Interminable Aftermath: The Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Image: Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, Christ’s Descent into Hell (16th century)

Anindita Mukherjee

Interminable Aftermath: The Bhopal Gas Tragedy

In “Notes on Trauma and Community,” Kai Erikson argues that the traumatic quality of a catastrophe depends on how people react to the event. Based on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, considered the world’s “worst” industrial disaster, this essay offers a philosophical analysis of a catastrophe in which the aftermath is ceaseless and interminable. Drawing in part on life histories and visual testimonies, the essay explores the complexities inherent in the perception of this aftermath in light of its interminability.

The term “event,” along with its exegesis, is a subject of theoretical debate. Especially since the end of World War II, the idea of the event has acquired tremendous importance and been explored by philosophers including Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Žižek. In Derrida’s thinking, the notion of the event has been fundamental from the beginning, as demonstrated in his early and seminal essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” which begins with the proposition, “Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an event.”[1] For Derrida, the “event” opens the structure to a destabilizing potential whose “exterior form would be that of a rupture and a redoubling.”[2]

In the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, I would argue, the centrality of the event has been supplanted by an interminable aftermath, the unfolding of which has displaced the “event” as the site for “redoubling.” The aftermath questions the ideation of the event as rupture and de-privileges the event as the occupant of an intervallic space, demarcating the boundaries of “pre-” and “post-.” Environmental hazards and inter-generational trauma persist, as does a lack of recognition and affective solidarities beyond the Indian subcontinent. The aftermath, then, is not simply a fait accompli following the event, but rather a portico of experience that is essentially unpassed.

Beginnings of Aftermath

In the preface to T.R. Chouhan’s Bhopal: The Inside Story, Kim Laughlin recounts the dreary events of the night of 2-3 December 1984. Laughlin tells of the initial reactions to the event, of people thinking that “neighbours were burning chili peppers.”[3] Once it became impossible for people to breathe, they fled into the dark streets: “with no information on what was happening, they simply ran with the crowd, catching rides on passing vehicles whenever possible.” Misinformation spread like wildfire. When a “hard, green crust” appeared on the surface of stored food, people were told that there was no “scientific reason” to believe that their food was “contaminated.” When the victims approached the Carbide factory for information and medical help, desperate managers afraid of rioting suggested that another leak might happen soon. There was no information on “possible antidotes or remedies,” and “people continued to die.”[4]

The effects of the gas were far from temporary, and even today, the aftermath persists. Statistical accounts tell of up to 521,262 exposed people, and according to the Indian Council of Medical Research, “32.52 percent of those exposed […] are overtly symptomatic, with that number increasing year after year.” Social activist Satinath Sarangi maintains that “the disaster can never be fully described,” adding that “we mourn the inability to tell it all.” He laments that “no information is available to document or predict the onset of long-term effects.”[5] Sarangi’s visionary statement was confirmed by a recent BBC report, published on 14 March 2023, showcasing the ongoing legal battle of victims for compensation.[6]

The differential economy of affect that has marked the response to the Bhopal tragedy can be interpreted in at least two ways. The first interpretation concerns the popular misjudgement regarding the endemicity of disaster in the “other” part of the world (read Global South), which subsequently affects the dispensation of emotion. The second pertains to the diversion, and later decline, of affect as the financial and human aftermath was constituted differently for the victors and the victims.

The response of the Union Carbide Corporation was conditioned by the financial concerns of the US company. Laughlin notes that the shares of Union Carbide rose $2 after the announcement of the “out-of-court settlement of the Bhopal case. No liability was established and insufficient funds were made available for rehabilitation.”[7] As per an investment analyst writing for the New York Times, the victors “continued with a euphoric description of the settlement,” insisting that “psychologically, it’s terrific. Financially, it’s reasonable. This relieves the pressure on Carbide and the stigma.”[8]

This was not the first time in the Bhopal chronology that financial benefits were privileged over human lives and suffering. The tendencies of non-recognition were already present prior to the disaster, demonstrating that the aftermath was, in fact, already prefigured in an absence of “safety concerns” and “evacuation plans” before bursting open in December 1984.

