving it one can at least understand the nauseating exhibition of sycophancy displayed by Congress politicians who tried to explain the safe passage to America granted to Warren Anderson after he was arrested. They wanted to protect the reputation of Rajiv Gandhi. But why should senior bureaucrats tie themselves in knots while recounting the events of 1984? They were only carrying out orders. Or has the odious doctrine of “committed bureaucracy” bequeathed by Indira Gandhi got ingrained so deeply in them that they continue to live by it years after retirement? Had the ministers and officials concerned spoken candidly at the outset they would have saved themselves unnecessary embarrassment.
Piecing together the garbled disjointed information eked out in bits and pieces this is what seems to have happened. After the Bhopal gas disaster the Union Carbide head Warren Anderson wanted to visit the site to assess damage and prospects of controlling it. But he wanted guarantee of safe passage back home. He conveyed this to appropriate US authorities. President Reagan telephoned Rajiv Gandhi and explained the situation. Possibly he pointed out that it would be better for all concerned if Anderson personally inspected the site than not visit India. Obviously, Rajiv Gandhi concurred. The guarantee of safe passage was given.
Due to lack of communication Arjun Singh was unaware of this commitment. He arrested Anderson. On learning this Rajiv must have apprised him of what had occurred. Thereupon Anderson was released and flown to Delhi in a state aircraft. From there he returned safe to the US as had been promised to him. This was almost immediately after the tragedy when the culpability of Anderson may not have been even properly assessed. Does this sound so terrible?
Now recall how this simple truth was handled by Congress politicians. They spoke half-truths, committed self-contradictions, and appeared like a bunch of liars before the whole nation. Next consider how the conclusive truth came out. Former US diplomat Gordon Streeb, who was the deputy chief of mission of the US embassy in New Delhi when the Bhopal gas tragedy occurred, gave an interview to news agency IANS. Streeb after retirement joined the Carter Center and was close to former President Jimmy Carter.
Streeb said Union Carbide contacted the embassy wanting its chairman Anderson to fly to India to inspect the damage and show "concern for the victims" at the "highest level of the company". Streeb said that Anderson came to India only after getting a "safe passage" guarantee from the Indian government. In an e-mail sent to the agency Streeb wrote: "The issue was whether he would be guaranteed access to the site and eventual safe return to the US . This was a reasonable precaution since legal systems differ so widely around the world."
With Ambassador Harry Barnes out of India, Streeb was dealing with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). According to Streeb MEA indicated that “it would be a very welcome gesture if Anderson could come to India and that the government of India could assure him that no steps would be taken against him during his visit". Streeb said that his chief interlocutor was Foreign Secretary MK Rasgotra. When IANS contacted Rasgotra it was told that he was not available. In a second attempt Rasgotra came on the line. He reportedly said: "I have nothing to say." Told that Streeb described him as the interlocutor Rasgotra reportedly said "That is bloody nonsense!"
On second thoughts Rasgotra appeared reconciled to speak the truth. In an interview to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN Rasgotra acknowledged the substance of all that Streeb had said. What was the need for him to deny the truth in the first place? Even to CNN-IBN Rasgotra tried to give a spin to the events that made him look even more ridiculous. He admitted that Reagan must have phoned Rajiv Gandhi. He admitted that Rajiv Gandhi approved of the decision to release Anderson. He admitted that the decision in his view was sound. But because Rajiv, who was also Foreign Minister, was not available to Rasgotra due to electioneering, the actual nod to release Anderson was obtained from Home Minister Narasimha Rao.
From this Rasgotra tried to conclude that it was Rao’s decision to release Anderson and Rajiv merely concurred. Does Rasgotra seriously believe that Rao as Home Minister was not in the loop regarding events including Reagan’s phone call to Rajiv? How does he know that Rao was not in touch with Rajiv even during his electioneering? Rasgotra is of course exceedingly smart. He knows all this and more. Then why did he make such a lame effort to shield Rajiv and blame Rao for the ultimate responsibility of Anderson ’s release? Or does he imply that Rajiv as PM was such a dummy that he did whatever Rao told him? Draw your own conclusions.
Focusing on Anderson ’s flight obscures the criminal omissions subsequently. Instead of addressing the serious systemic failure exposed by the Bhopal tragedy the mindless twits of the establishment are busy shifting blame from one dead leader to another. Making Arjun Singh the fall guy didn’t work. So let’s nail Narasimha Rao! This charade is worse than pathetic. It is tragic.
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