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Bhopal A Third World Narrative of Pain and Protest

by Dr. Saba Gulraiz

In the late modern and post-modern era, a new form of colonial imperialism emerged in the form of multinational corporations and their hegemony over the international economic system created a new world order that perpetuates social, economical and environmental disparities. The global design of this market driven economic model generates wealth for few and tragedy for 'others'. In this game of money and power, the Third World is the targeted victim. Vietnam, Ghana, China, Nigeria, India, Iraq and Japan are few examples of what is happening to the nature and the people of the Third World. Their lands are being turned into wastelands by the dumping of toxic waste generated by the first world and setting up of lethal industries whose chemicals are often used in case of war against them. All this causes serious health and environmental hazards and severely stigmatizes, dehumanizes and demonizes human value in a Third world society. We are living in this “risk society” whose resources can be raped, people and land can be exploited and the worst is that their perpetrators, those multi/transnational corporations are never prosecuted. They go unpunished, evading any responsibility, accountability or liability. As they are not bound by any international boundaries or laws, they get the “license to kill”. Bhopal is a bitter reminder of this gritty reality that has devoured hundreds and thousands of human lives and still continues to afflict many more lives.

One cannot find a more tragic manifestation of the corporate abuse and injustice as it was experienced by the people of Bhopal. What happened in Bhopal in the intervening night of 2-3 December, 1984 was dreadful, so dreadful that wouldn't have ever been experienced, even in imagination, by human beings. On that cold night, this beautiful city of lakes and hills was turned into a live laboratory when about 42 tons of deadly poisonous Methyl Isocyanate gas escaped from the Union Carbide pesticide factory which was located in the densely populated area and mostly inhabited by poor slum dwellers. Soon the gas was diffused in the air killing thousands of people immediately due to acute suffocation. I was a child then but still remember the morning that was as horrific and gloomy as it could be. The day light gave us the sense that how deadly was the gas that mercilessly killed so many people whose dead bodies were now lying on the streets and the door-steps of the houses. They were trying to run away to save their lives but they could not. That fateful day was passed but the clouds of terror and trauma did not clear off over the Bhopal skies. Rumors and panic further traumatized the victims. Soon, with the unfolding of its aftermath, survivors realized that this tragedy had eclipsed their lives forever. This 'second disaster' is even more painful, as not only their health is badly damaged by the catastrophe but they are neither receiving any remediation nor the justice for which they have been persistently fighting. They are severely exposed to environmental hazards and are forced to drink contaminated underground water because the toxic waste has not been cleared off the factory site that is still seeping into the ground, making the water contaminated. Through Bhopal we come to see how in this modern Indian republic people have been denied of the human right of safe living environment and drinking water.

The genocide that is called by the names as tragedy, disaster or incident was actually the result of utter carelessness, cost-cutting tactics to satisfy the greed for earning mega-profits and lack of responsibility and morality for those who belong to the Third world. “This doctrine of discrimination” is shared equally by both the corporate and the state. The focus of the political forces was on how to defend the perpetrators and hide the realities because these makers of modern India always care more about the investment prospects than the welfare of their own people. In the Bhopal case also, the state not only helped Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide and the prime accused of the gas disaster to flee away but did nothing to reduce the problems of the victims and is still doing nothing for their rehabilitation and development of the gas affected areas. This apathetic attitude shows as how these victims have been marginalized and pushed into a ghettoized state.