Periodic safety audits […] pointed out major safety concerns and explicitly warned of the possibility of a runaway reaction in the MIC storage tanks. They also recognized that there was no evacuation plan for the surrounding community. Bhopal managers told Danbury that to implement such a plan would overly publicize the dangers posed by the plant, which had to be minimized since the company had recently avoided relocation away from the city by having their production labelled “non-noxious” by zoning authorities.[9]

The complex interplay between Union Carbide and the “zoning authorities” points to a bigger picture of imperial tendencies and the conditions they produce in “developing” countries like India. The Carbide plant was opened in 1969, as “part of an encompassing initiative to corner a section of the growing market for chemical agricultural inputs. ‘Green Revolution’ technology had come to India and was displacing traditional growing methods with high-yielding seed varieties that required large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides.”[10] Of course, the underlying motivation was imperial, profit-driven, and not in the “interests of the Indian people.” But it also imposed a crisis of action, pertaining to the fear of losing prospective multinational investments in the Indian economy.

The managerial cynicism outlined above is a key aspect of “disaster capitalism” as elaborated by Naomi Klein in The Battle For Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, which recounts how Hurricanes Irma and María unmasked “disaster colonialism” in Puerto Rico.[11] The context of the humanitarian crisis in Bhopal may be different from that in Puerto Rico, and it may well be argued that Union Carbide did not have pre-set motivations to benefit from the “shocks” of the Bhopal tragedy. Nevertheless, we can at least maintain that, beyond the Indian subcontinent, these “shocks” failed to generate the genuine recognition and affective solidarity that had already been conspicuously absent leading up to the tragedy.

The Interminable Aftermath

The non-recognition of traumatic affects is not simply due to a lack of care. Rather, it concerns the complexity inherent in the experiential texture of interminable suffering. The immeasurable and far-reaching consequences of the Bhopal tragedy, standing before us today in the form of abominable inter-generational suffering, demand a careful assessment of the “aftermath” and its consideration as a limit situation that is unique to each case.

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci declares that “[t]he crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”[12] In the case of Bhopal, it is this very “interregnum” that is lacking. The old is indeed dying, and continues to die, with catastrophic effects, just as the new is born into this dying. The lack of the interregnum fortifies the interminability of the aftermath. And if the aftermath is characterized by the fact that the victims’ suffering is bereft of temporal healing and detached from all hope of redemption and expiation, the next operational question may be: are their lives liveable?

Thirty years after the disaster, this question of liveability is crucial to any understanding of the aftermath. Suffering here has not only become interminable but also, in a way, “radical.” In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot argues that radical suffering becomes operational when the subject’s suffering hits such a low state of weariness and affliction that this self-same subject “is no longer there to undergo” it. Translated into Hegelian dialectic, the radical suffering of slavery “consists in the absence of the slave, a bondage of shadows, […] a destiny without weight and reality.”[13]

For the victims of Bhopal, radical suffering can be understood as an impasse that has come to define the cast of their lives. According to Christopher Harker, the impasse, in terms of both suffering and affective non-recognition, is a form of “dynamic capture” that hovers around in “circles, going nowhere.”[14] Harker’s analysis of impasse is based on Lauren Berlant’s idea of “crisis ordinariness,” describing the conditions in which “the ordinary becomes a landfill for overwhelming and impended crises of life-building and expectation whose sheer volume so threatens what it means to ‘have a life’ that adjustment seems like an accomplishment.”[15]

The everlasting continuity of the aftermath in Bhopal has taken “radical” suffering into the realm of “crisis ordinariness,” so much so that it has made existent frames of affective analysis redundant. What is the suitable affective response to interminable suffering? Is the response of imperial nations to the Bhopal tragedy characterized by a “loss of affect”? And if yes, what does this failure reveal about “affective solidarities”?

Precarious Lives, Precarious Solidarities

We may approach the concept of liveability by turning to Judith Butler’s idea of “precarious” life. According to Butler, the precarious body “is one that is always given over to others, to norms, to social and political organizations that have developed historically in order to maximize precariousness for some and minimize precariousness for others.”[16] Butler argues that “precariousness itself cannot be properly recognized,” but can be “apprehended, taken in, encountered, and it can be presupposed by certain norms of recognition just as it can be refused by such norms,” thereby necessitating a “recognition of precariousness as a shared condition of human life.”[17]

In the case of Bhopal, the non-recognition of precariousness as an interminable feature of the tragedy has meant nothing less than the exclusion of Bhopal from the precarity spectrum. Affective solidarities across the world have been blurry and cruel, and this differential economy of affect has produced “unfeeling solidarities”[18] that can only be overcome through a relational ethics of care that goes beyond geographical boundaries. Such an ethics, to Butler, would entail “obligations towards others, most of whom we cannot name and do not know, and who may or may not bear traits of familiarity to an established sense of who “we are.”[19]

Although a wealth of creative and critical literature exists on the Bhopal tragedy, I will restrict the following analysis to certain life narratives and visual narratives. My choice of sources underscores victims’ memories and experience of precarity amidst the impasse colouring affective solidarities. My reliance on life histories also has the simple aim of amplifying the emotional truths expressed by the victims themselves concerning their precarious lives. This is not to say that fictional accounts do not perform a similar function, and they would certainly make a good subject for another study.

