'The Railway Men': Family of ‘unsung hero’ of Bhopal gas tragedy set to sue Yash Raj Films

Ghulam Dastgir's sons upset at being ignored; apprehensive about portrayal of father

bhopal gas tragedy dastgir A collage of late Ghulam Dastgir, his son Shadab Dastgir

Even as the trailer of Netflix miniseries The Railway Men, based on the heroic efforts of Railway employees in saving multiple lives on the night of Bhopal gas tragedy, has evoked much interest ahead of the 39th anniversary of the tragedy, the family of a ‘unsung hero’ of the night has decided to sue the producers Yash Raj Films (YRF).

Sons of late Ghulam Dastgir, the then deputy station superintendent (DSS) at Bhopal Railway station, who was instrumental in stopping the Bhopal-bound trains at faraway stations and early flagging-off of the Mumbai-Gorakhpur Express to save countless lives, are apprehensive about the portrayal of their father in the miniseries, especially because YRF did not at all consult the family in making of the miniseries.

Shadab Dastgir, youngest son of late Dastgir, says that his father’s heroic role in the entire episode on Bhopal railway station on the night intervening December 2 and 3, 1984, has mainly remained unsung. “Little official acknowledgment and appreciation came his way in these four decades. And now when an OTT series has been made on the episode, it is upsetting that we were never consulted about the actual happenings,” he told The Week.

“I have watched the teaser and the official trailer and I can make out that the character being portrayed by Kay Kay Menon is based upon my father. But then we are highly apprehensive as to how much close to truth the character has been made,” Shadab, who is into the family business of chemicals and fertilisers, said.

He also mentioned that the family had already sold out the copyright of a script on Dastgir's life and work - based on narration by his father himself during his lifetime - to a production house called Small Box Media. The Mumbai-based production house was planning a full-length movie based on the script when YRF cut in with the miniseries.

Shadab said that Small Box Media has already served legal notice upon YRF on November 9, but the company has replied denying any knowledge about the script as mentioned by Small Box Media and therefore any infringement into copyright.

Also, in the reply to the notice, YRF’s lawyers have claimed that The Railway Men is “a fictionalised account of events that unfolded the night of the incident. The series is not and does not claim to be biographical or otherwise based on the life story of respected late Shri Gulam Dastagir. The characters in the series are inspired from several publicly available stories and records, and have been uniquely crafted by Our Clients (YRF) to maintain authenticity of a sensitive historical event.”

Shadab said that the Small Box Media is also likely to file a case against YRF in Bombay High Court after the Diwali vacations of the court are over. “We (Dastgir family) will also file a case in Jabalpur High Court or the lower court, as per legal advice.”

One who did not bother about his own life’

Ghulam Dastgir’s heroic act on the fateful night of Bhopal gas tragedy did not make immediate headlines and went almost totally unrecognised. It was only after his death that stories started emerging and people could know about his key role in saving many lives on the railway station.

Shadab Dastgir, who was 13 when the tragedy struck, remembers how his mother fled with him and his three brothers on the night of the tragedy, but remained extremely worried about the family head, who was on duty at the railway station.

Shadab and his brothers went looking for Ghulam Dastgir, then 54, at different places including the station and Hamidia Hospital the next morning, when the railway official did not arrive home at the usual time of 8/8.30 am. Shocked by the heaps of dead bodies they saw everywhere, the young brothers returned home and were much relieved when late Dastgir staggered back home at around 11.30am, his eyes puffed up beyond recognition and his body ready to give up.

The first thing the badly-affected Dastgir said was ‘(station superintendent H.S.) Dhurve sahib nahi rahe’ (Dhurve sahib is dead), Shadab recalls. “Even in very bad health conditions, my father was thinking about his colleagues.”

Late Dastgir then narrated what happened at the railway station the night before to his family. It was around 1 am when Dastgir had come out of his cabin and found passengers and employees falling badly sick on the platforms.

Though he had no idea what had happened or its magnitude, the DSS was quick to understand that something really serious was unfolding. The official took a decision to call up his colleagues at the nearest big railway stations – Itarsi and Vidisha – on either side of Bhopal and ask them to stop the trains coming into Bhopal. Despite official constraints and arguments, Dastgir managed to convince the officials to do this, thus stopping the trains' flow into the ill-fated city that night.

However, the choc-a-block full Bombay (Mumbai)-Gorakhpur Express had already rolled into the station and Dastgir could see the passengers inside the train feeling the effect of the toxic fumes that had by then enveloped the station. The train had a scheduled halt of over 30 minutes at Bhopal, but if that duration had elapsed, it could have proved fatal for hundreds of passengers aboard the train.

“As the operational head at the time, my father took the decision to move out the train before schedule. He first ran to the driver (loco pilot) and then to the guard of the train, handing over written notes to them, taking the entire responsibility of flagging off the train early and he was able to convince them to take off,” Shadab recalls his father’s narration.

Later in the night too, Dastgir did not follow other employees who decided to leave the station, but remained at his post, trying his best to help everyone around. “There were many deaths at the railway station that night including several railway employees. The toll could have been higher but for my father and some of his colleagues,” Shadab says.

A plaque displaying the names of employees who died on the night of the Bhopal gas tragedy, at the Bhopal railway station A plaque displaying the names of employees who died on the night of the Bhopal gas tragedy, at the Bhopal railway station

There is not much record about the role of Bhopal railway station officials and employees from the fateful night. The only thing that is public is a neglected marble plaque on platform number 1 of the station, engraved with 23 names of employees who perished that fateful night.

As for Dastgir who survived, no recognition or appreciation came, apart from a Rotary Club felicitation in Mumbai in October 1985, followed by a small felicitation function by Bhopal divisional railway manager office. Shadab Dastgir and his brothers dutifully keep the newspaper cuttings and correspondences related to these events in their records.

Late Dastgir repeatedly fended off his sons’ request to talk to railway higher ups or the political leadership of the country in the matter. “My father, a man of high principles, always maintained that helping someone is a selfless act and recognition should never be sought. If one is due for recognition, it will come without any efforts, he said,” Shadab mentions.

After Dastgir’s death in 2003 due to complications arising out of health effects of the toxic gas he inhaled, his sons wrote to the president of India seeking recognition of their father’s role. However, the letter got forwarded to the railway ministry, which replied to the family saying that it was a matter related to the Madhya Pradesh government. “We did not try any further,” Shadab says.

So, the late Ghulam Dastgir remained more or less an unsung hero. And now, when the episode is about to get into public domain in a big way, the Dastgir family is expectedly concerned and upset about the way their father might get portrayed.

Join our WhatsApp Channel to get the latest news, exclusives and videos on WhatsApp