A group of journalists and scholars from India and Pakistan met by a lakeside in northern Italy recently to talk about a subject that is all important but little discussed back home the nuclearisation of the Subcontinent. At the austere retreat in the village of Bellagio, the participants delved into not just the nuclear threat, but also all the underlying issues related to India-Pakistan tensions which threaten to take us down the road to atomic desolation.
Because we do not talk about the threat of nuclear annihilation does not mean it does not exist, and the South Asian enemies have come closer to potential use than other adversaries in the past. The density of population in South Asia, the short flight duration for ballistic missiles, the innate solvability of major India-Pakistan problems. all point to the ‘nonsensibility’ of contemplating the nuclear weapon as an option of choice or of bellicosity in the Indus-Ganga plains.
And yet, it does not do to merely wax eloquent about the nuclear threat that hangs above us all. What do we do about it? Approaching the subject dispassionately, the participants at Bellagio took it as a given that the nuclear weapon is a heinous proposition, but they went further to look with clear lenses at the inter-related problems of Indo-Pak perceptions, the all-important Kashmir issue, media jingoism, nuclear contamination at processing plants, international exigencies, and so on.
When the presidents and prime ministers meet at the SAARC summit in Islamabad in early January, we are certain that nuclearisation will not make it into the agenda. We are also certain that ‘civil society’ does not yet have enough clout to make denuclearisation the focus of official attention. We offer this issue of Himal as a contribution on a subject that the political leaders and opinion-makers of India and Pakistan do not have too much time to consider, at SAARC summits or elsewhere. Above all, we commend the ability of the participants at the ‘Bellagio Summit’ to be critical of their respective governments and national situations. This ability alone will take us ahead on the path of denuclearisation of South Asia which perforce has to happen if we are rialto convert ourselves into a killing fields of millions upon millions. – editors
Kanak Mani Dixit: How ‘close’ is close in the context of a nuclear conflagration. Have we in these moments of tension in the last few years between India and Pakistan come close to use of the nuclear op Lion by either side?
Itty Abraham: Before even starting the discussion, it may be worth mentioning that the figures are roughly like this: a bomb, blast over Bombay would kill three lakh people immediately, within a second of detonation. Another 12 lakh people will die over the course of the next few months. So a total of about 15 lakh people will be killed as an immediate effect of the bomb over Bombay, not counting the effects of radiation that will persist over the long term. This also does not include the effects of buildings falling and so on.
In terms of how close we have been to nuclear war in South Asia, I think 1987 was a major turning point in tensions in South Asia. It was the year of Operation Brass Tacks when, after 14 years of relative calm, there was clearly an effort within the Indian defence establishment to not only conduct the largest exercise that had ever taken place in the Subcontinent but also, possibly, to use that opportunity to attack Pakistan to “solve the problem once and for all”. That did not happen but Brass Tacks was followed later by some Pakistani exercises. Brass Tacks was a serious crisis.
I think 1987 was another marker as that was when the use of the Indian flag as a symbol, as a sticker, as an image, proliferated as never before. From that point onwards there were far more ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ kind of moments. There is a level of patriotism which was being produced, a constructed patriotism, if you will, which was never wound up.
In 1991 there was the Gulf War. It was not a crisis in South Asia necessarily, but since then over the past 15 years or so we have been facing one military crisis after another. In 1995-96 there were the NPT-CTBT debates taking place in India, which brought up nuclear weapons into discussion like never before. And then in 1998 there were the tests. In 1999, there was Kargil and in 2002 we had the 10-month standoff between the two armies. So, in the last 15 years, there have been about eight fairly major crises. What it would have taken for the next escalation to have happened is not clear but 12 nuclear threats were issued during the Kargil war. Perhaps they were symbolic. It is certainly the case that seen from the outside the situation in South Asia looked far more dangerous than it was from within.
If you ask what is likely to lead to the use of nuclear weapons, it is difficult to say. Rather than the conscious decision to go ahead and attack somebody, we may have to consider the question of accidents and misperceptions which is far more likely as a source for the following reasons. During a crisis the time that is available to make decisions is very short and the level of misperception is very high. Once deployment of nuclear weapons takes place, the decision is taken from one place and the action for launch of weapons is taking somewhere else. A little separation between the point of decision and the point of launch—it could be a plane or it could be a missile—means that ultimately somebody else has their hands on the so-called trigger, even when the order is issued by someone in Delhi or Islamabad.
It is not known the extent to which technical means and systems have been put into place to prevent the unauthorised launch or use of nuclear weapons in South Asia. Both India and Pakistan have said they will develop their own systems to prevent unauthorised use. What these are we are not quite clear about yet. Finally, there is the question of threshold. This is again where the signalling issue comes in. There were two Italians who said that they had been to Pakistan and interviewed a whole range of generals and others, asking them what would force them to use the bomb. The generals laid out four conditions of which the key one is as follows: if Indian troops cross into Pakistani territory they feel that they have the right to use their nuclear bomb. This brings up the obvious question of why they would be mad enough to use it on their own territory. They replied that if they used it on their own soil it would not be considered a use of nuclear weapons against another country. So, it would amount to nothing more than a test in one sense except it happens to kill a bunch of enemy troops.
Ramchandra Guha: But that could have repercussions for Pakistani soil, including Pakistani civilians who will be affected.
Abraham: Absolutely. But this is how the irrational enters the picture when it comes to using nuclear weapons.
Siddharth Varadarajan: The Indian no-first-use doctrine has now been amended to say “no first use except if we are attacked—if India is attacked or Indian troops abroad are attacked’. In other words, Pakistan could still be attacked.
Rehana Hakim: There are also questions about the security of the nuclear weapons. In Pakistan they are talking about stationing them in six different locations.
Abraham: Pakistan talks of a very rigorous and robust system of command, which may not be true in the sense that it is under the control of the military. It may well be the case that because of this we have a solid security risk in place. The vigilance system allows these weapons to be launched when the order is given by the appropriate authority.
Hameed Haroon: But that is not rigorous enough, because it is the ‘appropriate authority’ which is the problem in Pakistan.
Abraham: You have to consider the ratcheting up of tension. Each successive crisis now has raised the threshold a bit more and that obviously brings South Asia closer to war. Besides, it begins to look like the creation of crisis now is more about getting a foreign third-party mediator involved, which is a very dangerous game. They are playing with crisis over and over again in order to attract American involvement.
Akbar Zaidi: But I think they have never come close to it. I do not think nuclear war has been a real threat at all.
AS Paneerselvan: Well the first question here is where does the civilian programme end and the military programme start. This fine line has never been demarcated in the Indian context because the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) is technically in charge of affairs after the spent fuel has been re-processed. Till the re-processing it is with the Department of Atomic Energy. DRDO’s own facilities in Hyderabad and in Pune do not have facilities to handle them. Which means it should be handled in Rajasthan or Bombay. Throughout the world you know exactly where the making takes place but in India we have no clue about the making of the weapon and delivery mechanisms. This is all the more dangerous because everything can be done within the civilian guise—you do not even have to assume a militarist posture. That is why it is so frightening. In India, this is the only civilian structure which is shrouded in so much of secrecy.
Abraham: Let me just take that one step further. Suppose something goes wrong in the process of making the actual high explosive which combines with the nuclear material type bomb, what is immediately required is to first determine whether this was an accident, sabotage or an actual attack. What might happen if, for example, there is an accident? Are there sufficient systems in place to inform the designated authority in charge of taking the critical decision? For the decision-maker there may not be enough time to weigh the issue in balance. In the context, there is always the possibility of a television channel immediately jumping the gun and saying “We have been attacked and we have to respond”. The nature of the existing system within South Asia actually allows them no other response in case something goes wrong. And, if they chose to term it sabotage rather than accident then pressure is going to build up immediately to demand a response. In that sense, a decision could be manufactured.
Haroon: When you do not consider your enemy or the person across the border to be a rational person or a humane person, war hysteria can itself operate independently of more rational scenarios.
Dixit: To what extent does the media play a role in escalating tensions that could lead to nuclear conflagration? What is the role of the print media?
Zaidi: I don’t think that newspapers in Pakistan are focussed on the nuclear issue. Official statements are reported but I think there is a lack of persistence. Perhaps after 1998 for a year or two there was some attention. Even during Kargil, the war itself was more important than the nuclear possibilities. In any case that was a reflection of the reality because even though Indian and Pakistani forces were at the border, the nuclear threat did not exist. It was the forces that were there at the border. There was possibility of war, the high commissioners were going back and forth, but the nuclear issue itself was not prominent.
