In a setback for activists seeking to reopen the Bhopal gas disaster case and bring those responsible to serious justice, the Supreme Court today dismissed a 'curative' petition by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Madhya Pradesh government against its 1996 verdict diluting the charges against the accused.
The CBI had sought a retrial and a review of the 1996 Supreme Court judgement that reduced the charges against the accused - including Keshub Mahindra, then United Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) chairman and six others - from culpable homicide not amounting to murder to causing death by criminal negligence.
Asking the court to reconsider its earlier ruling, the CBI said, "The men behind one of the world's biggest industrial catastrophes should not walk away with a minimal punishment of two years despite ample evidence to show the commission of an offence of homicide."
While rejecting the petition, the five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia did leave a window of opportunity open, saying the 1996 judgment in no way shackled a trial court from framing charges under the more stringent provisions of the criminal procedure court.
On 13 September 1996, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by then chief justice A H Ahmadi had diluted the charges against the accused from Section 304 Part II of the Indian Penal Code, which provides for a maximum of ten years' imprisonment, to Section 304(A) of the IPC, which covers rash and negligent acts and carries a maximum sentence of two years.
Subsequently, on 7 June last year a Bhopal magistrate let off Mahindra (one of India's leading industrialists), Vijay Gokhale, the then managing director of UCIL, and senior managers Kishore Kamdar, J N Mukund, S P Choudhary, K V Shetty, and S I Quereshi, with what seemed little more than a slap on the wrist.