NEW DELHI – Despite having different religions, two Muslim and Hindu women are coming together to bring justice for survivors of India’s worst industrial disaster.
"It was like the end of the world,” Muslim activist Rashida Bi, 56, told OnIslam.net.
“Those who died that night were lucky. The survivors are the unlucky ones.”
Rashida has joined hand with Champa Devi Shukla, a 58-year-old Hindu activist, to bring justice for survivors of the 1984 gas leak disaster in the city of Bhopal.
At least 3,000 people were killed in a gas leak at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal.
Over 500,000 people were exposed to methylisocyanate gas and other chemicals.
Losing six members of her family to cancer after the gas leak, the Muslim activist herself still suffers from chronic breathlessness.
Rashida had to leave her role as homemaker and seek out employment, as there was no other way to maintain her household.
At the time, the Muslim activist learned that the government had prepared a plan to provide employment to individuals affected by the leak.
“Someone told me that near Bharat Talkies (in Bhopal) names of the persons affected by gas tragedy were being registered,” she said.
“I got my name entered and thus began a new chapter of struggle in my life.”
Eleven months after the gas tragedy, the government launched an initiative for women affected by the leak.
They were selected for a three-month training program. A group of 100 women was selected, which included 50 Hindu and 50 Muslim women.
After the three-month period was over, the women were told to apply for a loan and start their own business.
The women demanded to be directly employed, but authorities would not hire them. They had been working at a unit of the Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Sangh – but all of them were asked to leave once the training was over.
The women felt cheated and confused, wondering why they had completed the training if they were not to be employed.
In response, the women formed a union named Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, which was registered in 1987.
Rashida Bi was elected president and Champa Devi Shukla as secretary.
The union fought for the economic rights of the gas leak survivors and repeatedly drove home the fact that those responsible for the tragedy should not go unpunished.
Living a similar tragedy, Champa Dev Shukla lost her husband to bladder cancer in 1993.
“My eldest son suffered constant pain in the chest and was always in distress because his lungs had been badly affected after the tragedy,” she told OnIslam.net.
“Unable to bear the agony, he took his own life on May 5, 1992, consuming Celphos tablets.
“My younger daughter was paralyzed six months after the gas exposure. Even after extensive treatment, her mouth remains twisted to this day.
“My younger son Sunil Kumar, who was also a victim of the gas leakage, was killed in a
road accident,” the Hindu woman recalled.
These personal tragedies in quick succession took their inevitable toll on the Hindu woman.
She felt that her life was empty and barren, and fell into a state of mental paralysis.
Dev Shukla soon came to the realization that there were many like her who had also lost their loved ones senselessly and tragically.
Therefore, she decided to dedicate the remaining days of her life fighting for justice for the Bhopal gas victims.
The efforts of the Muslim and Hindu activists have galvanized support for their campaign to bring justice to the gas leak victims.
Rashida and Dev Shukla were awarded the Noble Goldman Prize for the environment in 2004 in recognition of their efforts.
True to their cause, they donated the entire prize money for the welfare of the gas leak survivors, establishing the Chingari Trust, with female-only trustees.
This fund attempts to help in three ways; aiding victims, bringing the responsible parties to justice, and preventing future accidents from happening.
First, Chingari provides medical care for the tragedy survivors and helps women whose families have lost their breadwinners to find new ways to earn a living for themselves and their families.
In addition, they have drawn in low-income, illiterate women like themselves from the margins of society, bringing them to the forefront of a closely-watched showdown between victims and the chemical companies that they seek to hold accountable for the
gas leak and its deadly legacy.
Muslims account for 160 million of India's 1.1 billion people, the world's third-largest Muslim population after those of Indonesia and Pakistan.
Muslims also complain of being discriminated against in jobs.They account for less than seven percent of public service employees, only five percent of railways workers, around four percent of banking employees and there are only 29,000 Muslims in India's 1.3 million-strong military.
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