‘Wanted employment, not alms’: His fight began with Bhopal gas leak, lasted till death despite personal cost

Milind Ghatwai
Abdul Jabbar. (Express photo by Prakash Hatvalne)

In the aftermath of the 1984 gas disaster that killed thousands of people and left lakhs affected, the government had started distributing free ration in Bhopal and people had to wait in long queues for their turn.

But Abdul Jabbar found the manner in which the largesse was distributed unbearable. “We didn’t want alms, we wanted employment,” he recalled his feelings on the 25th anniversary of the worst industrial disaster. It was this spirit that led to the formation of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, an organisation that not only mobilised women but also provided them vocational training.

More than half of those women were Muslims. The sight of burqa-clad women participating in street protests had become a sensitive issue, forcing him to approach the clergy, who endorsed the view that any opposition to what was a fight for justice was not proper.

“His fight began from the very next day of the tragedy and continued till he breathed his last. It’s to his credit that the apex court changed its earlier decision to free the Union Carbide India officials of criminal responsibility. It was a big achievement to involve burqa-clad women in street protests,” veteran activist L S Hardenia said.

Known to most as Jabbar Bhai, he was in his late 20s and drilled borewells for a living before the gas disaster, but the scale of the tragedy made him an activist with an indomitable spirit, despite losing 50 per cent of his vision and suffering from pulmonary fibrosis due to the industrial accident.

Jabbar, who was undergoing treatment for the past few months, died at a private hospital in Bhopal on Thursday. He was referred to the hospital after medical institutes meant for survivors and other hospitals failed to provide relief to him.

It was ironical that he could not get proper treatment at the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC), which was meant to be a super-specialist hospital for the treatment of survivors — BMHRC and many other hospitals for survivors had come up due to relentless legal battles fought by him and others.

The activist paid a heavy personal cost for the three-and-a-half decade struggle. He had severe health issues, a broken marriage and little money. His friends began a campaign to raise funds to support his second wife and three children.

At the 25th anniversary of the disaster in 2009, Jabbar recalled that he had participated in 500 protests in Delhi and 5,000 in Bhopal. He was arrested nearly 200 times, filed innumerable PILs and other petitions — a petition seeking more compensation and a criminal revision plea demanding more punishment for the accused are still pending.

Unassuming and sporting thick glasses, Jabbar would raise his voice only occasionally during meetings he had with survivors at Yadgar-e-Shahjahani Park in the old city to draw attention to his point. The meetings were used to be held twice a week but over the years they had become a weekly affair with a thin turnout.

Saturday was perhaps the only time the meeting was not held because many survivors were with Jabbar’s family for the three-day mourning period. “He would never lose hope. He would tell us that it’s a fight for justice and should continue even after he is not around,’’ said Shanti Devi, a survivor and a member of Jabbar’s organisation.

Hamida Bi, another survivor, said Jabbar struggled for victims of the gas tragedy all his life and suffered a great deal in the end. She said he received support from both Hindu and Muslim communities.