In public memory Bhopal is a macabre tale but in its folds there is also a continuous saga of struggle and resistance that shifts the identity of the people of Bhopal from being the helpless victims into valiant fighters. With them, a multitude of voices emerged in unison to support their outright demand for justice. Activists, writers, artists all human communities registered their protest in one way or the other. Countless marches, rallies, demonstrations, seminars and campaigns were held across the world.  Primarily and effectively, the organization that initiated this protest as a social movement is the Bhopal Gas Affected Working Women's Union, the largest organization of the gas victims and the only organization that has participated in the long and complicated legal battle for the justice in Bhopal. The organization was formed in 1986 under the leadership of Abdul Jabbar Khan who himself is a gas victim and the only male member of the organization. The organization is unique in itself, as it helps in mapping the role played by women in representation of the voice of Bhopal and reflects another form of protest that is against the prescribed gender role.  When these veiled women came out from their homes to lead the movement for justice, this was seen as the breach of norms of the society they were living in. Determined in their cause, they didn't care about this circumscribed notion of the society. I myself have witnessed as how their own status has evolved in the course of the movement. Now we see them as emancipated and self-reliant women who can articulate the demands of the survivors in a more powerful manner. As against these women who are fighting at the grass-root level with the meager funds generated by monthly dues, there are some other activists groups and organizations that entered in--to join the fight. But it cannot be precisely said as whether they truly have empathy for the victims or they have their own self-interests in making appeals and raising funds in the name of victims. Since they are protesting away from Bhopal, it is no surprise that most of the Bhopalis are not aware of who they are and what they are doing. This lack of information and ignorance also opens up an important question pertaining to the working and transparency of such foreign funded NGOs. Nevertheless, in spite of all these contradictions, their role is important in keeping the Bhopal issue alive at the global forefront.

'Art for Bhopal' is a part of such appeals made by the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a project that seeks charity to administer funds for a clinic opened by the Sambhavna trust in 1996, twelve years after the disaster, to provide medical help to the gas survivors. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, 'Art for Bhopal' held two important exhibitions in London. The water pot exhibition and auction hosted by Phillips de Pury, was the reminiscent of what is still going on with the Bhopal gas survivors who are forced to drink the water that has been contaminated by the toxic waste of the factory. The pots represent this plight of the survivors. These stainless steel water pots were reworked and donated by twenty-five world's most celebrated artists including Anish Kapoor, Subodh Gupta, Antony Gormley, Barry Reigate, Conrad Shawcross, Tim Noble, Sue Webster and others. The auction raised over £159,000 that went to The Bhopal Medical Appeal. Artists in the pot works shared the same common view but in different ways. In their own diverse styles, they not only communicated the truth of Bhopal but they also expressed their concern for the whole human community that is being devastated by the greed of modern economic forces.  This truth was depicted by using the disturbing images and signs of death and danger like the symbols of skull and crossbones, blood filled pot, smoke releasing factories etc. These symbols are also a warning against the recurrence of such industrial disasters in future. The theme of corporate crime was explored in the exhibition titled Skullduggerous. The exhibition was held at Pure Evil gallery and contributed by several artists from all over the world. These artists, in various mediums, unfolded the appalling story of Bhopal and expressed their concern and anguish at the fast growing industrialization that is killing our planet earth. One of such works was Pete Donne's that depicted a man and woman in one single image sitting with her/his child on the heap of skulls. This dual image is the implication that the victim could be anybody and everybody. On the same heap a well-suited man is standing with his back at that woman/man and on the backdrop there is a factory. This portrayal shows as how those who are responsible for the death of so many people in Bhopal have turned their back and refused to take any responsibility. Many other Works on display reflected this theme of refusal and betrayal along with the other related issues of environment and industrialization to show that Bhopal is not an isolated story of what the global forces of economy are giving to the world today.

Interactive Public Art has been an effective means to encourage and engage the world communities into a meaningful dialogue and evoke responses in solidarity. 'Communicating Bhopal to Glastonbury' was an effort in this direction. The main objective of this outreach project of the Bhopal medical Appeal was to communicate the story of Bhopal to a new audience at Glastonbury Festival by engaging them in a creative activity. In this awareness and fund raising campaign, the festival audiences were encouraged to participate in creating 'Bhopal Sculpture Garden.' By joining insignificant materials like plastic bottles, strips of fabric etc, they recreated the memorial statue of the mother and child that stands outside the gate of Union Carbide factory in Bhopal into a huge sculpture of 9ft. The audience also participated in making a 6x6ft skull to link the symbol of death and morbidity with the killer multinational corporation. This whole experience of making sculptures was quite inspiring, as this not only gave them a sense of solidarity with the gas survivors in a more positive way but also enhanced their consciousness that the individual participation can make a big collective difference. Sayyed Irshad Ali, a young artist from Udaipur, also believes that public participation is very important to fight back any human issue. Most recently, under his public art project on Bhopal he had mounted (at Roshanpura Square in Bhopal) a 10x20 feet billboard with digitally produced images counter-depicting Bhopal with the oil spill in the Mexico Gulf that had killed thousands of fishes. He also distributed and pasted thousands of such posters all around the city. Through his art, Irshad Ali has tried to express how injustice has been meted out in Bhopal.

