In the absence of the Southasian Hibakusha

The Japanese tenacity in the fight against nuclear proliferation was the result of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty years ago. In the early morning of 6 August 1945, Japanese radar mistakenly identified the American B-29 bomber carrying 'Little Boy' as coming on a routine high-altitude reconnaissance mission. Fifteen minutes later, Hiroshima was annihilated, and 80,000 lives had been vapourised.

The Hibakusha are the victims of the fireball and the raging wind of that day, living testimony to an act of terror when one country used the nuclear bomb against a people. Those who were very young are still with us today. Yoshitaka Sakai was 10 when the atom bomb fell on his city, slaughtering his family of 13. "I picked maggots using chopsticks from my mother's decaying back whilst trying to save her. I helplessly stood by my brother's side as he died begging for water," he said. "The Motoyasu River was clogged with floating corpses. People with popped out eyes, exploded bellies and peeled skin were everywhere. Those who died were the fortunate ones."

On 6 August 2005, as I stood alongside 60,000 silent participants at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial park to commemorate the horrific day, it was Southasia that was on my mind. India and Pakistan are proceeding with their nuclear armament programmes. In both countries, the tests of Chagai and Pokhran are seen as nationalist enterprises and proof of strategic virility and technological prowess. We have no Hibakusha to remind us that what the two governments are doing by developing nuclear weapons as well as the delivery weapons (Agni, Ghauri) is putting our future in the shredder.

India and Pakistan, together with Israel, are the three states that refuse to sign the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NFT). And it is New Delhi that is squarely responsible for instigating the nuclear race in the Subcontinent. While the Jadugoda tribals in Jharkhand endure radioactive poison from unprotected uranium mining, Indian strategic analysts preen when President George W. Bush declares of India, as he did on July 18, "a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology". Said Bush, he would "work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India" and "seek agreement from Congress to adjust US laws and policies".

Meanwhile, Islamabad's generals no longer get hauled over the coals for their nuclear aspirations. If anything, they receive nods and winks of approval. The British government is contemplating nuclear co-operation with Pakistan, irrespective of the fact that the world's supreme nuclear suspect Abdul Qadeer Khan was caught in January 2003 doling out weapons secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea for a price.

The global anti-proliferation campaign may not be able to stop Southasia's headlong rush towards nuclear weaponisation, but do we not owe it to ourselves to do so? If we do not have our own Hibakusha, at least we have our own imagination, our own poverty, our own hopes for a prosperous future. Simply put, we are not able to comprehend the scale of dying in a nuclear conflagration. The lumbering bomber Enola Gay took six hours to fly from the Tinian airbase in the West Pacific before dropping its payload over Japan. Whereas, at the push of a button, India's Prithvi missile would take within three to five minutes to reach almost anywhere in Pakistan, and Pakistan's Ghauri missile would require about five minutes to reach Delhi. Neither country has the know-how to recall a nuclear missile fired in error.

Hiroshima had an estimated 250,000 residents when it was bombed. What would one nuclear explosion, on ground or on air, do to the ten million plus living in and around Bombay, Delhi, Karachi, and Lahore? The casualties — in the immediate aftermath and long term — would easily come to a million and more. The relief apparatus would have been vapourised as well. One just has to remember the absence of emergency relief during the Bhopal gas disaster, whose victims perhaps come closest to being India's and Southasia's Hibakusha.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once said that he was willing to feed his fellow-citizens grass, but Pakistan would have nuclear weapons. India used the name of the Prince of Peace to signal in code that Pokhran had succeeded — "The Buddha has smiled". Such lack of caring and flippancy on the way to our collective morgue. But Southasia's anti-nuclear campaign has not even begun. Without a tangible face to put to the intangible impression of nuclear annihilation and ensuing suffering, our disorientated pressure groups have not been able to spark the terrible imagination.

The fixation on Kashmir has even diverted the activists. If there is going to be a nuclear Armageddon in the near future, it will probably have Kashmir as the cause. But what are the chances that Srinagar will be nuked? In the event of war between India and Pakistan, the man with the hand on the nuclear trigger will want to cause maximum damage; he will send the nuclear tipped missiles to Bombay, Delhi, Karachi, Lahore.

In Hiroshima in August this year, a helicopter hovered 600 meters above the nuclear hypocentre, at the exact spot in midair where the atomic bomb was detonated. It was indescribably poignant, and even more so to realise, as a Southasian, that our leaders do not have the imagination to relate to the tragedy of 6 August 1945. Even today, they would rather that their citizens eat grass.

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Himal Southasian