Haroon: Are you saying that the nuclear issue does not dominate the spectrum of Pakistani newspaper writing vis-à-vis relations with India?
Zaidi: That is correct. India-Pakistan problems, yes, war, always. Kashmir, also always. But not the nuclear issue, because I do not think it is a real issue. I really do not think that either India or Pakistan is going to use the nuclear option.
Imran Aslam: Also it’s a settled issue, as far as the Pakistani public is concerned.
Haroon: No, I think it is quite to the contrary. For the generals who control the weapon, its use is not the real issue. They will use it, when they think it best and they will not use it if they don’t think it best. They are not used to having public participation and they are not concerned particularly about it. The generals are not concerned because they feel that the use of the weapon is outside civilian control.
People don’t have views about the nuclear issue because the whole mechanism of the nuclear issue is not terribly clear to them. Questions such as, how it works, what are the factors governing nuclear use, nuclear deployment, nuclear build-up, nuclear development, budgets. None of these things is visible in the public domain. It is all in secret. As a net result, the media is not obsessed with the nuclear issue. Another reason is that it is a difficult area to report on. There is nothing to go by other than government handouts, and government handouts will come when the generals want it to come. So it is not an easy terrain to write about.
Zaidi: I think the genera] perception of the Pakistani people at large would be that it is good that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The belief is that at least we have nuclear weapons to defend ourselves, not as a means to attack. Hameed is absolutely right in saying that the generals do control the information situation. It is not in the public domain. As a result there is no anti-nuclear movement either except for a few NGOs. So the attitude is that it is good to have these weapons so that if anyone attacks us we can defend ourselves. Hence they are a deterrent. Possibly it will never be used but it is always there in case of a contingency. That is why it is a settled issue and the people on Track II discussions who are not in favour of this nuclear programme constitute only a small lobby.
Haroon: But doesn’t Track II have a certain acceptabilty?
Zaidi: Yes of course, but in that sense there are also independent generals who do not think that the military should be involved with civilian affairs or government and who also do not maintain a hawkish view on militarisation and on the nuclear issue.
Aslam: Basically this theory that conventional forces will be reduced once we go nuclear is also playing on the minds of people within the army. Even these retired army guys basically do not know what this nuclear thing is all about, who really controls it, what the command structure is. No one really knows it. There is a suspicion that over a period of time the recruitment into the armed forces might come down. Nobody is talking to the people about these things for fear of a reaction from the ordinary people who are going to lose out in employment.
Haroon: If you consider Kargil from the Pakistani side, I would say that it was not the nuclear issue which offended the young officers and soldiers and others in the army. It was the fact that it was bad conventional strategy and that needless lives were lost. It was not the fear of a nuclear threat. I would say that they acted irresponsibly to bring the nuclear threat into the arena, on both sides. The nuclear angle was not central to that conflict.
Aslam: Kargil also probed the extent to which tactical conventional forces could be used in a nuclear environment, to see at what stage people will panic, and when people will start talking about using a nuclear option. And of course it could also perhaps be a method to gain some sort of ground on future occasions, for instance with relation to the Kashmir issue and internationalising it. It is a ploy to see the limits to which the Indians can he tested. It is perhaps a way of saying “if you push us too far we will press the button”.
Varadarajan: In fact Kargil and Operation Parakram in the aftermath of the 13 December attack on the Indian parliament, which was the largest mobilisation of India troops along the India-Pakistan border since 1971, can be both read as excellent examples of how overt nuclearisation has served to ensure the cap-limit for even conventional options.
Abraham: It would appear from all this discussion that the role of the media in nuclear matters is completely dependent. It has no autonomy of its own when it comes to the nuclear issue or the Kargil case.
Haroon: I don’t think that applies to the Kargil case. in fact I would say that the Pakistani media was more independent in reporting Kargil and more responsible than the Indian media. It was not as dramatic as the Indian media but it was more responsible. It is on the nuclear matter where there has been a total failure to come to grips with the mechanics and the impact.
Dixit: Is there any truth to the belief that the Indian army has the power to manipulate the situation when it comes to nuclear issues?
Varadarajan: One could look at it in a number of ways. If we take the case of Operation Parakram and the deployment of Indian forces after the attack on parliament, all the indications are that the army was actually a restraining factor. The politician wanted a quick-fix solution, in essence summoning the army guys and saying, “Look, tell me if it is possible to exercise a ten day option where we can go in and come out, teaching Pakistan a bit of a lesson”. The army brass came back and said, “If we do this, lets say we bomb a militant camp, there is no way the Pakistan will not retaliate. And once Pakistan retaliates, you tell us as a politician, will you be willing to call it quits at that stage or will you want us to do something further. Obviously you will want us to something further and gradually we will have to be prepared for a longer and longer conflict in which nuclear escalation is possible”.
It is not just the army that is involved. The international environment will have to be considered. So the authorities very quickly concluded that there was nothing much that could be done. But as far as both the armed forces and the international community are concerned, overt nuclearisation has reduced slightly the possibilities of conventional warfare. The army is less keen under the circumstances for obvious reasons, and the international community is also less keen because they know that in the event of a conventional conflict the boundary between one kind of war and the other cannot be maintained, especially when there is a lot of aggressive statements coming from Pakistan that if India attacks then all options are open.
Abraham: Why would you think that conflicts can be initiated but be maintained within the limits of conventional warfare
Varadarajan: In fact nuclearisationhas not only increased the probability of localised conventional conflicts, it has increased the possibility of tension between the two countries. But at the same time, you also have the imperialist core working quickly to tackle the situation. There is more international attention, but there are also more little conflicts of shorter duration. The presence of nuclear weapons increases the frequency of tension, but it also contains within it the inherent ability naturally to deescalate so that in the short term it does not go beyond a certain level. I completely agree with the need to put in place risk-reduction mechanisms. Various people have made very sensible suggestions to this end and even the bombwallahs are not opposed to it.
Guha: But there are political factors independent of control systems that need to be considered. One of the problems of the whole anti-nuclear discourse in India and which may also lead to a misunderstanding in Pakistan is the excessive demonisation of the Sangh Parivar. The equation of nuclear machismo with the Sangh Parivar or the equation of Indian hegemonic aspirations with the Sangh Parivar is not valid. I say this because, hypothetically, if Sonia Gandhi becomes prime minister, in a situation of crisis and escalation and low-level conflict, her Italian origin will compel her to strike an even more nationalistic posture vis-à-vis Pakistan. You can be sure of this. There will be more pressure on her to prove her patriotic credentials, which actually is a destabilising factor in this context.
Haroon: Before you can posit problems like the Sonia factor, keep in mind that today conflict control is being handled not by two parties but multiple parties. Then you have yet more actors entering the scenario even though conflict perception and counter-measures and confidence-building and de-escalation measures are supposed to be the responsibility of two parties alone. Then you also have to be able to put forward hypothetical postulates about American behaviour as well. If the Americans decide that the Pakistanis are biting too hard or the Indians are scoffing too much and that the situation might he helped by a pull-back from mediation, backdoor mediation, then that can be a de-stabilising factor during conflict escalation and lead to a really dangerous situation. So the range of destabilising factors is quite vast.
Abraham: One of the many things that we know now is that signalling is done via the United States through the assumed use of spy satellites. Indian and Pakistani decision-makers know that satellites are passing overhead. You want to signal that a crisis is coming and you want American intervention. You do things in an open, blatant kind of way so that the satellites will see it. What happens when the satellites, for whatever reasons, do not see it? So what you get in that case is that although the signal is meant to have gone through it does not and then suddenly the weapons are already in position because the pre-emptive exit option did not work.
Kazi Asad: The American factor and the fact that a lot of India-Pakistan problems have been internationalised by the nuclear issue is something that Pakistan is very happy about to a large extent. It has always been talking about mediation, always asking for observers on the Line of Control and so on and so forth. The Indians never wanted that. So gradually not only the Americans but also the international community has been sucked into this conflict. This has an impact on the nuclear situation.
Haroon: The creation of a third party in what should essentially be a bi-party risk evaluation system means that the third party has to be predictable and has to have its behaviour measured by certain parameters. But nothing that India or Pakistan can do will change parameters in Washington. Having three factors can sometimes reduce risks and sometimes increase it. It is important to remember this as well in studying nuclear risk in South Asia.
