BHOPAL The capital of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal (population 1.4 million in 2001) was founded by the Afghan Dost Mohammad in 1709, and was attacked by the Marathas in the late eighteenth century. The local Muslim ruler, the nawāb of Bhopal, entered into an alliance with the British in 1817, shortly before they defeated the Marathas in 1818. The small state, which had only about 730,000 inhabitants in 1931, survived under British rule. For several decades it was ruled by a succession of remarkable ladies. In 1926 Sultan Jahan Begum abdicated in favor of her son, Hamidullah, who then played a very active role in Indian politics prior to independence. In 1931, before Mahatma Gandhi left for London to attend the Second Round Table Conference, Hamidullah tried his best to promote a Hindu-Muslim compromise, with Gandhi's blessing. He could not achieve much at that time; he was later eclipsed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who after 1938 emerged as the sole spokesman of the Indian Muslims. In 1947 the princely state of Bhopal acceded to the Indian Union, and in 1956 it was integrated into the new central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
The area around Bhopal is known for its rich historical heritage. The famous Buddhist stupa of Sanchi, built in the third century b.c. and embellished in subsequent centuries, is situated at a distance of about 12 miles (20 km) from Bhopal. The old capital of this region, Vidisha, where the Mauryan emperor Ashoka served as viceroy in his youth, is located about 30 miles (50 km) to the northeast of Bhopal.
In independent India, Bhopal became an industrial city. The U.S. company Union Carbide built a major factory for chemical pesticides there. The plant attracted worldwide attention in 1984, when thousands of people died due to a leak of its poisonous isocyanate gas, and thousands more became ill. Union Carbide was sued for damages, and it was requested that Warren Anderson, the chairman of the company, be extradited to India to be tried for homicide. (The Bhopal city court based the request for the extradition on Section 304, Indian Penal Code, which refers to "causing death by rash or negligent act." The U.S. government rejected the request on technical grounds.) Union Carbide argued that the leak was caused by the negligence or even "sabotage" of its Indian workers, but those accusations could not be proven. The case dragged on for years and was finally settled out of court, but the meager compensation paid by the company hardly reached those who were actually affected by the disaster. Thus Bhopal became a symbol for the carelessness with which multinational companies handle their operations in Third World countries. The Bhopal disaster has tended to make people forget that this city is currently a thriving industrial center that manufactures a great variety of products, including cotton textiles, electrical goods, and jewelry. It is also known for its cultural activities.
Begam, Sultan Jahan. History of My Life. 3 vols. London: John Murray, 1910–1927.
Morehouse, Ward, and Arun Subramaniam. The Bhopal Tragedy. New York: Council on International and Public Affairs, 1986.