Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra was India's foreign secretary at the time of the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984. He speaks to CNN-IBN Karan Thapar on whether Union Carbide Corporation chief Warren Anderson asked for and received safe passage, and if he did met senior officials of the government of India while he was in the country.
Let's start with Warren Anderson. In 1984 when he visited India shortly after the Bhopal gas leak, did he request for safe passage?
Yes, indeed, he did through the United States embassy here.
In fact, Gordon Streeb, the American deputy chief of mission at the time who was charge d'affaires in Ambassador Harry Barnes absence, has gone on record to say that he contacted you with this request. Is that true?
Yes, that is true. It is not wrong. Barnes was out of India at that time, and Streeb contacted me. He was entitled to do so.
And what exactly did he say to you?
It was 26 years ago. So, I can't produce the exact words. But he said Anderson wanted to come. It was a tragic situation. He wanted to see things for himself. He wanted to offer his condolences. But he will come only if he is granted safe passage.
And what did you say?
Well, I said I can't assure you of safe passage. I will have to consult the concerned authorities and I'll get back to you.
And what did you do?
The ministry of external affairs cannot grant safe passage. The foreign secretary doesn't have those powers. I got in touch with the home ministry. I got in touch with the cabinet secretary because those are the people. Safe passage had to be assured in Bhopal itself, not in Delhi. So, they had to get in touch with the authorities there in the state. The foreign secretary does not normally get in touch with state authorities. I told them what Streeb has asked me for, and I awaited their instructions.
In the end, was safe passage granted?
It was, yes.
How long did the process take?
Not very long, the same day.
The same day.
At the time and in the circumstances that prevailed, was this an understandable request or was it an unusual request?
Well I think it was quite an understandable request. The man wanted to come, express his condolences, sorrow. I thought it is quite understandable and if he wanted to come we should let him come.
So, would I be right in concluding that there was no problem that the government of India had in granting safe passage?
Not really, no.
At the time, Rajiv Gandhi was not just prime minister, he was also foreign minister which of course made him in that capacity your immediate boss. Was Rajiv Gandhi consulted or informed?
Rajiv Gandhi was not in Delhi. And I felt that really the home ministry was concerned and they will do the needful, which they did.
So, you did not contact Rajiv Gandhi at all yourself.
In those days you didn't have e-mails; you did not have mobile telephones. I think he was electioneering. I don't know exactly where he was. He was not in Delhi, he was not immediately available to me.
So, he wasn't consulted during the process of making the decision. Is that what you are saying?
Yes, that's what I am saying.
Was he informed afterwards that safe passage had been asked for and granted?
Well, not only he would have learnt, he would have been informed afterwards by the Prime Minister's Office.
And did he object to the granting of safe passage or did he concur with that decision?
Obviously he concurred with that decision. But that was after the event.
Quite right. He found out after, but he concurred. He didn't object; he didn't raise any objection whatsoever.
No. But as I said, he was not consulted beforehand.
But he was informed afterwards.
Now, as it happens when Anderson reached Bhopal on December 7, he was arrested. Would that arrest, therefore, have been a breach of promise?
Well, I would say yes. He was given safe passage. And then the arrest was wrong. And the authorities I think realised that that was a bad thing to do and they released him.
As you said, you contacted the home ministry to process the request for safe passage and they in turn had to ensure that safe passage was available in Bhopal. You said it was in Bhopal that it mattered, not Delhi. So, when (Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister) Arjun Singh arrested Anderson, did this mean Arjun Singh was uninformed and unaware of the safe passage or was he being defiant?
Did Arjun Singh really arrest him or the administrative authorities or the police arrested him, I can't say. In Delhi, I think Narasimha Rao was home minister. He had been my foreign minister. I was content to leave matters with him, with the home secretary and others I consulted.
But you are suggesting that the arrest in Bhopal may not have happened either at Arjun Singh's instructions or even possibly with Arjun Singh's knowledge. It might have been the administration doing it without the chief minister being in the loop?
Possibly. I can't be definite about it. But it could happen, yes.
Now, after Anderson was arrested, Streeb says he found out and he immediately got in touch with you again. What did he say?
No, that I don't recall that he found out and he came back to me. No.
He said so on television that he came back to you.
After he was arrested?
That's right. He says that he came back to you or to the foreign ministry. And he says that most of his communication with the foreign ministry was in fact with you.
Naturally the head of mission would be in touch with the foreign secretary. That was understandable.
But you don't recall him coming back to you after Anderson's arrest.
I don't precisely recall that but he may well have done that, in which case I would have gotten back to the home ministry; they would have gotten back to Bhopal administration there.
When Anderson was arrested and thereafter released, was Rajiv Gandhi informed or consulted about the fact that a promise given by the government of India had been either advertently or inadvertently breached?
That I cannot really comment on because the PMO would have done that. I do not recall being in touch with the then prime minister in this case. The prime minister really was not involved in this.
So, if I understand you correctly, you as foreign secretary in the foreign ministry were clearly, as you say, involved in arranging and processing the safe passage -- the request came to you, you passed it on to the home office -- but you do not recall whether Streeb contacted you after Anderson was arrested and you don't recall whether you had to contact the home office at that point.