Varadarajan: I want to add one more scenario. There was this article which talked of American contingency plans to take over Pakistan’s strategic assets in the event of the mullahs taking over, or a coup de flat by anti-American generals and so on. Suppose tomorrow some anti-American general overthrows Musharraf it is logical for him to assume that now his strategic assets are suddenly vulnerable to American bombing. For various reasons the Indian force would be on high alert anyway. The insertion of this kind of an external dynamic into India-Pakistan nuclear equations changes the picture completely. Deterrence works to the extent it does in a situation where you have only two players playing by similar rules and calculations.
Asad: I think this is an image problem. The fact is that the Indian bomb is in the hands of a fundamentalist regime and a regime that a lot of people know has a certain mindset. So that would apply for the things that Siddharth was talking about. Somehow or the other it is the Pakistani mad mullah or the mad general, who seems to pose a problem. And Pakistanis fall back on the argument that they are being discriminated against because they happen to have the Islamic bomb. This is being constantly fuelled. Nobody talks about Hindutva in this context.
Dixit: Clearly there is a need to broaden the scope of liberal and moderate opinion since the nuclear agenda seems to be driven primarily if not exclusively by the extreme end of the political and technocratic spectrum in both countries. Given that the Urdu press tends to be more conservative than the English press in Pakistan, would Urdu television channels make a difference by providing ‘liberal opinion’ to the Urdu mass?
Aslam: Definitely. That is certain indeed because that brings in people into media who have exposure and technological knowledge. The reporters will tend to be from a class of people who speak that language.
Dixit: If that is the case in Pakistan then in India the question would be about Hindi.
Paneerselvan: The danger with Hindi television is that the people who are willing to speak this rashtra bhasha are those who are part of the state, who have never questioned the state. These are the kind of people who are moving into Hindi. Because of a new breed of hawks that began to dominate foreign affairs, a hawkishness that was never there has entered the Hindi mainstream. They were quite content with Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan. Now they have to suffer G Parthasarthy and JN Dixit.
The television and the mainstream media today are actually taken over by a small segment. The Agra Summit was where I saw these guys first hand. From the moment the summiteers arrived the editors asked, “Don’t do you think its going to fail”. Luckily I had some access to the hotel through Murosoli Maran. I called him and I said ”These guys are saying that the talks are going to fail”. He said, “Look, we haven’t even met”.
Aslam: I had an argument with one such Indian commentator on television. He said, “get rid of all Pakistani diplomats. Get them out of New Delhi. They are all crooks”. I replied, “We are two nuclear powers. Some sort of listening post is necessary, some sort of hotline is necessary”.
Dixit: The Hindi satellite channels seem to command the airwaves. How are the South Indian channels different?
Paneerselvan: Even though Star Television started beaming in 1991, the Hindi channels are all post-BJP. AAJTAK was not there before that. There was no Hindi current affairs television. It is a creation of the Parivar, a post-BJP government phenomenon. The southern channels are different, there is programming on international affairs and regional cooperation. North-Indian television by contrast gave in to the aggressive PMO-Parivar manipulation. Some half a dozen handpicked, sterilised byte-able guys began showing up all the time on screen. That is the reason Hindi television is scary.
It is a little different in the south as regards the print media as well. The growth of vernacular newspaper in south India brought in its wake reform movements like the Dravidian movement, and in labour. The Hindi press today is an out and out commercial enterprise backed by very narrow political positions.
Dixit: if we cannot expect much from English press or television, there is still the need to reach the “vernacular intelligentsia” through the language.
NK Singh: In matters relating to India and Pakistan the level of interest varies according to the issue in the Hindi press. In July, the bus service between India and Pakistan was resumed and it was covered enthusiastically. There was this little girl who came by the bus to India for heart surgery, and she became a celebrity. That probably suggests that people on both sides would welcome peace and they want peace, even if this does sound clichéd. But, nuclear armament and nuclear issues constitute a different type of problem because it is not purely bilateral. It has something to do with world order. For India it is not a question of just Pakistan.
Zaidi: To what extent does the media- whether the vernacular press or the English publications, actually influence public opinion? There is often an assumption that you can change the way people think through articles in newspapers. I am not sure how valid that assumption is, especially in the case of Pakistan. I think the nature of the state dominates public opinion and how people should be thinking, which is what is reflected in newspapers. Barring a few exceptions like Dawn, Newsline, Herald which are usually in competition with the state, most other newspapers, particularly Urdu newspapers and magazines follow the state’s point of view.
Haroon: If it works in Dawn’s case it ought to work in the case of the others as well. The problem is not what the media can do. The problem is what we the media are doing. It is very easy to say that the media does not make much of a difference. That in any case is not true. However, the way we are going about it, we may be marginalising ourselves on certain issues. I can make out nothing more ill-informed than commentaries in Pakistan on serious issues like nuclear conflict and the impact and effects of the bomb.
Essentially therefore the question is not about what the media can do in Pakistan. I am sure it is no different in India. The media can raise a storm and can virtually paralyse state policy. But on issues like this we tend to remain silent.
Aslam: But there is also the problem of whether or not people want to do what you are asking them to do. There is a lot of debate that goes on but when it comes to the nuclear issue. There is this pride of being at par with India in terms of deterrence. The issue gets very difficult to pursue because it gets enmeshed in nationalism. We have not reached that stage where we can talk about ethical thresholds and so one. Remember, the issue is linked to the very notion of survival of the state. People in Pakistan live with that thought, possibly because of what happened in 1971. For them the nuclear umbrella is something that is extremely satisfying. It gives them some space and time to sit back and say, “That is taken care of, now lets move on”. I am not sure that the media is going to sit back and say, “Let us get rid of the bomb”. I don’t think that is going to happen.
Haroon: The point I was making was that where the Indians go wrong in understanding Pakistan is in the mechanics of mobilising opinion. Opinion must ultimately be based on knowledge, understanding of issues and such like. In Pakistan even the smallest of academic institutions is directly controlled by the state through appointments. Control by the state of universities and academic establishments has been so absolute that scholars, who are the main persons to rely on for expert information, are reluctant to take a strong position for fear of repercussions. So, media organisations are not exactly awash in a sea of information.
On the one hand there are internal constraints. These could range from cost constraints to the government’s power of intervention in the newspaper industry, which is unprecedented compared to that of any other industry. Even wage levels are determined by the government. The media is the only private sector industry in Pakistan whose wage structures are determined by the government. Pakistan does not have domestic newsprint production. The government can turn off supply when it wants. The potential for government control is even stronger in the case of television. Though they have full rights under law to use an uplink in Pakistan, they can quite easily be told that the right has been withheld. But when all is said and done, it is pointless harping on the idea that the media does not have the power to make a difference. The media does have the power to do it.
Zaidi: Ironically there will never be a nuclear movement in Pakistan unless you are close to a nuclear skirmish. At the moment things arc pretty much settled. There is not going to be a nuclear war and people are not concerned about it. The real issues are water, electricity, unemployment, poverty. The nuclear issue is too abstract. Even during Kargil, when the forces were at the border, the nuclear issue was not an issue. Peace was an issue.
Varadarajan: Even in the Indian context it is easier to mobilise on the basis of a pro-peace platform rather than an anti-nuclear one. In a sense the nuclear danger helps emphasise the importance and relevance of general India-Pakistan friendship and proper relations between the governments. But, independent of that the nuclear issue does not attract much attention.
Haroon: But why do people see what they see? In the anti-imperialist movement of the ’60s people saw Hiroshima and the bomb as a failure of morality. Today what is the impetus? Where is the ideological baggage to define what the bomb can do? Does it exist? How can you blame the people if you do not give them information in a way that they understand it.
Varadarajan: We should consider the nuclear discourse in the West, where even the limited achievement of the anti-nuclear campaign, which was the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons, has once again broken down. The kind of weapons development that is going on in the United States and the sort of discussion that took place in the American press in the run-up to the Iraq war, with talk of bunker-busting nukes, tactical nukes, mini-nukes, micro-nukes, has left the peace movement in tatters. Once again generals and governments are talking about battlefield nuclear weapons that could actually be used. The peace movements are not able to respond.
Hakim: In South Asia, the whole anti-nuclear debate is restricted to just a few people. You can count on the fingertips the people who are involved in it. As has been pointed out there is no sustained movement, and what little there is of it is scattered and restricted to certain pockets.
