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On the night of 3 December 1984, some 32 tons of toxic methyl isocynate (used in pesticide) leaked at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. Estimates of the total death toll run from 15,000 to 25,000 people. Thousands more were blinded. Bhopal is generally acknowledged to be the world’s worst industrial disaster. The leak was the result of a period of reduced maintenance and neglect of safety systems at the plant.
The plant was owned by Connecticut-based Union Carbide, and there was civil litigation in India and the US. There were also criminal proceedings in India, although no US-based executive (including CEO Warren Anderson) was ever found guilty.
My colleague Prof. Marc Galanter was involved in the US-India civil litigation.Since the 1980s, he has been collecting legal documents, newspaper clippings, related case judgments, and academic writings about the disaster.
For the past 1.5 years, a group of us at the University of Wisconsin Law School have been working on turning Marc Galanter’s collection of documents from the Bhopal disaster into an online archive.We launched “Bhopal: Law, Accidents, and Disasters in India” on October 19, 2016. The program included a tribute to Prof. Galanter’s Law-and-Society work on India by Jayanth Krishnan (Indiana University Maurer School of Law) and a panel discussion on “Law and Accidents in South Asia” featuring Maryam Khan, Chaumtoli Huq, and Kim Fortun. Gary Wilson of Robins Kaplan (Minneapolis) also spoke. While a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Wilson was Marc Galanter’s research assistant and helped Galanter prepare his testimony in the Bhopal case.
The digital archive was made possible by generous funding from lawyers Michael Ciresi and Bruce Finzen (who represented the government of India in the Bhopal matter), Gary Wilson, and Robins Kaplan LLP.
We are very excited about the archive. It is open-access. It contains over 3,700 documents. We hope it will allow people around the world get a sense of the issues and tragedy involved.
A sample from the US litigation:
- Exhibit 116: factory inspection book including reports of failure to provide workers with protective clothing (p.3)
- transcript from oral argument before the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (1986): on the question of whether the case should be heard in the US or in India (forum non conveniens)
- Amicus Curiae brief from the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA: criticizing the New York district court’s decision that the US courts were not the appropriate forum for the civil suit against Union Carbide
And from the litigation once it moved to India:
- Brief from Union of India v. Union Carbide in the Supreme Court of India (1989): argues that the Supreme Court of India should rehear and revoke its earlier order denying the Bhopal victims “a fair trial in which their claims may be heard.” These victims “have survived an unprecedented peacetime chemical holocaust only to experience the inadequately explained failure of the judiciary in the US, and now India, to dispense simple justice.”
There is much more to explore here. We hope that the archive will be a valuable resource for undergraduate and graduate research projects, and for others wanting to learn more about what happened in Bhopal in 1984.
These photos by Raghu Rai will also give you a sense of the tragedy.
I’ve been working on the history of forensic toxicology in colonial India, and keep getting lured into the history of venomology. Here’s a bizarre episode I stumbled upon at the National Archives of India last summer. It’s the story of a global experiment in serpentine transfer that never happened.
In the 1910s and 20s, colonial officials in British India toyed with the idea of importing a Brazilian snake called the mussurana to help prevent deaths due to snake bite. The famous figure for India was “20,000 deaths per year due to snake bite,” with a disproportionate number in Bengal.
Then came news of a huge black snake in Brazil: it was not poisonous to human beings, but it killed and ate poisonous snakes! Why not bring the mussurana to India and let it do its work? One colonial official gushed to his colleagues:
At a ‘snake farm’ in Sao Paulo a large non-poisonous snake known as a ‘Massurana’ one day accidentally got into the enclosure of the poisonous snakes. The consternation of the officials quickly turned to amazement as they watched the Massurana attack and devour, head first, a deadly poisonous specimen. Suffering repeated venomous bites with immunity, it subsequently attacked and ate another. Others of the same species were put in with the poisonous ones, and they each in turn attacked and devoured one.
That chance discovery has saved many thousands of lives in Brazil. The Government are now busily engaged in breeding the Massurana for distribution to all parts of the interior, where its appetite for its poisonous brethren will have unlimited scope—to the benefit of the inhabitants.
A Brazilian postal stamp of this snake swallowing another was even in the works. The Haffkine Institute in Bombay was busily pumping out research on venomology from its snake farm (alongside its research on the bubonic plague). Some officials may have thought that British India already had the infrastructure to manage such an experiment.
But not everyone liked the proposal. The secretary of the Zoological Society of London was nervous: “On the whole experiments in the transplantation of animals from one part of the world to another have either been unsuccessful, because the animals have failed to live in the new region, or have been harmed in some quite unexpected way.” A committee of the Bombay Natural History Society was similarly uncomfortable. And then there were the bureaucratic headaches. “We shall presumably have to put the whole India Office, Foreign Office, Rio de Janeiro legation, Brazilian Minister of the Interior, etc. machinery into motion,” sighed one worn-down official to another.
The message was clear: let’s not dabble in the global transplant of large reptiles. You never know what could happen. And it would be *such* a hassle to get the permissions…
And with that, a zany (perhaps great, probably not so great) proposal remained confined to the yellowing pages of the India Office records.
It’s not every day that you see fictional depictions of Parsi legal history. So it’s exciting to come across two recent examples.
The first is a novel by Parsi writer, Keki N. Daruwalla, Ancestral Affairs (2015). Daruwalla is well known for his poetry, and I
first came across his work while writing about early 20th-c. litigation over membership in the Parsi community. This line from “Parsi Hell” (1982) has been a favorite in my footnotes:
“Like a fire temple I hoard my inner fires
Hoard my semen, brown with inbreeding. Genetic rust?”
