Bhopal gas tragedy activist Abdul Jabbar has been conferred with the Padma Shri award of 2020 posthumously. A survivor of the tragedy himself, Jabbar had fought for the victims for almost 35 years against all governments.
The names of the awardees were announced by the government on the eve of the country's 71st Republic Day.
Jabbar bhai, as he was fondly called, died on 14 November in Bhopal, barely hours before an air ambulance was ready to lift him from Bhopal to Mumbai and get him treated at the Asian Heart Institute. The tireless, penniless activist died due to cardiac arrest that saved him from seeking the only favour that was given to him by the state.
Chief Minister Kamal Nath, former chief minister Digvijaya Singh and state chief secretary SR Mohanty had acted swiftly to get all clearance for Jabbar’s treatment but destiny had willed otherwise. I had met Jabbar a few times, telling him the facilities the super-speciality hospital offers, but the activist seemed least interested.
An Honest and Primitive Activist
Jabbar was not a trained activist or a social worker from Tata School of Social Sciences or any other fancy place. He was not even highly educated. His involvement with gas survivors was sudden and moved by empathy: It turned out to be a life-long affair. Even as many NGOs working with gas survivors mushroomed, presenting data and polished press releases, Jabbar remained primitive, walking, or depending on free rides, mobilising crowd with the word of mouth, and seeking donations from gas survivors even if it meant getting just a rupee on some days. His own financial position went from bad to worse, from precarious to penury.
He remained rabidly opposed to big business houses even when they offered to clear huge stockpiles of toxic material, estimated to be 350 metric tonnes still lying at Bhopal’s now defunct Union Carbide factory. Jabbar would chuckle and laugh out loud each time Bhopal was declared one of the cleanest cities in the country by the Union Urban Development ministry.
In December 2017, he had written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointing at the chemical waste and asked the central government to get toxic material removed under the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (SBA). “It is inexplicable as to why the issue of the urgent need for cleaning up highly toxic spots in and around the former pesticide factory of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) at Bhopal is not a vital part of that (SBA) campaign,” Jabbar had told the prime minister without getting any response.
Disliked by Everyone in an Apathetic City
In official records, it is said that over 3,000 persons were killed on the intervening night of 2-3 December 1984 when over 40 tonnes of poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the storage tanks of the Bhopal-based Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL). But campaigners like Jabbar insist that the gas killed more than 25,000 people leaving 5,50,000 others injured and disabled.
Jabbar fought against every political regime ranging from Arjun Singh, Motilal Vora, Sunderlal Patwa, Digvijaya Singh, Uma Bharti, Babulal Gaur, Shivraj Singh and Kamal Nath with equal zeal. He took on every government official he found to be failing in duty. In the process, Jabbar’s presence in government offices and hospitals was disliked and resisted at all levels of hierarchy.
The plight of Bhopal gas survivors figure in election manifesto of neither the Congress nor the BJP. It is such a paradox as Bhopal was identified across the world because of the gas disaster. Anywhere you go, the moment you mention that you are from Bhopal, people immediately empathise and ask questions about the gas tragedy. But the city itself has not been concerned about its own people.
Bhopal has no implicit or explicit sense of having a concerned citizenry. The gravity of the situation can be judged from just one point. Bhopal, even after 35 years, has no record of those who were killed or disabled. Successive governments never kept any records. If you pass through the lanes of Bhopal, you will never realise that this city has suffered almost a holocaust so recently.
Lone Fighter in the Battle for Justice
Jabbar received little no support from locals – his NGO Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, kept producing hundreds and thousands of paper bags but local merchants, bakery owners, and shopping malls would not purchase them even as a drive against plastic bags was on. Jabbar and gas survivors would not receive any substantial money from city Muslims who supposedly dole away crores of rupees annually as part of their zakat (charity). The clergy would not issue fatwa asking the faithful to give zakat for gas survivors.
Jabbar was opposed to both Hindutva hardliners and Muslim hawks. His opposition to those backing instant triple talaq was as vociferous as his dislike for the Sadhvi Pragya brand of politics. Each time the likes of Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi made it to Rajya Sabha, he greatly rejoiced but funds from MPLAD or any other scheme never found a way towards Bhopal gas victims. Jabbar had great faith in Bhushans and a lot of other rights-based activists but when AAP looked for a nominee during 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Jabbar’s views were not considered and the ticket went to someone he did not approve of.
Opposed Extremism in All Forms
Jabbar‘s worldview went beyond gas victims. He had a view on everyone. From Trump to Baghdadi, he opposed extremism in every form. His economic views made Manmohan, Arun Jaitley and the other birds of the same flock bristle and he remained vehemently opposed to reforms, e-commerce and anything he thought was anti-poor. His death marks the end of an argument.
In Prem Chand's masterpiece Namak Ka Daroga, millionaire Pandit Alopideen is heard telling an upright and conscientious Munshi Vanshidhar, "mujhe na vidyata ki chah , na anubhav ki...parmatama se prarthana hai ki woh aapko wahi nadi ke kinare wala bemurawat, uddand, kathore kintu dharmanishth daroga banaye rakhhe (I do not seek learned and experienced...I pray to God to keep you as an impartial, irreverential, uncompromising and principled person.)"
Many would say Jabbar was one such conscience keeper. It was a pity that in the system, spread over 35 years, there was no one like Pandit Alopideen to recognise his core competence.
(Rasheed Kidwai is the author of ‘24, Akbar Road, Ballot’ and ‘Sonia: a Biography’. He is a Visiting Fellow at the ORF. He tweets at @rasheedkidwai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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