Paneerselvan: When we talk about the media, we cannot restrict ourselves to the newspapers and television. There are other kinds of the media which command a large readership. There are a lot of writers, artists, and theatre persons who are doing wonderful work and they succeed because they touch important emotional chords. The language press in south India has an entirely different approach from the north. The first thing is that they do not write essays on any of these issues. They do not print long unending articles. Instead they tend to fictionalise. A range of Japanese short-stories have been printed in Tamil on the nuclear issue and it created quite an impact.
Typically when we talk about the media, we focus on reportage. This is the genre of the non-fictional mainstream media which is terrorised, which is unimaginative. They are our normal response managers, conventional media that depends on a lot of structures. But the effective media is the one which is fictionalised, which has imagination, which tries to use other types of narratives. This has worked well in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu. The amount of knowledge such fictional narratives have created is impressive. I cannot visualise a Praful Bidwai or an Achin Vanaik or another commentator, no matter how informal their style, generating the same emotional content, the ability to portray physical suffering and emotional loss. But there is this tendency to place fiction one step below in the hierarchy of knowledge. We should not make a fetish of non-fiction reportage. At some level we have to get into the notion of pain, of embeddedness, of agony rather than always talking in terms of concepts.
Haroon: Politics is an important element in mass media and when you consider the Pakistani scenario it is necessary to include the Indian mass media which has a powerful presence in Pakistan. What do Pakistanis see everyday in the Indian media especially Indian films. Indian films take up contemporary issues like terrorism in a very simple fashion, sometimes in a ‘Hindu’ fashion, like the film Border. Why is it that they cannot take up the bomb issue. It is the largest entertainment industry in the world. The problem lies in its own limitations and incapacities. If they make a film starring Aishwarya Rai and build it around an anti-nuclear theme I promise you every middle- and lower-middle-class household in Pakistan will be glued to the screen. But you need the will to do it.
Dixit: To what extent has radiation problems in the Jadugoda mines been covered by the local media or regional media in the north vis-à-vis covering the similar issues in the south.
Varadarajan: Jadugoda as an issue pops up every two or three years. Typically some newspaper or magazine will write about it. The Times of India wrote about it last year. Two years before that The Indian Express wrote about it. Three years before that the Sunday magazine covered it. It is one of those issues that never manages to develop into a campaign. Television simply does not pick it up even though there is great television material there. It is something that you could do a programme on. But nuclear energy and the environment risks involved are big taboo as far as television is concerned.
Dixit: If the nuclear energy issue is too abstract, and nuclear weapons too political, one would have thought that more local and concrete concerns such as mining and contamination would get coverage. Now you seem to be suggesting that even this is taboo.
Varadarajan: It is taboo not because of the government per se but because nobody considers it important enough. Even if the environment correspondent gets excited about it, it is unlikely that the editor will. The problem basically is the lack of interest on an issue not considered hot enough. Also somewhere in the background obviously is the sense of “let me steer clear of this path”. That element is present but it is never explicit.
Abraham: It is useful to remember that in places like Jadugoda and around the various facilities there are no permanent upper middle-class residents. Therefore the problem is one that afflicts only the most marginal people, who are either adivasis or dalits. So there is a built-in marginality to the subject.
Paneerselvan: I don’t agree with that view. Barring Jadugoda, the other Indian nuclear facilities are at the heart of affluence. Chandrababu Naidu’s Hyderabad is seen as the future to which India should move. The Nuclear Fuel Complex is located there. Important facilities are located in Bombay, Chavara has titanium separating units, there is a reactor in Kalpakam.
Abraham: These are seen as industrial units, as hi-tech centres.
Paneerselvan: With reference to Jadugoda let us be very clear. I have been to that plant. I have seen the way tribals are being asked to clear out. You can actually walk across the mines. You are not going to be exposed because it is still raw. At Jadugoda, if you actually go and measure the background radiation using a Geiger counter there is far lower background radiation levels than, say, at some of the side deposits in Agra. The real problem comes from the plants and these plants are actually located in urban centres, for instance in Narora which is located close to Ahmedabad. And till date I have yet to come across a single story on Narora. It is a sort of a nation-building exercise which journalists have taken upon themselves. They feel that it is their duty not to cover such issues. They feel its their duty to put the necessary gloss on it. They become spin-doctors, hesitant, for example to write stories on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.
In terms of coverage of the effects of radioactive contamination and processing plants, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala there will be local uproar, and the plants are also closer to the cities. In Kerala substantial work has been done. In Tamil Nadu, however, the activism is losing steam. Things completely changed after Pokhran II. After that quite a lot of people slipped into gung-ho nationalism. Fear of war has created much trouble for anti-nuclear groups. A whole range of members have decided to pull out of such groups saying that nuclear weapons were probably needed.
Dixit: What is the kind of coverage in Pakistan?
Asad: In Pakistan, environmental threats from foreign companies doing oil exploration and the like are reported. As far as nuclear contamination is concerned, the press in Sindh does carry articles but those are not original articles. To do that you need to have people with the knowledge, which we do not have. But there are other problems too. Let me cite an incident. We published a piece on what we called a mysterious illness around Kahuta. This went on for a little while and then suddenly we went into this black hole. There were also phone calls that were made saying, “Let’s not talk about it at all”. It just disappeared in terms of follow-up. You will see lot of UFO-citing type reportage in the vernacular press as well as the English press, but nobody is able to do scientific analysis and come out with some sort of a credible report on whether the radiation levels are high. And of course, the awareness of what a bomb could do to you needs to be developed further.
Haroon: Forget the average journalist, even the informed journalist has to be able to put it in an acceptable credible narrative. That does not exist. To be honest, mainstream print media does not produce that much original material in Pakistan on the nuclear issue. Part of the problem with the press is that most people with access to technical information do not wish to be involved.
Generally speaking, writing on nuclear warfare or on strategic aspects in response to India’s positions tends by and large to come from Islamabad and these are people who are linked to the think-tanks, people who are going after the foreign office, who meet the intelligence agencies for lunch and dinner, who are called to GHQ to lecture on various themes. These are not a formal set of people, but a whole subset who are considered kosher because the subject has to be kept under the close scrutiny of Islamabad. It is doubtful whether this kind of situation produces better writing. However, there are some writers outside this circle of idea-implantation who come up with fairly honest and original thinking.
The reporter would like to have an objective testing mechanism for certain propositions in a story which may be about nuclear attacks. This ability to process is virtually absent. You can of course write sensible articles about the nuclear issue in terms of the involvement of people, the imperative for peace and so on, but, ultimately there is no substitute for technically proficient material. And it is time that media people are able to relate to, understand and objectify. If you cannot objectify facts you cannot even begin to comment on the rights and wrongs of various government positions in either Pakistan or India.
Asad: I do not entirely agree with Hameed because there have been attempts and platforms. In the last five years, our national newspapers have devoted space to the political economy, where a lot of informed debate takes place which we could tone down a bit for the message to get across in a journalistic way. And for five or six years there was coverage of CTBT, how much deterrence is necessary, what the Indian perspective is, etc. There was a constant debate, to such an extent that sometimes we were asked to tone it down. There were economists and political scientists and academics writing, with four to five pages every Sunday reflecting the ongoing debate. Perhaps the quality is not as good as we would like it to be, but at least there is debate and it is translated as I said in fang and elsewhere.
Haroon: I wasn’t talking about the absence of material. I was referring to the absence of a methodical approach, a uniform vocabulary, a uniform understanding of issues across the print media. The efforts of individual publications notwithstanding, an issue which is so vital for the survival of society should receive higher priority. It is not that the print-media is unable to recognise the priority of this issue. It is that the lack of information on the one hand plus the fact that papers don’t wish to wrangle on a detailed basis with the government.
To the Pakistani public at large, Kargil as a post-nuclear conflict was an after-thought more than anything else. They did not really understand the rules of nuclear warfare and the containment of conflict in this kind of scenario. Nobody was aware that the real danger was not the loss of Kashmir or something similar, but some kind of unlimited nuclear conflict on the Subcontinent. That concept, except for specialists, remains largely theoretical. And there lies the danger.
Guha: I think the one thing we should never do is to underestimate the power of nuclear nationalism in India. The Indian middle-class still feels naked because China invaded India in 1962. And the ability of the Indian government to push the nuclear case is because you can continuously shift the goal post. If you say Pakistan is not a threat then you say China is, if you say China is not a threat, you can say Pakistan is. Nuclear nationalism is influential in India at all levels, especially in north India, as in Pakistan. Don’t make a mistake. Nuclear nationalism in India, as said earlier, is not the product of the Sangh Parivar. It goes much deeper than that and is widespread across the political spectrum and ordinary opinion. So the question of how to challenge it becomes even more complicated.