I don't precisely recall that but I may have done that.
And you are clear about one thing that arresting him was a mistake; it was a breach of promise.
It was, yes. The man came on the understanding that he would have safe passage.
Therefore, it also follows that releasing him was the right thing to do.
Of course, it was the right thing to do.
So releasing him was the right thing to do and it was clearly in India's interest.
It was obviously in India's interest.
Uppermost on your mind at that time when you proferred this request to the home ministry was India's parlous economic state, the uncertainty, the need to maintain good relations with America, and the need to ensure a flow of investment from the West.
The economy was in poor shape; politically there were uncertainties; India needed investments. Would investors, intending investors, -- if this man let me say, let me put it crudely, there was law and order problem in Bhopal at the time. If the mob had gotten hold of him, lynched him; or if we had just having given safe passage assurance arrested him, kept him in detention for a long time, we would have a running feud with the United States of America. What good would that do to India's image?
Let's now come to what happened after Anderson was released by Bhopal, put on a government plane and brought to Delhi. Did Anderson meet you?
Yes, he met me. He met me I think on the advice of Streeb.
I want to ask you about that meeting. Did he come on his own or was he accompanied by American officials?
No, he came on his own.
What did he say to you?
Well, he looked deeply troubled, bedraggled, very sad, sorrowful, remorseful. And he said to me, 'I am shattered by what I have seen. Mr. Rasgotra, it will be my endeavour, we can't undo what has happened, it will be my endeavour to ensure a generous compensation package for those who had suffered'.
This emotion that he showed, did you believe it was genuine or was it being put on?
Well, no, it couldn't be put on you see. You can see from a man's face. He was deeply disturbed.
He was genuinely, deeply disturbed?
He was genuinely remorseful?
I think so.
He committed himself to the fullest compensation for the people of Bhopal?
Fullest, I don't know. But he said he would work for a generous compensation.
Did he accept in that conversation the responsibility of Union Carbide for what had happened?
Well, naturally when he said, 'I will try and work out a very generous package', he accepted responsibility.
You have no doubt about that?
It is implied that he accepted responsibility.
Anderson at that time was out on bail. Did he in that conversation with you make any commitment to return if he was required by the investigators or the court?
No, he didn't and in fact, to be frank with you, I didn't know that he was on bail.
You had no idea.
I had no idea. I said the man had been granted safe passage and there was some mishap in Bhopal, but he was then let off, put on a plane and sent to Delhi.
This is a very important thing. You were foreign secretary, you helped process the request for safe passage, you were aware that he had been arrested, but you weren't aware he had been released on bail.
No, I wasn't.
How long was he with you?
Maybe 20-25 minutes. It is a brief meeting.
Was this meeting at your office in South Block?
So, it is possible that the footage that we are seeing at the moment of Anderson clearly outside what looks like South Block might have been when he was either calling on you or departing from that meeting.
Roughly what time of day was this event?
I don't recall exactly. I think it was late afternoon.
Did Anderson, either after meeting you in Delhi or before, meet the President of India?
I have been reading reports in the press that he met Gyaniji (then President Gyani Zail Singh). I did make no appointments of any kind for him. I also have read reports that he met Narasimha Raoji. Either the embassy or he directly, must have made those appointments.
But you as foreign secretary or your office, did not seek an appointment for Anderson to meet either the President or the home minister.
No, I don't recall doing any such thing.
Is it possible that he might have met either the President or the home minister without you or the foreign office knowing about it?
So, these reports that he met...
The President meets a number of people. So does the home minister. They don't necessarily ask the foreign secretary whether they should receive them or not.
Did Anderson fly out of Delhi and India that night?
He told me that he was leaving that night. And he must have gone out that night. I didn't hear further about this.
Just one meeting and you heard nothing thereafter?
I heard nothing further about it. Then you also recall, I was due to retire four or six weeks after these events.
Is it possible that the White House or then US President Ronald Reagan may have rung the prime minister without you knowing?
It is possible.
Afterwards, did Rajiv Gandhi ever express any concern, disquiet, regret about the fact that Anderson had been released and then let out of the country?
No, I don't recall any such conversation with me after that.
So, no questioning, no remorse, no regret from Rajiv Gandhi's part.
Remorse about what? The prime minister must have been distressed about what happened in Bhopal.
No, I am talking about releasing Anderson.
In other words, he was completely in agreement not just with the decision to give safe passage, but he was also in agreement with the decisions to release him and let him leave the country.
Clearly, yes. And there was no question about this. But I said to you in the process of dealing with the request, I had no occasion to consult the prime minister; and Rajiv Gandhi was not in any way involved in this.
Would you say with hindsight that granting safe passage to Anderson, then releasing him after he was wrongly arrested, and finally permitting him to leave the country -- all the three were clearly the right thing to do and in India's interest.
I can't say arresting him was the right thing but I think granting the passage, free passage, was the right thing to do; and letting him go, was the right thing to do.
Kind courtesy: CNN-IBN