Among other things, Ancestral Affairs is about a Parsi lawyer named Saam Bharucha who is hired by the Muslim nawab of Junagadh, a princely state in western India, to manoeuvre the rapids of partition and independence circa 1947. The nawab wants to join Pakistan, not India. Here is a review, and here is an excerpt.
The second piece is a Bollywood production. The film Rustom, starring Akshay Kumar, is getting a lot of press in India right now (much of it lukewarm). Although the film purports to be purely fictional, it is based upon the story of the Parsi naval officer, K. M. Nanavati, who shot dead his wife’s paramour in a fit of jealous rage. Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, Nanavati was acquitted of murder by a jury, a verdict subsequently overturned by the Bombay High Court in K. M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra (1961). The case has gone down in legal history as the trigger (no pun intended) for the abolition of the jury in India. In fact, some forms of the jury have persisted, as I discuss in ch.5 of my book and as BBC journalist Soutik Biswas notes here. Nevertheless, the case remains one that has captured the popular imagination and that of legal historians equally.
While doing research for my book on Parsi legal history, I had the opportunity to speak with many elderly Parsis about their family and community history. I will always remember the humor, drama, and poignancy of the stories people shared with me. There were accounts of everyday life in Raj-era Bombay, of the flight from Burma to India during the Japanese invasion in WWII, and of studying law at the Inns of Court in London in the 1940s.
I have been thinking more about Parsi family history since finishing my book, and have an article about personal and family memoirs coming out later in 2016: “Parsi Life Writing: Memoirs and Family Histories of Modern Zoroastrians.” Two of the memoirs I write about were by Parsi lawyers who spent part of their lives in colonial Burma. I also posted this on the Legal History Blog.
Preserving oral and family history is a critical part of preserving community heritage. I am thrilled to learn that the Zoroastrian Association of Houston and Rice University have teamed up to produce oral history interviews with Parsis in the Houston area. These have been posted online as audio recordings and transcripts, with photos. There are over thirty interviews so far here, featuring renowned novelist Bapsi Sidhwa and ZAH librarian and archivist Aban Rustomji, among others. Because many members of the Houston Parsi community migrated from Karachi (now in Pakistan), there are valuable accounts of the 1947 partition of British India into independent India and Pakistan here.
A very big thank you to everyone involved! This is not only a model on the kind of oral history work that should be done for the Parsi community worldwide, but also for diasporic Asian communities across the US.
The American Society for Legal History includes an unusual committee, the Projects and Proposals Committee, which accepts funding proposals for workshops and other projects relating to legal history. Here is an opportunity to apply for funding to host an event on legal history *that is not necessarily held at an annual ASLH meeting.* The ASLH has been working to internationalize its focus. This means us, South Asianists! The deadline is Sept.15, 2016.
The Projects and Proposals Committee of the American Society for Legal History is now open for business. We welcome a variety of proposals for new initiatives that will advance the “cause” of legal history. The kinds of proposals we are mandated to consider by the Board of Directors and what we need from applicants appear here and are reproduced below. All proposals need to be submitted in full before September 15, 2016, so that they can be considered in advance of the fall meeting of the Board of Directors. Questions should be directed to Dirk Hartog, chair of the committee, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Law and Society Association’s annual meeting is just around the corner, this year in New Orleans from June 2-5, 2016. I’ve included below a list of panels sponsored by Collaborative Research Networks on South Asia (CRN22) and British Colonial Legalities (CRN15), along with other panels and events on related themes. We’ll be holding our Joint Annual CRN lunch on Friday, June 3, 12pm-2 at 5Fifty5, a restaurant in the New Orleans Marriott (the conference hotel). We hope you can join us!
The world of podcasts doesn’t yet have a series devoted to South Asian legal history. But there are plenty that come at the field from various directions.
- History and the Law’s interviews with legal historians, including South Asianists
- H-LAW’s new podcasts on legal history with Siobhan Maura Barco (hopefully with some South Asian content in the future)
From South Asian studies:
- Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by the BBC, with Sunil Khilnani
- New Books in South Asian Studies with Ian Cook
And then from History:
- 15 Minute History by the University of Texas at Austin–includes South Asia
- Footnoting History
- A History of the World in 100 Objects by the British Museum
Coming to Madison for the 45th Annual Conference on South Asia in October? Why not come a day early and attend the 2016 South Asia Legal Studies Preconference on Thursday, October 20, 2016 at the University of Wisconsin Law School? The deadline for panel submissions is fast approaching: April 15, 2016.
Here is the Call for Panel Proposals:
Over the past few years, the American Society for Legal History has hosted an exciting one-day event for graduate students working on the legal history of any part of the world. *This includes South Asia!* This year, the Student Research Colloquium will take place on Oct.26-27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. It will immediately precede the annual meeting of the ASLH. The deadline for SRC applications is July 15, 2016. Don’t miss it!
Coming to the Law and Society Association meeting in New Orleans in early June? Join us for the Joint Annual Collaborative Research Network Lunch for CRN 15: British Colonial Legalities & CRN 22: South Asia!
When: Friday, June 3, 2016 @ 12pm-2pm
Logistics: No need to RSVP. The CRNs are unfunded efforts, so attendees will be asked to cover their own lunch bills. Cash appreciated.