Oral and Visual Histories

Referring to globalization, writer and activist Arundhati Roy has argued: “Once you get used to not seeing something, then, slowly it’s no longer possible to see it.”[20] In the context of Bhopal, the same logic applies to the lack of affective value placed on victims’ interminable suffering. The notion of relative invisibility has animated Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence,” by which he means a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Slow violence is “neither spectacular nor instantaneous” but “rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.”[21]

While collecting oral testimonies on the Bhopal disaster, Suroopa Mukherjee interviews a victim by the name of Champa Devi Shukla. When asked to describe the events of that night, the latter showcases an insistence on the aftermath, which is, however, rejected by her interlocutors:

Everybody wants to talk about that night, but nobody has the patience to listen to what happens afterward. Then suddenly it is no longer a matter that concerns them. But I am not complaining! After all, these stories can move people to tears.[22]

Champa Devi Shukla’s narrative captures Nixon’s idea of slow violence and its interminable temporal expansion that affects, according to Nixon, “the way we perceive and respond.”[23] “In an age that venerates instant spectacle,” Nixon argues, “slow violence is deficit in the recognizable special effects that fill movie theatres.”[24] The conceptualization of “what happens afterward,” in Shukla’s words, requires “patience,” a mode of listening that is fast disappearing.

If, as Aldo Leopold insists, “we can be ethical only toward what we can see,”[25] the formless and amorphous nature of slow violence poses a major challenge to affective solidarities in the face of catastrophes with interminable aftermaths. The easy equation of the visible with the believable is a great obstacle to conceiving the damage that the communities living in Bhopal have suffered. As Nixon puts it, “casualties of slow violence—human and environmental—are the casualties most likely not to be seen, not to be counted. Casualties of slow violence become light-weight, disposable casualties.”[26]

An account stressing the “need” for visible records of damage can be found in the voice of an unnamed woman interviewed by Mukherjee:

My eldest son died after three months. We tried to save his life. After that, I gave birth to a son. He was born sickly and had strange yellow-coloured eruptions on his neck. When he was about a year old, I was still breastfeeding him when he died in his sleep. Another daughter was born to me. She was sick all the time and we lost her too. My living son is not growing properly. He is sixteen years old but looks like he is ten or twelve. [….] When I told the judge about our children who died he said I had to get documentary evidence.[27]

The disjuncture between justice and ethics here lies not in a separation of “what” counts as slow violence as such, but in what kinds of affective capacity we lack. “What happens when we are unsighted?” Nixon asks. “How, indeed, are we to act ethically toward human and biotic communities that lie beyond our sensory ken?”[28] This, in turn, leads him to a significant question in theoretical debates on global affective solidarities: How do we both make slow violence visible yet also challenge the privileging of the visible?[29]

In On Photography, Susan Sontag focuses on the documentary function of photographs, remarking that “photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.”[30] Photographs can indeed provide documentary evidence, but disaster photographs are also important in our conception of the affective ethics of the aftermath. In the epilogue to The Environmentalism of the Poor, Nixon maintains that “What we enter through photographs and video is a premonitory landscape prefiguring the consequences on a global scale, of wasted foreknowledge. The scene serves as a preview of the aftermath.”[31]

The two photographs featured here, “An Aborted Foetus When the Tragedy Struck” (1984) and “Sack Full of Skulls” (2001),[32] were taken by the veteran Indian photographer Raghu Rai, a direct witness to the Bhopal tragedy. The agonized physiognomies of the foetuses and the sack of skulls surely provide documentary evidence. But how can this evidence factor into affective solidarities given that the photographs are separated by a gap of seventeen years? And, in light of their gruelling content, can the ethical handicap really be produced by invisibility, or is it rather due to a lack of ethical engagement, a failure to put the event in the context of affective solidarities?