Yes, Bhopal is the testimony of how justice operates in one of the largest democracies of the world as even twenty-seven years after the disaster our Supreme Court--the guardian of human rights--couldn't settle the Bhopal case and punish the corporate criminality. It could only negotiate and approve a grossly inadequate sum of 470 million US dollars as full and final settlement. This out of court settlement was the most unjust settlement in the history of human civilization. Bhopal is lost in the arduous judicial process of establishing accountability and liability because the company is now owned by Dow chemicals, another multinational chemical company who is continuously evading its liability and responsibility of proper compensation and cleaning up of the factory site. But sometimes artistic intervention can appropriate and subvert things that the legal system fails to do. The Yes men did this. They fixed this corporate liability and criminality from which Dow is trying to wash its hands off by taking an alternative course of action. The Yes Men is a two member group of Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, alias Andy Bichlbaum and Bonanno respectively. These American performance artists and anti-corporate activists adopt spoofing, hoaxes, tactical media pranks to expose alleged corporate and state hypocrisies, to direct public attention to the giant phenomenon of free market corporation and its effects on environment.  They do all this by creating fake websites that spoof the real ones. So, often people don't realize that they are fake and send them email invitations to speak in conferences, TV channels and summits. The same thing happened again and they were invited at the BBC World to issue a statement on the day of commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy. One of its members, Andy Bichlbaum posing as Jude Finisterra, a Dow chemicals spokesperson, appeared on the channel and accepted the full responsibility of the Bhopal catastrophe. He also declared the company's plan to liquidate Union Carbide and use that amount of 12 billion dollars to pay for medical care, clean up of the site and research into the hazards of other Dow products. Soon, with the live broadcast of the declaration, Dow's stock price dropped by about 2 billion dollars in just 20 minutes. The whole episode resulted in Dow saying “No we didn't accept responsibility.” Though seemingly a prank it was, it revealed the serious truth that profit is more important than the human value. Now the corporate power is afraid of the Yes Men whose act has broadened and intensified the Bhopal protest. Looking it as a major threat in their way, the corporation, as recently disclosed by WikiLeaks, has hired the services of an American strategic affairs company, Stratfor (the same company once spied on India for ISI)  to spy on the Yes Men and other grassroots activists. The spying action is in itself a clear evidence of Dow's culpability in the Bhopal case.