The second problem is that the Indian intellectual class represented in the media is not completely free. It is more free in some senses than the Pakistani press, but there it ends. Scientists in India are completely aligned to the state. Credibility is very important, and credibility will come from a top class PhD in physics doing cutting edge work and who may even have done nuclear work at some stage. But the Indian scientific community is as unwilling to speak up as the Pakistani counterpart. That is a great handicap for the anti-nuclear movement. Historians are free, journalists are free, sociologists are free, but not scientists. As the history of the anti-nuclear movement in the West shows, the absence of top quality scientists in the movement is a setback. There are top scientists in India, but they will never question anything remotely connected to the nuclear programme.
Would it help if we move away from this obsession with the opinion of the ordinary Indians and Pakistanis that the nuclear weapons are needed for some unimaginable war? Could we look at other things, other kinds of reciprocities and dialogues?
Dixit: But even if reciprocity and independent dialogues were hypothetically possible, there the Kashmir issue will continue to have a bearing on competitive nuclearisation.
Aslam: Whenever we talk about India and Pakistan 14 August will come along and 15 August will come along. It appears that we cannot escape the focus on this very traumatic moment of our history. In Pakistan the two-nation theory to a large extent has been resolved. There is no such thing anymore there. Ethnic cleansing or whatever you want to call it compelled migration. Even 1971 was similar because Bangladesh did not become part of West Bengal. It became an independent state and the only reason why it was an independent state was perhaps the fact that it had a Muslim identity. This is one of the things that keeps us floating along. India still has to understand this.
We might have regional disparities in Pakistan, we might have ethnic dislocations and so on, but as a state we hold dearly to this religious identification. India has a problem with this, and it crops up repeatedly with reference to Kashmir. This is because the Indian Muslim ultimately does not pass any given test, the cricket test or any other test. They are always presumed to be looking to Pakistan for comfort. They are discriminated against from time to time because of their presumed natural loyalty to Pakistan. I have seen this myself whether it is in Old Delhi or elsewhere. Indian Muslims have been living with this burden continuously.
This is because of the ‘Destiny Kashmir’ attitude. Indian Muslims feel that there is a widening divide between the two communities and it is not just in Kashmir. They are looked upon as some sort of fifth column among certain quarters in India. This has not helped the cause of resolving issues between India and Pakistan. For that reason, Kashmir becomes a very important factor. In trying to bring about a resolution India has to figure out what the state is actually all about and that involves questions about secularism, BJP, Indian Muslims. This is a festering problem.
Haroon: What is so sad and so pathetic about the India’s Kashmir policy is that it allows Pakistani authoritarians to tap-dance to international acclaim because of the false symbolism that has been created around Kashmir. There is a simple case of double standards on Kashmir. Indian society will not be able to survive the crisis in democratic values by holding on to Kashmir by force because nothing in India’s democratic polity can possibly endorse this kind of silent destruction of the will of a whole people.
Abraham: Among Indian policy makers and opinion leaders some things never ever get questioned. For a long time, one of the justifications put forward by scholars and policymakers was that it is very important for Indian secularism to have a Muslim majority state in India. As a concept this is nonsense and yet this is something that is repeated over and over, as a given of Indian secularism that cannot be questioned.
Paneerselvan: All the previous elections in Kashmir could not be considered free and fair. But, the last exercise was a major development. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed coming in was actually a blow to a certain type of Delhi-based real estate imagination of Kashmir. It was as if Delhi’s writ was being subverted by the people of Kashmir. Is that enough? Nobody says it is enough but for the first time the people were using an entirely different yardstick, that is the ballot paper. They were permitted to go ahead and exercise some choice of their own.
Haroon: Do you believe in your heart that the election represented the real aspirations of what the Kashmiri people want?
Paneerselvan: Casting a vote is not an expression of every true aspiration. No election will ever be able to do that. The issue is not whether India permitted a free election or not. The issue is that a third option or a third power has come to power there.
Varadarajan: At one level the lack of a policy in the centre today vis-à-vis Kashmir is disappointing because you have on the one hand a landmark development like the election of the Mufti government, but it has not been accompanied by any of the other steps or measures that New Delhi could take in order to rapidly push forward towards some kind of a solution. A necessary ingredient for any peaceful resolution of Kashmir is to talk to Pakistan and to carry the people of Kashmir with you. On this question of carrying the people of Kashmir, after 14 or 15 years of problems how do you do it? You have to build their confidence. You have to start by having an honest accounting of all the crimes that were committed by the security forces over the past 15 years, of the people who have gone missing, of the people who have been held in jail for 15 years without significant charge.
Hakim: Siddharth you keep visiting Kashmir? How do the Kashmiris really speak?
Varadarajan: This may sound insensitive but when you meet Kashmiris in a group and when you meet them individually their responses are different. So, the so-called Kashmiri street- or bazaar-opinion is always very uniformly anti-government of India, less uniformly anti-Pakistan but also increasingly anti-Pakistan and pro-azaadi. But, when you speak to smaller groups then you get the nuances. My reading is that were the government of India to take certain steps and the first among them, if they could try army officers and security force officers involved in some of the worst human rights violations, that would make ordinary Kashmiris see some hope. But, bizarre things happen—where the government admits killing civilians in a fake encounter, the whole thing is proven from DNA tests, and yet no murder case is registered, no action is taken and things carry on.
Dixit: Are you saying that if the government of India were to show a better face, Kashmiris might even be willing to consider staying with India?
Varadarajan: For them to consider staying with India, India has to be a very different country from what it is today. Let’s be frank about this, we have been discussing the nature of Pakistan and the nature of India, and I think both the nature of Pakistan and the nature of India have to change in order for Kashmir to be settled on a long-term basis. But, yes if centre-state relations were to change, if the whole question of the status of Muslims in India were honestly to be addressed and the security forces were to be held accountable and the rule of law were to be genuinely established in Kashmir, that would create an environment in which dialogue could take place in which, finally, the Kashmiri people freely express their opinion.
Guha: If you look at the history of India since 1947, what the evidence tells you about the people of the Valley is that there is no one voice in Kashmir. From 1947 onwards there have been periods in which Kashmiris have been more interested in India and there have been periods in which they have been very pro-Pakistan. There have been periods when they have toyed with the idea of independence. A lot of it depends on the international context, and how the government of India behaves.
There is a very interesting parallel with the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. There have also been points where the Tamils have been willing to be part of Sri Lanka and there have been times when they felt so alienated that they only want independence. You will see this ebb and flow since 1956, which is why the Tamil-Kashmiri analogy comes to mind. You have the same kind of divides, constitutional versus militant, the gun versus the ballot box.
As in Sri Lanka, there is also the question of what you term terrorism. There are some Indian journalists and secularists who only emphasise the human-rights violations of the army and there are some Indian journalists and Hindu-chauvinists who only emphasise terrorist acts. And as long as Pakistani liberals and Pakistani intellectuals are seen to, if not supporting Musharraf, then at least being silent on this question because they think that if they call what is happening in Kashmir terrorism it would be playing into the hands of Indian security forces and Hindu-chauvinists. This will only diminish the possibilities of registering the real aspirations of freedom in Kashmir. This is something that cannot be fudged and the Indian left-wing also cannot fudge it.
Haroon: But, you have to distinguish between the primary statement and the secondary statement. Musharraf’s main premise is that he cannot control it.
Varadarajan: The Pakistani position has been more subtle. They never say that killing of civilians is freedom-struggle.
Guha: There has been an interesting transformation in the so-called freedom movement in Kashmir. This is something which both Pakistani and Indian liberals have not addressed for fear of playing into the hands of the enemy. We have to recognise the question of the perversion of the freedom movement in Kashmir, the perversion of their own context.
For example, the Hinduism of Togadia is not the Hinduism of Gandhi. There has been a fundamental transformation of the character of political Hinduism and the sooner we realise this and are able to confront it, the better. Likewise with Kashmir. Over the last 10 or 12 years—and that is what affects the readers of Hindi dailies like Dainik Bhaskar and Jansatta—the departure of the pandits from the Valley was something which Indian secularists never took up seriously because it would be seen to be playing into the hands of the Hindu chauvinist and the BJP. They do not talk about the suffering and plight of the Pandits. The more you present a perspective from a one-sided point of view, disregarding the word terrorism, the more you will play into the hands of people like Togadia.
