Keshub Mahindra, an Indian industrialist who built a family steel and automotive business into a vast multinational conglomerate, but whose reputation was marred by his conviction for negligence in a poison gas leak that killed thousands of people in Bhopal in 1984, died on April 12. He was 99.
His company, Mahindra Group, confirmed his death in a statement but did not specify where he died.
Under Mr. Mahindra’s leadership, the company expanded rapidly from its core businesses of steel trading and building Willys jeeps to become a conglomerate with businesses in more than 20 industries, including cloud and network technology, hospitality, renewable energy, logistics, financial services and real estate.
He made international partnerships with companies like Peugeot, British Telecom and Mitsubishi, helping those companies build businesses in India while taking Mahindra global. He did not neglect Mahindra’s core business as he expanded, and in time the company became a leading automobile manufacturer in India, known for SUVs, and a global purveyor of tractors.
Today, the Mahindra Group employs more than 260,000 people in more than 100 countries and has annual revenues of $19 billion. Mr. Mahindra’s personal fortune was worth $1.2 billion, according to Forbes.
Mr. Mahindra said there were two main keys to building a successful multifaceted international business: to avoid arbitrarily forcing new management on businesses that he had bought, and to know when to walk away from a bad deal.
“When acquiring some of these businesses, we make sure that the senior management of that group stays with us,” Mr. Mahindra told an interviewer at Harvard Business School in 2013. “We make very few changes.”
And, he added, “We are not afraid of getting out of a business if it doesn’t meet global standards.”
He also served on corporate boards of major Indian companies, like Tata Steel and ICICI Bank. It was his role as chairman of one of those boards, Union Carbide India Ltd., that involved him in the Bhopal disaster.
In the early morning of Dec. 3, 1984, 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas spewed out of a Union Carbide pesticide factory perilously near densely populated neighborhoods in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh State in central India.
More than 3,000 people are thought to have died that night, many while they slept, and many more — estimates range from 10,000 to more than 15,000 — died from longer-term effects of the chemical exposure. Hundreds of thousands were sickened or injured.
Activists and the Indian government blamed lax management at the plant for the accident. There had been numerous reports of accidents and dangerous conditions at the factory before the disaster.
The company blamed sabotage and contended that local officials were responsible for management of the plant.
Mr. Mahindra, V.P. Gokhale, who was Union Carbide India’s managing director, and Union Carbide’s chairman, Warren Anderson, an American citizen who had flown to India after the disaster, were arrested on Dec. 7. They were charged with seven offenses, the most serious of which were criminal conspiracy and culpable homicide.
Mr. Anderson was released in a matter of hours on bail on the condition that he leave the country immediately. Mr. Mahindra and Mr. Gokhale were released on bail the following week.
The Indian government filed a lawsuit against Union Carbide in 1986, and three years later India’s Supreme Court ordered the company to pay $470 million in damages, with each victim getting an average of $550. As part of the settlement, the government dropped criminal charges against Mr. Anderson, who died in 2014 without facing trial in India.
The prosecution of Mr. Mahindra and seven other former executives, all of them Indian, dragged on for more than a quarter century, bogged down by an inefficient court system. In 2010, all eight were convicted of death by negligence. (By that time, one defendant had died.) They were each fined about $2,100 and sentenced to two years in jail but were released on bail.
Satinath Sarangi, an advocate for the victims of the disaster, described the verdict afterward as “the world’s worst industrial disaster reduced to a traffic accident.”
In the 2013 interview with Harvard Business School, Mr. Mahindra argued that as chairman he was not the one running the company’s day-to-day affairs and contended that he had been scapegoated.
“How can they pick on a nonexecutive chairman who has no interest in the company capital-wise, who is not empowered to manage the company?” he asked.
Still, he said, “even today it weighs on my mind, for it was a terrible tragedy. It never should have happened.”
Keshub Mahindra was born on Oct. 9, 1923, in Shimla, then the summer capital of British-ruled India and now the capital of Himachal Pradesh State, in the country’s northern reaches.
His father, Kailash Chandra Mahindra, founded the steel trading company that was first known as Mahindra & Mohammed together with his brother, Jagdish Chandra Mahindra, and Ghulam Mohammed in 1945.
Mr. Mohammed left the company and became Pakistan’s minister of finance after India’s partition in 1947, and the Mahindra brothers changed the company name to Mahindra & Mahindra.
Keshub Mahindra, who had recently graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, joined the company that year. He became chairman in 1963, after his father died and not long after the company had expanded into tractors through a deal with International Harvester. The company now claims to be the world’s largest tractor maker by volume.
He stepped down in 2012, and his nephew Anand became chairman. His other survivors include his wife, Sudha Mahindra; three daughters, Uma Malhotra, Leena Labroo and Yuthica Mahindra; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Mahindra became a major philanthropist, focusing much of his charitable work on education, especially for women. The K.C. Mahindra Education Trust, founded by his father, has helped educate more than 500,000 underprivileged girls across 14 Indian states and has handed out more than $119 million in grants and scholarships, according to its most recent annual report.