Now, with this issue and the issue of sponsorship of Dow in the upcoming Olympic Games in London, the Bhopal protest has once again gathered momentum and renewed the contemporary debate of whose responsibility is Bhopal. Protesters, activists are strongly demanding that the sponsorship of Dow Chemicals in the Olympic Games 2012 should be dropped because of its blotted history. While giving sponsorship to Dow, the International Olympic Association should not have forgotten that the same company, whose liabilities for Bhopal are still undischarged, is also responsible for supplying hazardous chemicals like Napalm and 'Agent Orange' that had caused death of thousands of people in the US led war against Vietnam. Not only this, in 1965 Dow, with the US army, was also involved in conducting secret chemical ware-fare experiments on human lives by injecting Dioxin into 70 prisoners (most of them were black). All this is against the IOC's code of ethics (2012) which clearly says “the Olympic parties, their agents or their representatives must not be involved with firms or persons whose activity or reputation is inconsistent with the principles set out in the Olympic Charter and the present code.” Dow's criminality is such that no human ethics would allow it be a part in the celebration of human ideals. Artists, through their own creative ways of protest, are supporting this demand of the gas survivors. Samar S. Jodha is one such artist who is silently but effectively, taking this issue as a public art work to place it right at the Olympic Games venue in London. He has been uncompromisingly addressing the issue of Bhopal for more than a decade. As a photographer and filmmaker, Samar Jodha is always concerned about all those who are suffering the brunt of modernization and growing globalization. Since he has been engaged sincerely with these issues, when he came to Bhopal in 2004 to shoot some portraits of people affected by the gas leak for a print campaign for the BBC, he couldn't just leave the city without carrying along those painful experiences being suffered by the Bhopal survivors. His Multimedia Installation Bhopal: A Silent Picture is the reflection of this experience. The installation of 20 foot long workstation with lenticular backlit 3D images (2'x3' on both the sides) and soundscape, recounts/recreates the horror of that night in the form of visual and sound record. The 3D effect, with the intermittent sounds of gas leak and chirping, creates an immersive atmosphere that gives audience the sensation of experiencing what had been experienced by the people of Bhopal so many years ago. In this dismal picture no human images are used as, unlike those so called 'Progressive Activists' who cry out justice in the world with photographs of the victims in one hand and a begging bowl in the other, Samar is sensitive for human dignity. His aim to carry this self-funded Public Art work--which has already travelled Art Chennai, Kala Ghoda Art Festival, Mumbai and India Art Summit, New Delhi--to London Olympics is to shape the consciousness of mankind by evoking the memory of the forgotten story of Bhopal.

Though abstract, memory is an important question because it is directly linked to personal and collective human emotions. To memorize or remember something that is painful is in itself a protest, a constant struggle with the self, against forgetting. It is human nature to resist traumatic memories so to move on in life but the Bhopal tragedy carries that tenacious memory which can never be erased, neither from the human history nor from the minds of those who have lived through its horror and are still suffering its effects physically, financially and psychologically. Who has the right to memorialize? How memories should be preserved?  These questions unfolded a new area of debate and protest in Bhopal when the State government made a decision to reopen the gates of Union Carbide for the tourists and build a memorial and a museum at the factory site. Survivor groups and activists are opposing the government's project as they believe the state which is equally guilty of complicity in the flagrant injustice done to the people of Bhopal, has no moral right to memorialize their experiences through an institutionalized museum. Now, the survivor groups have decided to develop their own travelling exhibition which will be curated by Rama Lakhmi, an independent museum consultant. The exhibition will be displayed in a bus and will travel across India. They hope to culminate it into a permanent museum in Bhopal by 2014. The exhibition will carry memories of the survivors in visual forms like photographs, everyday objects deeply related with the tragedy. It may be a frock donated by the father of a child who died that night or it may be a doll or a bicycle. The exhibition will carry other oral narratives in the form of songs and slogans. The primary objective of this exhibition is to take Bhopal's memory far beyond any museum space and spread environmental awareness.

Can end be a starting point? Can past be a present continuous? These questions might baffle many but for Bhopal it is a reality. If you go to the gas affected area you will agree with this truth. It says nothing has changed for these poor hapless people of an independent nation who serve the wishes of others but cannot change their own destiny. People come to them and get what they want. Activists come, get an issue and become heroes (in the eyes of the world). Writers and journalists come, get a story and then fame. Politicians come, make promises, get votes and then turn a blind eye. So nothing has changed, neither inside nor outside the factory. Inside it is a dreary silence as if it is mourning its own guilt complex. The desolate structure is corroding and falling, dying a natural death. The only change one can see is that the protest graffiti on the outside walls enclosing the factory is now silent. The whitewash on the walls hushed up all the voices for justice. Outside the factory there are troubling realities--of their past and present. Their permafrost past is standing obtrusively with their present in the form of 'people's memorial' (The statue of mother and child built by Ruth Waterman, a Holocaust survivor) The statue that tells an individual tale of horror is petrified as the collective memory and is casting its shadow on the 'Future' who is playing there in tatters. Close to this statue a mural is painted (by Janet Braun, a community muralist from Brooklyn) on the wall of a house. It depicts all--pain, struggle and resistance in one painting. Engraved on the painting are the lines-

History says, Don't hope

On this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.(Seamus Heaney)

And in between this hope and despair, life is moving at a slow pace.


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