Aftermath and the Differential Economy of Affect

Bhopal offers an example of the disjunction between the pain of witnessing “news” and genuine affective solidarity. It highlights the differential economy of affect and the waning of affective recognition in the case of disasters with interminable aftermaths. In her essay, “Tales of Affect, ‘Thick’ and ‘Thin’: On Distantiation in Holocaust Historiography,” Karyn Ball proposes two kinds of affects, one “thick” or “visceral,” which “designates a charged identification with past violences as though they were still present, in contrast to ‘thin’ or ‘rarefied’ affect, which refers to an apparent absence of this charge.”[33]

Ball’s idea of thin affect ties back into the earlier discussion on the politics of recognition and invisibility. It is not so much that the catastrophe is invisibilized, but rather that the “emotional infrastructure” of “critical distantiation” relieves the “other” part of the world of the responsibility to engage in ethical witnessing.[34] For Emmanuel Levinas, “the asymmetrical cognition of the other that the power of invisibility provides speaks for the evasion of ethical responsibility.”[35] Remaining invisible in the act of witnessing comes with a sense of exercisable power as well as a sense of ethical immunity.

Of course, the invisibility of witnessing also implies the invisibility of the witnessed, and there is a weighty difference between the power of invisibility that exempts one from ethical responsibility, and the powerlessness implied in being invisible and surviving mutely, merely adding to existent invisibilities. The call for the recognition of suffering and the desire to forge affective solidarities constitute a plea to be witnessed by the Imperial North, where invisibility is frequently equated with indifference. Only if this plea is heeded can Bhopal emerge from the swamps of trans-imperial amnesia.

ANINDITA MUKHERJEE is a doctoral student at the Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta. She has presented her research on various platforms in the US, UK, and Poland. She is also a poet, with her first book of poems, Nothing and Variations, appearing from Hawakal Publishers in 2022.

dePICTions volume 3 (2023): Critical Ecologies

[1] Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, London: Routledge, 2002, 351.

[2] Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play,” 351.

[3] Kim Laughlin, preface to T.R. Chouhan, Bhopal, the Inside Story: Carbide Workers Speak Out on the World’s Worst Industrial Disaster, New York & Goa: The Apex Press/The Other India Press, 1994, 7-19, here 8.

[4] Laughlin, preface, 8.

[5] Laughlin, preface, 7-8.

[6] For further discussion on the complexities of financial compensation, see “Bhopal gas tragedy: Supreme Court rejects more money for victims,” BBC, 14 March 2023 [18 June 2023].

[7] Laughlin, preface, 10.

[8] Laughlin, preface, 10.

[9] Laughlin, preface, 13, emphases mine.

[10] Chouhan, Bhopal: The Inside Story, 19.

[11] Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018.

[12] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, 556.

[13] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press, 1993, 173.

[14] Christopher Harker, Spacing Debt: Obligations, Violence, and Endurance in Ramallah, Palestine, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2020, 124.

[15] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2011, 3.

[16] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004, 27.

[17] Butler, Precarious Life, 35.

[18] “Unfeeling solidarities” is a term I use to describe the difficult and sometimes insensitive responses that the Bhopal incident has elicited across the globe. The idea captures the lack of care and recognition for the suffering of people plagued by the interminable aftereffects of the catastrophe.

[19] Butler, Precarious Life, 35.

[20] Quoted in Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011, 1.

[21] Nixon, Slow Violence, 2.

[22] Suroopa Mukherjee, Surviving Bhopal: Dancing Bodies, Written Texts, and Oral Testimonials of Women in the Wake of an Industrial Disaster, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 43, emphasis mine.

[23] Nixon, Slow Violence, 3.

[24] Nixon, Slow Violence, 6.

[25] Address at the June 1934 dedication of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, quoted in Scott Russell Sanders, “Speaking for the Land: Aldo Leopold as a Writer,” [19 June 2023]. Rob Nixon argues in a note that “Leopold was inconsistent on this point, sometimes emphasizing an ethics of sensory immediacy grounded in local knowledge and sometimes emphasizing an intergenerational ethics less rooted in the moment or in a visible locale” (Nixon, Slow Violence, 297).

[26] Nixon, Slow Violence, 13.

[27] Quoted in Mukherjee, Surviving Bhopal, 53, emphasis mine.

[28] Nixon, Slow Violence, 15.

[29] Nixon, Slow Violence, 15.

[30] Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Picador, 2001, 5.

[31] Nixon, Slow Violence, 265.

[32] See the Raghurai Foundation website [15 September 2022].

[33] Karyn Ball, “Tales of Affect, ‘Thick’ and ‘Thin’: On Distantiation in Holocaust Historiography,” Holocaust Studies 20.1-2 (2014): 179-218, here179.

[34] Ball, “Tales of Affect,” 182.

[35] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by Alphonso Lingis, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991, quoted in Nimi Wariboko, Social Ethics and Governance in Contemporary African Writing: Literature, Philosophy and the Nigerian World, London: Bloomsbury Academics, 2023, 84.