Dixit: Kashmir remains an intractable issue in the Indo-Gangetic basin of Pakistan and India. Is it as much of an issue outside this belt and if it is not, then does that make it any easier to mobilise against the bomb in those regions of India where neither Kashmir nor the pain of Partition have had a significant impact?
Paneerselvan: Pakistan or Kashmir do not really figure day-to-day in the south Indian media. There is an overwhelming belief that the north is silent about southern problems. They are not talking about Sri Lanka which is very important for the south. When Prabhakaran had his press-conference on 10 April and journalists from all over the world were present, the north India-based media was conspicuously absent in Wanni. The Hindustan Times report came out two days late because of some ‘logistical’ problems. The general opinion in the south is that the north Indian cannot get involved in something geopolitical without messing it up.
The only link between these north Indian problems and south India are provided by the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Foreign Service, the military top brass, who sometimes happen to be Tamil. At one time all these scary guys were from my state. Most of them are brahmins, with a few exceptions.
The public became really interested in Kashmir when the Hurriyat leaders decided to travel to south India two years ago, before the Agra summit. Since Tamil Nadu always felt that it has been deprived by New Delhi, the natural sympathy is with the Hurriyat and others similarly deprived. There is a natural affinity towards people who question the centre and the best example was the reception given to the Hurriyat leaders.
Haroon: I would like to share something which Lone said to me about that trip. He said it was the single most significant trip that he had made in his recent career. It completely changed his perception as to where the struggle was leading, and he felt that the response that they received in Tamil Nadu and the south was sufficient to justify a major change in emphasis for the Hurriyat movement because for the first time they felt that they were getting an understanding of their problem, from south India.
Dixit: But there still seems to be a passivity in the south when it conies to Pakistan and Kashmir. What you are saying is that we are not going to help until you pay attention to us.
Paneerselvan: No it is not passivity. It is very supportive of them in a very different manner. The south has never justified the Indian Army’s excesses and the army has never been lionised there. The elections in Kashmir were never seen as a great democratic exercise. Whenever southerners look at Punjab versus Delhi, they immediately think in terms of the Sikhs who were burnt in the wake of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination there were gross violations of human-rights in Tamil Nadu, which did not even register in the north Indian press. Another sore point was the vilification of a person called Premadasa by the New Delhi media. It was the first time that Indian diplomats started calling journalists and telling them, if you are going to have a dhobi for president, do you think Sri Lanka can ever progress? Premadasa’s origin was a real issue to hit at him by New Delhi.
Dixit: What about the China axis to the nuclear question between India and Pakistan? Are there not issues outside the framework of India-Pakistan security rivalry?
Abraham: One aspect of Pakistan’s nuclear policy, which may be worth considering, is the so-called attention given to North Korea, which was first announced by American sources and has not really been deconfirmed by anybody. This raises the question of China and its role, for the key link between Pakistan and North Korea is via Beijing.
India has always invoked China as being the ultimate threat to which it is trying to respond. This is ironic because in 1998 when the Pokhran tests happened, the relations between the two countries had been better than they had been in a very long time. China was trying to show itself as being even willing to make concessions on border issues and so on, which it had never done before. To invoke China at that point really was simply to say “turn some of those Chinese missiles towards India”.
Haroon: I do not think that the Chinese have been ecstatic about Pakistan’s nuclear capability. They know that Pakistan can be rash. They know that there are times when Pakistan causes problems. And there was also the period of strong Chinese suspicion of the pro-Taliban policy in Pakistan which the Chinese were not happy with because of its potential implications in Xingjian, in Tashkent and other places inside and in the western vicinity of China.
Abraham: The China factor has to be seen in two respects. One is that India regards China as an adversary with whom it is in strategic competition. So there is the well-established way of invoking China as being the cause for India’s nuclear programme, which is simultaneously a way of saying it is not Pakistan. China has become more successful and powerful so we know who the enemy should be. It is, in a way, saving let us get a bigger enemy than Pakistan, let us get ourselves a big one like China.
This is the political language which says that these are the reason why we are doing what we are doing. But I think you have to go a bit further and ask—is this viable. At the level of the competition between China and India, there is no comparison at all. China is way ahead of India in many respects and the nuclear one is certainly one of them.
Aslam: Therefore, while it no doubt looks better to have a bigger adversary, when you think in terms of real deployment, there does not seem to be very much point in countering China.
Abraham: There is of course the whole question of delivery systems. Until the Agni If missile becomes viable and actually deployable there is nothing you can attack in China which is within reach. Bombing Lhasa is not going to help. But even so the China threat or the so-called threat is enormously popular. A lot of people buy the argument.
Varadarajan: There are two ways of looking at it. The first reading is that it was another naive attempt by advisors close to Prime Minister Vajpayee, such as Brajesh Mishra, to try to align India with the US in the mistaken notion that the US is anxious to actually encircle and contain China. It was perhaps the belief that in the light of this contain-China policy the Indian nuclear programme would become more acceptable to the Americans. The second reading, more dramatic, was to send a signal to the Chinese and to begin to be taken seriously by Beijing.
Aslam: Talking about the immediate fallout of the tests, the rhetoric that came out of India, apart from the statements of George Fernandes and a couple of others, who tried to link it to the so-called Chinese threat, it was essentially Pakistan-specific. I think that was also part of the game.
Haroon: There was a very successful Indian delegation to Beijing in September-October 1998 which fairly clearly explained the sort of impetus behind the tests. My impression was that the Chinese were quite satisfied. The Chinese seemed to believe that the Indians had not aimed the tests specifically at them. They knew there was a marketing ploy on. The Chinese are very cynical about this kind of thing, and what they are more concerned about is that India and Pakistan would destabilise the regional equations.
Varadarajan: George Fernandes’ “China is our biggest enemy” statement which came around March-April of 1998, creates the impression that the anti-Chinese element was an obsession. There is a very high possibility that Fernandes was not even in on the decision taken to carry out the Pokhran II test.
Paneerselvan: There are two papers written by two Delhi hawks, one by Bharat Karnad and the other one by K Subrahmanyam. These were about the selection of Balasore in Orissa as a test range. According to them there was a conscious decision to locate it in the east because the threat to India is from the east. And the moment you say that, it is clear that you are not talking about Pakistan, and definitely you are not talking about Myanmar or Bangladesh. It has to be China. Keep in mind that Karnad and Subrahmanyam are both part of the establishment. It is also Karnad’s thesis that if India bombs Kahuta, Pakistan it will become the supreme power.
Haroon: Where would you deliver a bomb from Orissa?
Paneerselvan: Why is India developing Agni II? Because Agni II is directed towards the so-called biggest enemy. If we try to discern some rationale behind the articles or this posturing, there is really nothing there, be it from Subramaniam or Karnad or even Raja Mohan of The Hindu. It does not really add up to anything. It is just a fancy idea because they want to sound original.
Abraham: There could be one more potential reading. If a hawkish opinion-maker, pulls out the idea that China is the threat, it can become something of a resource within the government between different factions who are vying for central positions. Suppose there is an anti-China faction within the NDA, they can use this particular article as a truth. But, we have to ask are these opinions by the hawks reflecting the existing positions of the government or is it the other way round?
Dixit: Paneer would you agree that there is a method in the madness in the kind of articles that Subrahmanyam and others write?
Paneerselvan: I see only madness. And it is working. Madness works.
Zaidi: I recently did a survey of 119 MLAs and 200 elected representatives in local government in Pakistan. This was a few days before the Americans invaded Iraq. One question I asked was—do you think Pakistan should give up its nuclear programme. 300 respondents said absolutely not, under no circumstance. The second question was, what about the Americans and the weapons of mass destruction. They said, fine, we need our weapons. Another question which was asked was—which country do they think our government favoured the most. Obviously the answer was America. Then, the next question was—to which country do you think the Pakistani government should give greatest priority, and the answer was China. India did not feature at all—which was surprising. There was China and then there was something called the Muslim world—Saudi Arabia, Iran—a couple of people said Iran, but mostly Saudi Arabia. India and SAARC and South Asia did not seem to exist for my respondents. And these are the people who are supposed to make policy as elected representatives.
These people seemed to think that China was the direction Pakistan should be looking to and with whom bridges ought to be built. Perhaps it is because China is now also emerging as an economic power and seems to be getting bigger. It is perhaps a shift in the consciousness after Afghanistan, and the belief that Pakistan needs another friend.
Zaidi: India has ambitions of a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and to be seen as a larger player in international affairs. What role does that play in all this, if at all?
