Out of the Nuclear Shadow
Edited by Smitu Kothan and Zia Mian
Palgrave Press, 2002
ISBN 1 84277 058 6
pp 400, USD 69.95
Whether you are stridently anti-nuclear, or “anti-nuclear but faint of heart,” this book is for you.
As war-clouds have gathered yet r1again above South Asia after the 13 December attack on the Indian Parliament, and as the prospects sooner or later of a nuclear confrontation grow larger, this volume on the Indian and Pakistani decisions to test and deploy nuclear weapons is a timely contribution. Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian, two well-known South Asian academics- activists, have produced a useful anti-nuclear handbook, and something much more than that. This handsome, portable volume is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what happened in May 1998, when India and Pakistan tested a series of nuclear weapons, and what the consequences of those fateful decisions may have. Indeed, as the two countries joust and threaten retaliation and counter-retaliation, it seems clear enough that we are living one of the consequences of those momentous, flawed decisions. For all the talk of peace and stability attendant on going nuclear, this is the third crisis since 1998 (the Kargil war, the hijacking of IC 814 and 13 December).
Out of the Nuclear Shadow is not just one of the best collections of antinuclear writings ever assembled, it is also a rare political document. The many distinguished contributors, some of whom are household names in the region if not internationally, do not stop at a critique of the Indian and Pakistani tests and the two nuclear weapons programmes. Their net is cast wider, on the larger question of what the tests tell us about contemporary state and society in South Asia and the broader issues of international relations.
Whether or not you agree with the anti-nuclear positions held by the contributors, there is the pleasure of engaging in the passionate, intelligent, critical writing by some of the best known public intellectuals of the Subcontinent. Where else can you get, in one place, Mahatma Gandhi, Eqbal Ahmed, Rajni Kothari, Beena Sarwar, IA Rahman, Praful Bidwai, Amartya Sen, Tanika Sarkar, Surendra Gadekar, Anand Patwardhan, Kumkun Sangari, Shiv Vishwanathan, Ashis Nandy, Aijaz Ahmad, Zafarullah Khan, T Jayaraman, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Achin Vanaik, Lalita Ramdas, AH Nayar, Bittu Sehgal, and Amulya Reddy?
A concerned citizen would find one more reason to invest in this fine volume: a full 150 pages are devoted to anti-nuclear statements by groups from across the region (including the smaller countries of South Asia), six evocative poems, an excellent, largely non-partisan bibliography (including references to pro-nuclear writings), and a list of films, peace organisations and websites. Those who want more information, alternative perspectives, and a way of getting involved in anti-nuclear and other peace initiatives will find no better resource.
The volume consists, in the main, of thirty or so essays of varying length, some spectacularly well known such as “The End of Imagination” by Arundhati Roy; some written in the immediate shocking aftermath of the tests (Eqbal Ahmed, Aijaz Ahmad); some written up to two years later, such as Amartya Sen’s “India and the Bomb”. Virtually all of the pieces published here are reprints or revisions of earlier articles: putting them all together is a contribution to the anti-nuclear struggle in and of itself. Those who are anti-nuclear but faint of heart, or who falter now and then, should draw sustenance from the fact that the best minds and spirits of the region are unequivocally and forthrightly against these terrible weapons. Those who are published here may themselves be surprised by the quantity and quality of what was written in the wake of the tests. The efforts of Princeton scholar Zia Mian and Delhi-based environmentalist Smitu Kothari thus help to create a new, virtual community of novelists, poets, social and natural scientists, journalists and activists, all bound by concern for nuclear weaponisation.
What is the message of the book? Clearly, it is ranged against the testing, development, deployment, and use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. Everyone here, either explicitly or implicitly, is for complete nuclear disarmament by both India and Pakistan and also by the other nuclear powers. No one sees any merit in the arguments of nuclear deterrence. Even Amartya Sen’s essay, easily the least polemical in the volume, in the end must be read as being anti-deterrent. On the other hand, there are no Polyannas here. No one thinks that the Indian and Pakistani programmes can be easily stopped and dismantled, or that the Subcontinental addiction to nuclear weapons can be overcome in the near future. Nor do any of the contributors believe that global nuclear disarmament is around the corner. No one is predicting immediate nuclear war either: there are no irresponsible alarmists here. As for building an anti-nuclear movement, there is a goodly sense that this will be an arduous tome which will encounter great resistance. There is passionate, critical intensity in many of the essays and a cool, analytical sensibility in others. There are no fanciful, wideeyed agitators; no one is trivial or innocent.
What will readers learn from these various essays? They will learn that there is a whole range of military, economic, political, moral and existential reasons for opposing nuclear weapons. Militarily, it can be shown that nuclear weapons produce more insecurity than security, as indeed they produced in the India-Pakistan standoff after 13 December, and that deterrence is an edifice that must eventually fail. Economically, they will learn of the toll nuclear weapons extract from economic growth and development. Politically, they will learn that atomic decisions affect domestic institutions and the cut and thrust of ideological contests, that they threaten democracy and accountability in public life; they militarise societies and debase science; and they impoverish our notions of nationalism – in sum, that these decisions are not merely security choices in the national interest. Morally, this book shows that nuclear weapons are an abomination as no other weapons have been historically, and that even deterrence, which is the threat to use nuclear weapons, is objectionable. Lastly, V they will learn that nuclear weapons are an existential nightmare, for any use of nuclear weapons will be a physical catastrophe, one that will kill and maim millions of human beings, destroy their societies, and burn and poison the world for all living beings.
Could the anthology have been better than it is? At 500 pages, it is a large volume already. Nevertheless, there are gaps that could have been filled. For instance, it would have been useful to include at least a couple of pieces by non-South Asians, such as an independent- minded Chinese scholar, someone from Japan, and from the West. A former general or admiral making the case for the uselessness of nuclear weapons would have been a tactical gain for the collection. Admiral L. Ramdas from India could have written just such a piece, or the American, Lee Butler (the volume does have a statement by retired South Asian generals, but it is too hortatory to be very useful). Third, the collection lacks a good, exclusive essay on the prospects of global disarmament. Fourth, Out of the Nuclear Shadow needed an essay that struggles with the difficulties and contradictions that will have to be faced by and within the anti-nuclear movements in both India and Pakistan (the two movements are unlikely to face the same hur- dies). Comparisons with the US and European cases, or Japan, would have enlivened such an essay. Fifth, there are some personal favourites missing from the volume, especially the pieces by Stunit Sarkar, Partha Chatterjee, and Rustom Bharucha in Economic and Political Weekly. Also, an extract from Amitav Ghosh’s New Yorker article (and later book, Countdown?) would have been useful. If memory serves, Ramchandra Guha had an interesting commentary on the tests as well. Finally, a question: was there nothing in Hindi or the other vernacular languages worth reprinting?
These minor reservations notwithstanding, Out of the Nuclear Shadow is a terrific addition to the growing archive of sophisticated and critical-minded works on South Asian nuclearisation. Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian have done Indians, Pakistanis and all South Asians a service by publishing this selection. Anyone who cares about war and peace and democracy and the welfare of a billion and a half people should surely buy this anthology.