SC opens the door for better justice to Bhopal gas tragedy victims

And it happened 14 years after the apex court had seemingly diluted the harsher charges against the accused — the key officials of Union Carbide India limited (UCIL).

The Supreme Court’s verdict of May 11 clarified many areas of ambiguity and straightened the facts. It said the ruling in 1996 did not limit the powers of the trial court to frame harsher charges. The verdict by the Supreme Court on the Bhopal gas tragedy can be seen as a fine balancing act. The order by a five-judge Special Bench dismissed the CBI’s petition on various grounds.

Since any attempt to reopen the case was always fraught with danger of inviting similar pleas in other cases, the highest court probably kept wider implications in mind in coming to its decision. The CBI failed to put forth a ‘satisfactory explanation’ for 14 years’ delay in approaching the Supreme Court with its curative petition.

The outpouring of public outrage following the sentence of two-year maximum imprisonment to the accused in June last year for the offence of causing death due to negligent act made the premier investigating agency to wake up. But the verdict has definitely provided a glimmer of hope for lakhs of victims who suffered since the night of December 2, 1984, with the leakage of lethal methyl isocyanate gas from Bhopal plant of the Union Carbide. Officially, 5,295 people were killed and 5,68,292 others were left permanently afflicted with deadly diseases.

The Bench said the assumption that the 1996 verdict came in the way of framing tougher charges against the high-profile accused was ‘wrong and without any basis.’
The CBI had pleaded that the trial court could not go ahead with framing of tougher charges relating to culpable homicide not amounting to murder entailing maximum 10-year jail term as sentence despite coming across with evidences due to the Supreme Court’s 1996 verdict.

The judgment then delivered by a Bench headed by Chief Justice of India A M Ahmadi had directed the framing of charges against the accused for causing death by negligent act under Section 304A and others of the Indian Penal Code, which carried the maximum two-year imprisonment as sentence. “In the 1996 judgment, this court was at pains to make it absolutely clear that its findings were based on materials gathered in investigation and brought before the court till that stage,” the apex court pointed out.

Judicial independence

So, in this way, what the Bench clarified was that the trial court was within its rights to frame harsher charges as per the evidence available with it. Also, the court justified the conclusion then arrived at by saying that it was based on material produced ‘at that time’. The Special Bench rather made a bold assertion when it said its order was not binding and that it was not a fetter against the proper exercise of power by a court of competent jurisdiction under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code.

The apex court’s views were quite forthright when it said that every court was bound only by the statute books. “No decision by any court, this court not excluded, can be read in a manner as to nullify the express provisions of an Act or the Code and the 1996 judgment never intended to do so,” the court says.

Is the observation made just to maintain the sanctity of the institution or to enable the trial court to interpret the law based on any fresh material evidence?
“How can they say so? Under Article 141, whatever is said or ordered by the Supreme Court becomes law. They are the ones who caused the mistake. The court is now trying to absolve itself of the mistake it committed,” former Delhi high court judge Justice R S Sodhi said.

According to senior counsel Colin Gonsalves, it was the fault of the Central government which did not act for so long to rectify the injustices caused to lakhs of victims of the gas tragedy. “Central government has betrayed the people of Bhopal again and again. It should have filed the curative petition at least 10 years ago,” he said.

However, what is important here is the fact that the Supreme Court has noted neither the CBI nor the Madhya Pradesh government had questioned the 1996 judgment or filed any review petition under Article 137 of the Constitution and instead proceeded for the next 14 years to prosecute the accused under Sections 304A, 336, 337, 338 read with Section 35 of the IPC.

Now, the Chief Justice of India S H Kapadia, while writing the order, said that the petitions filed by the CBI and Madhya Pradesh government before the sessions court for revision can still be considered with an open mind. The apex court said if according to the CBI, the magistrate failed to appreciate the correct legal position and misread its decision of September 13, 1996, as “tying his hands” from exercising the power under the Code, this can certainly be corrected by the appellate or revisional court.

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