Varadarajan: I think it is a non-factor. Getting into the Security Council is not going to be easy.
Guha: It is not the Security Council per se. Forget the Security Council. India’s ambition is to be what I call the United States of South Asia. But there are problems of recognition of this role. For instance, Bush has yet to visit India.
Haroon: The scenario would change in two minutes if there was peace between India and Pakistan and Pakistan supported India’s application to become a permanent member of the Security Council. The only thing which is preventing India from assuming a larger status in world affairs is that it cannot solve problems in its own backyard.
Guha: The question is whether India’s ambitions affect the situation in South Asia. There is a burning desire within the two main parties—the BJP and the Congress— to, in some way, play a larger role in world affairs. This actually goes back to Nehru. This is also a general problem with the Indian Foreign Service. They have over-developed egos because they were told from the beginning that they should get much greater attention.
Haroon: The attitude is very simple, asking why does China deserve the status and respect which India does not.
Guha: The argument among the political class in Delhi is “to be taken seriously we must be militarily strong and self-reliant in order to take on all kinds of threats, and particularly to withstand the pressure from Pakistan”. That is the kind of logic that is driving them. There is a leader of public opinion who lives in my hometown of Bangalore. He is Narayanmurthy of Infosys, the company that is leading the IT revolution in India. Narayanmurthy would say, to be taken as seriously as China, grow, generate new technologies, use the opportunities in the world market. It is only then that India can be expected to be taken seriously. In effect, removing illiteracy, under-nourishment, creating good hospital systems and infrastructure is the key to being taken seriously.
Haroon: But China got its permanent seat before its global market operations. In hindsight, how strong was China when it first got its UN Security Council seat? What is it that India does not have that China had? It all really boils down to perception.
The South Asian platform
Pakistan’s PTV is seen as one of the leading government organs. They have really skirted around issues, and restricted themselves to putting out the official version. Private channels like GEO on the other hand get an interesting mix of opinion. Talk shows for instance accommodate diverse points of view and sometimes very radical views are expressed. Some of these views question the very foundation of Pakistan, the idea of India and Pakistan and so on. In this sense, private channels discuss issues that have been buried under the carpet for so many years. For the first time there has been a fundamental questioning and the production quality of television has ensured that it has more audience appeal.
GEO TV has done quite a bit of coverage on defence and the possibilities in the event of a flashpoint. There have been several episodes on Bangladesh for the first time in the history of the Pakistani electronic media. These programmes actually went into asking questions about what happened in 1971, the conduct of the military, about the genocide, about Mujib’s, Bhutto’s and Yahya’s role and so on. Given this trend of looking at hard questions, the nuclear issue will also be on the list of priorities for television. But, as with newspapers, television news channels need a peg to hang it on and that peg probably has not appeared.
The main language of debate is Urdu and the fact that television operates in the vernacular makes a tremendous difference. But to be effective, television programmes require the presence of all parties to an issue to be present. In this case, it will mean including India. On the nuclear issue the debate has to be constant and mutual because the nuclear phenomenon is continuous until it is disbanded and involves India and Pakistan. Therefore, doing programmes on a one off basis and doing them without involving Indians is meaningless. The idea is to try and create some sort of a South Asian platform where these kind of ideas and discourses to take place.
It is also necessary to engage the fanatic elements. Given a chance to appear on television, they will give you the Quranic version of the atom bomb and they will quote the fact that it is written in the Quran that the mountains will fly like pieces of cotton and so on. We have them engaged in some sort of a debate and tried to counter their views by quoting other sources. Television has this ability to expose them and since a lot of them want to be on TV they also end up discrediting themselves. There are hard questions to be asked
The other problem of course is the extent to which the Pakistani media is viewed in India and therefore influencing Indian perceptions of the debate in Pakistan. In the Indian media mindset, Pakistan does not exist, apart from the nuclear issue, Kashmir and terrorism. The purpose behind GEO was to engage in a dialogue of channels with India so that the distortions in perceptions could be rectified. Unfortunately, the Indian channels do not think like this.
– Imran Aslam
Two sessions on South Asia
This Nuclear Roundtable was organised by Panos South Asia, which seeks to promote quality in media in the region, with help from Himal South Asian. The panel was brought together by Saneeya Hussain (Karachi), Mitu Varma (New Delhi) and Aruni John (Colombo), and moderated by Kanak Mani Dixit (Kathmandu). The Bellagio meeting (20-23 July 2003) followed up on an earlier meeting, held at Nagarkot in Nepal (11-12 May 2002), to specifically discuss the media in the context of India-Pakistan rivalry. The discussions at Nagarkot can be downloaded from: https://www.himalmag.com/2002/june/roundtable.htm
The anti-nuclear movement in India has witnessed what I would call the uneasy co-existence of Gandhians and communists which goes back to the peace movement of the 1950s. The Communist Party of India (CPI) led the pro-Soviet section of the movement and there was also a non-political Gandhian movement. The Gandhians in the 1960s were important figures in the anti-nuclear movement in India but their contribution is completely ignored even by the modem day anti-nuclear campaigners.
After 1998, for various reasons, the communists have acquired more and more control over the peace movement in India. I think a very critical lost opportunity in the peace movement in India was the debate around the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) from 1996 to 1998. That was one of the most important moments because there was a fairly active campaign, and even within the mainstream press there was a debate and there was a strong position that India should not sign it. This followed from the view that a kind of nuclear apartheid was in place that allowed only the white man to have the bombs. The people who said that India should not sign the CTBT basically followed the argument, partly of strategic national interest and partly of racial pride.
On the other hand there were people who were vigorously articulating the need to salvage the CTBT. One of the arguments was the need to de-escalate tensions. The other was simply an adherence to the long Gandhian and Nehruvian tradition of disarmament. A third view was that since India was campaigning to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, signing the CTBT it would strategically help the Indian case.
My personal view is that if India signed the CTBT, there was the strategic advantage of compelling Pakistan to also sign it. Conversely, Pakistan had the option of not signing it if India did not sign it because of the Pakistani fear arising from the asymmetry in conventional weapons. Therefore, India signing the CTBT would have been a considerable step towards de-escalation in the Subcontinent.
This history of what happened is important in understanding a crucial weakness of the Indian antinuclear movement. In the debate on whether India should sign the CTBT, the communists were against signing the treaty. Communists who were influential in the mainstream press were gagging columnists who were in favour of signing the CTBT. This part of the history of the nuclear debate is important to recognise. As early as the 1960s, C Rajagopalachari, a prominent Gandhian and pioneer of the anti-nuclear movement in India, had said, “We should rescue the peace movement from the clutches of the communist party”. This observation is still relevant.
Despite the environmental hazards, the ethical questions, the questions of secrecy in democracy and given the absurd promises made by the nuclear establishment that it would provide 10,000 megawatts by a specified time and so on, there has been no scrutiny of nuclear operations at all. This is an area which needs serious investigation. And one of the reasons serious investigation is not done is that the communists are as gung-ho about nuclear energy as some other people are gung-ho about the bomb. That is perhaps due to a naive belief in science, or perhaps due to an old-fashioned loyalty to nuclear energy collaboration with the erstwhile Soviet Union.
After 1998, the Indian anti-nuclear movement has been reduced to a single agenda of simply saying no bombs. Among the reasons is the deep and pervasive influence of nuclear nationalists, and also because the communists, more specifically the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is in power in three states increasingly controls the anti-nuclear movement in the country. Behind the scenes, they are trying to manipulate the movement. The CPI(M) has an ambiguous position on bombs In the early 1980s, EP Thompson and others came to India and the people who attacked them were the communists. The CPI(M) led a campaign against Thompson on the ground that he was an American agent undermining the security of the Soviets.
For a more informed critique of the nuclear industry and for recovering its own autonomy and credibility among the uncommitted public opinion in India, the anti-nuclear movement in India needs to be rescued from the clutches of the communists. This may be an unfashionable strategy but it is absolutely important if the reach and influence of the peace movement is to expand.
Hindi press and social forces
There are many stereotypes about nationalist jingoism and responsible coverage in the media about nuclear proliferation. There is a belief that all English newspapers are basically very balanced and that the Hindi or other regional language newspapers are jingoistic. To say that most of the Hindi papers are jingoistic is totally wrong.
Social forces basically make up a magazine or newspaper’s policy. The kind of response that you get from readers, phone calls, letters, the kind of articles that you get from contributors, all shape a newspaper’s policy on crucial issues. We find that the reader’s response forces us to take certain stands. Our reflexes are based to a certain extent on the readership profile.
