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When the gas leaked, Arjun flew away to pray

New Delhi, July 3: When the deadly gas was spreading havoc in Bhopal, Arjun Singh was hundreds of miles away — praying.

Hours after the leaking methyl isocyanate gas had left a trail of death in the Madhya Pradesh capital, the state’s then chief minister had taken a flight to Allahabad, where he visited the chapel of his childhood school to pray for “moral courage”.

The startling revelation comes in Arjun’s yet-to-be-released memoirs, A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time: An Autobiography, being published posthumously by Hay House.

At the chapel, Arjun says, he prayed for victims of the gas tragedy and “gain moral courage to act personally in the face of monumental catastrophe”.

In his autobiography, the late Congress leader says he wants to set the record straight on allegations of his “disappearance” in the wake of the enormous tragedy that unfolded on the intervening night of December 2 and 3, 1984.

“Late in the morning of December 3, 1984, I quietly took off from Bhopal in a plane and landed in Allahabad, about 550km away. I went to my old school, St. Mary Convent, where with the permission of the principal, I sat in the chapel to pray for the welfare of my people and gain moral courage,” Arjun writes on page 175 in chapter 21 titled The Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

Abdul Jabbar, convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sangathan, an organisation of gas victims, said Arjun’s explanation was difficult to fathom. “How can a chief minister go to pray 550km away when citizens were dying right, left and centre?”

That night, Jabbar recalled, angry protesters had raised the slogan “gas nikli adhi raat, Arjun bhaga ratoon raat”.

Translated, it would read “gas leaked at midnight, Arjun ran away under the cover of darkness”.

Jabbar said as far as he remembered, Arjun was reportedly advised by the local administration to stay away after the lethal gas had leaked from the Union Carbide factory in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. “Why did he wait for 25 years to tell this?” he added, alleging that Arjun’s explanation in his autobiography was an “afterthought”.

Arjun’s disappearance was raised before Rajiv Gandhi, too, when the then Prime Minister visited Bhopal on December 4.

Rajiv had asked Arjun to clarify but the chief minister had suggested setting up a commission of inquiry to address all issues, including the allegation of his disappearance.

A commission, under Justice N.K. Singh, was appointed but it was folded up within nine months even before it had made any progress.

Jabbar also questioned Arjun’s move to name the then Union home minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, as responsible for Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson being allowed to leave India after visiting Bhopal on December 7, days after the tragedy.

In his memoirs, Arjun claims that when he broached the subject of Anderson’s arrest with Rajiv, the Prime Minister had kept mum.

However, on page 174, Arjun gives an account of his meeting with Rajiv on December 6, adding an element of mystery. “At one of the hospitals (in Bhopal) that we visited, Rajiv took me aside to brief me. It was something rather confidential, which, naturally, I could not have shared with anyone. Everyone later wanted to know what did he say? What was it all about? What were his instructions or his brief? Well even today I cannot reveal what he told me. It is a state secret that I shall carry to my grave.”

Arjun died in March 2011.