Some of the regional papers in India are politically correct, whereas some others are jingoistic. It may sound ironical but at the level of the people there is a lot of goodwill towards Pakistan. For instance, the issue of the little girl from Pakistan who went to Bangalore for heart surgery evoked many letters from readers on the human aspect of the episode. The goodwill of that level has of course to do with the common heritage of culture, art, literature and so on. At the same time, despite this heritage there are deep-rooted communal hostilities. In India when I interact with people—politicians, bureaucrats, decisionmakers— I find deep prejudices at work. Scratch below the surface and you find a communalist lurking below somewhere.
In terms of the audience, the vernacular readership may be unlike the English readership in that it could perhaps be more communal. In 1992 the newly-launched Gujarati edition of India Today had to be closed because there were very few readers owing to the fact that it had taken an an anti-communal stand. Similarly in MP where half the people vote for the BJP, and half the people vote for the Congress, there is a similar kind of response from the Hindi readers. Therefore, in taking a stand on issues with communal overtones, we have to be careful to reflect the views of the readers. This is not necessarily a compromise but an attempt to accommodate an influential point of view. An element of this influential point of view, entertained by the average Hindi middle-class reader, is that Pakistan is trying to create problems in India. This is a perception that cuts across party lines and political loyalties. Therefore this is a point of view that is bound to enter the picture in the perception of the nuclear weapons.
– NK Singh
The popular commonsense
There is no point of comparison between the English press and the Hindi press. The miserable condition of the Hindi papers arises basically because more and more proprietors have become editors. When the proprietor becomes the editor of the paper there are only two things on his mind—revenue and power. The net outcome can easily be imagined. This is what happens in the regional press. For this reason the Hindi press suffers from a lack of political vision. The other problem with the Hindi press is that the popular names from the English press—Khushwant Singh, Kuldeep Nayar, Balraaj Mehta, Menaka Gandhi—are reproduced in translation. Further, Hindi newspapers do not have correspondents in the south. Moreover, no Hindi newspaper has appointed a board of editorial directors. This deprives the paper of the skills of more sophisticated analysis which can inform a larger audience. That class is simply missing in Hindi newspapers.
This makes a difference in the way critical issues are covered. On the nuclear issue per se, this failing comes through very clearly. When newspapers do not even have editorial meetings, when they do not have people who can write and no editors to lead the publication, it is pointless to expect them write sensible editorials on the subject. Therefore there is little point in talking about leading the masses to the right direction through the Hindi newspaper.
The structure of large circulation Hindi newspapers like Punjab Kesri, Nayi Duniya, which have a huge influence in the northern belt, limits the possibilities of discussing such matters in depth. Basically, these newspapers are geared to covering political activity. There is no page in regional papers for international news and therefore there is no editor who looks after international news or evolving international politics. There are no science reporters let alone someone who understands nuclear issues to tackle serious issues like disarmament, weapons development, and so on.
Usually, coverage on the subject is event-triggered as when the 1998 explosions took place or when there is some conflict with Pakistan. At such points the content tends to be emotional or romantic. They tend to toe the government’s line in such matters. The articles tend to mirror the popular commonsense so that there is no informed debate on nuclear weapons
In the visual media, there is an equally unhealthy trend. For instance, when AAJTAK was launched they felt that building up the India-Pakistan issue would be useful from a market point of view and so they did everything to focus on conflict between the two countries. And then Kargil happened and that is possibly what made AAJTAK successful. The point is that conflict had the visual potential to be saleable and so television took it upon itself to sell themselves through war.
In this context there is an interesting anomaly in the visual media. In the print media, the law requires to state in print who the editor, publisher and printer are, so that if there is any irresponsible behaviour there are at least three people who can be prosecuted. But in the case of television there is no such law and there is no way of fixing responsibility for errors or irresponsible conduct. There is no separate law for television that can check the content of output. This makes a difference in terms of the lack of restraint in reporting and discussing potentially emotive issues.
– Om Thanvi
Prisoners of the official line
There are the two defining constraints of mass media coverage of India-Pakistan relations in general and the nuclear issue specifically and it is difficult to see how they can easily disavow it. The first is that most of the coverage is prisoner of the official discourse. There may be individuals who look at things differently and not depend on the government, but by and large the news content is dependent on official sources. Virtually every paper, in the wake of the 13 December attack on the Indian parliament, editorially took a position against war in one way or the other, but the pressure from the news side was different simply because most of them consisted of official descriptions of events, official perceptions of what was happening, statements, declarations by ministers, bureaucrats. It generated a momentum which was impossible to counter through editorials written with the best intentions.
This resulted in the paradox of the edit-page invariably saying “India should not go to war with Pakistan” or “Settle with dialogue”, and yet with page one having some minister saying, “Time not yet right to strike”. Or, reports that troops were being mobilised. The ability of the state to regulate the temperature of media coverage of Pakistan and India-Pakistan issues is frightening. If the government says something dramatic there is a rash of articles that begin appearing about how terrible Pakistan is under Musharraf, and how there can be no dialogue with cross-border terrorism.
And the minute the signal comes of a softening of the government’s stance, as in Vajpayee’s Srinagar speech where he said “we offer our hand of friendship again to Pakistan”, all these same commentators and journalists will come staunchly for dialogue with Pakistan. The official line at any given point of time is gospel for 95 per cent of the mass media and probably 100 percent of television.
The second constraint lies inherently with the 24 hour news television phenomenon that has burst on the Indian scene involving four or five competing channels rushing to make news out of very small increments of events. Invariably, coverage of Pakistan tends to be extremely one-sided and they always try to magnify any potential problem. The live coverage of trifling events provides misleading impressions. For example, when Sushma Swaraj (then minister for information and broadcasting) visited Pakistan for a SAARC Information Ministers meet in March 2002, the emphasis of Zee and AAJTAK was to show how Sushma triumphed at various meetings.
– Siddharth Varadarajan
Letting Kashmir go
The possibility of nuclear escalation becomes the strongest when information exchange between the two countries is at its weakest. The restriction on the travel of journalists between the two countries is the first major stumbling block in the flow of information. The two countries need more honest brokers, and there are some in the media but none among the political class. The second problem is the perception in India of what kind of political entity in Pakistan the Indians should deal with—would they rather deal with Musharraf or with a mullah government. The general view is that they will wait for the right kind of government to come to power in Pakistan. This was Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s view-point. But when Benazir Bhutto came to power it did not mean that the basic structure of the Pakistani nation had changed. The extended experiment by the Indian government to ignore the Musharraf government for the first one and a half years led nowhere.
Pakistan for its part has to accept that India is the foremost state in South Asia and it is in Pakistan’s interest to help India up the ladder, because any improvement in India’s status vis-à-vis the world situation should automatically lead to an improvement in Pakistan’s status in the event of normal relations. Pakistan cannot get into an arms race with India, because the country just does not have the money. Likewise India has to accept, in absolutely categorical terms, that it cannot be a nation of considerable significance in world affairs without resolving problems with Pakistan. How can a country that cannot resolve a problem with Pakistan expect to be taken seriously as a player in the international arena?
Everybody pretends the Kashmir cannot be solved. The Indian argument is based on a false legalistic and a false historical notion. Borders are not cast in stone. What is practical is that India and Pakistan both have to learn to let go of Kashmir. Neither Pakistan nor India should pick and choose what voices they listen to. Putting the Kashmiri people into the equation is the core issue.
The problem between India and Pakistan is not psychological, it is the existence of large defence establishments. The biggest cause of conflict between the valley of the Indus and the valley of the Ganges was resolved in the Indus Water Treaty in 1962. They did it in a way that makes it all the more remarkable that we cannot do it today. That was a far more difficult problem to resolve than the reduction of tension in Kashmir.
– Hameed Haroon
India and Pakistan have never come close to a nuclear war so far despite the posturing and threats. Such an outcome is not really a serious possibility. People raise the nuclear option in conversation or interviews but nobody specifies what the nuclear option is. The nuclear option does not mean that they are actually going use the bomb. If there was any seriousness about the possibility of nuclear action, it would be on the top of the list and government would take it seriously. There are problems about Kashmir but Kashmir and the nuclear issue are not coterminous.
Both countries realise that the consequences of one exploding the nuclear device could be followed immediately by the other responding. That is the deterrent that ensures that no one is going to use it first. This nuclear umbrella actually allows space to talk about the issues.
– Akbar Zaidi