The heat wave had the country in its grip. The usual problems of no water and no electricity were attendant. Fifty years into independence and every Indian knows that even the most basic amenities are still a pipe dream. Then, on 11 May, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee summoned the press corps, strode on to a flag-festooned podium and proudly announced that the country now had the Bomb. The momentous announcement was initially met with stunned silence and then, prompted by much chest-thumping bravado from the Sangh Parivar, the beleaguered population found a cause for celebration. (Astonishingly, while the rest of the world and the country knew nothing of the impending explosions, the RSS mouthpiece, The Organiser, came up with an issue devoted to commemorating the 1974 blast in Pokhran and talk of nuclear testing, bang on the day the tests were conducted.) The celebratory mood was also encouraged by the elite media. A front page editorial in The Pioneer titled “Explosion of Self Esteem” said: “India’s battle to regain self-esteem, both internal and external, is several steps closer to a victorious conclusion thanks to the government’s aplomb.”
As for opponents of the bomb, the paper was derisive: “The proponents of butter over guns will take out their calculators to compute the number of schools, hospitals and other such monuments for welfarism that could have been built with the money exploded at Pokhran.” Said The Indian Express front page edit, “This is the end of ambiguity – and hypocrisy…This is a time for popular euphoria and celebration.” The Hindustan Times called its front pager “A Moment of Pride” and asserted: “The smiling Buddha of 1974 has now blossomed into a new assertion of the country’s right to arm itself in a manner which it believes is best suited to its security interests.”
Only The Times of India sounded a note of caution. “The maelstrom of destruction which lies at the point of a nuclear impact is called ground zero: today India represents this epicentre which will inevitably send shock waves throughout the region and the world beyond. More than a demonstration of India’s enhanced nuclear capability, the tests represent a political statement by New Delhi under the saffron flag. Unfortunately, it is not clear to what extent the Vajpayee government has thought through the strategic implications of its decision.” But this was in the inside pages; the front page reportage about the explosions was gung-ho and upbeat.
Little wonder that the political and intellectual class that takes its cues from the English press was very wary of coming out with adverse statements in a situation where they could sound “unpatriotic”. Only a handful of journalists, known opponents of the bomb like Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik, wrote strongly against it and for their effort received a number of threatening calls.
All political parties, save the Left, hailed the “scientific achievement” the tests represented. Some even tried to take credit: the Congress and the United Front governments claimed that the nuclear programme was encouraged under their respective regimes which was why it could come to fruition on 11 May. On the other hand, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said they would study the implications before making a statement, while the Forward Bloc condemned the tests outright as “a waste intended to divert the country’s attention”.
What fuelled the jingoistic fervour was the threat of sanctions and condemnation from the rest of the world. That these came from a set of countries determined to maintain their own nuclear stockpiles only added to the feeling of righteous anger. Beset with all manner of internal ills, it appeared attractive and macho to take on the rest of the world even as military and strategic analysts toted out arguments about why the security environment had necessitated the tests.
Then, two days after the first tests, the earth shook again and the series of five tests was completed. But this time around, all the leading dailies, even as they supported the tests, also sounded warnings and advised caution in dealing with global opprobrium and sanctions. And the editorial pages did carry opposing viewpoints. Many began questioning the need to go nuclear just when India was building bridges with China and trying to establish diplomatic rapport with Pakistan.
On 16 May, 45 mass organisations, including NGOs working in the field of development, human rights, peace, environment and with women formed “The Movement Against Nuclear Weapons” (MANW). They said they represented a silent majority whose sentiments were not considered while going in for nuclearisation. “National pride does not come by becoming a member of the big nuclear club but by getting out of the club of 10 least socially developed countries,” said Nityanand Jayaraman of Greenpeace International. They marched through busy thoroughfares of the capital city to register their protest. Buddhists joined in the protest, asserting that they felt insulted because India had conducted nuclear tests on the birth anniversary of Lord Buddha, “a day of peace when we pray for the end of hatred and violence”. They organised a sit-in at Rajghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. But the BJP government was not listening. On the same day, celebrations were declared throughout the country during which the BJP organised a series of functions attended by top leaders and party functionaries. Crackers were burst and candles lit. They vowed to build a temple dedicated to the Goddess Shakti at the site of the explosions.
On 18 May, former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral gave an interview to The Indian Express saying his government too had the nuclear option before it, but they chose not to go for the bomb. “In my balance sheet, economic development was most important. Arms and ammunition alone do not make a country strong. Otherwise, North Korea would have been a power today and the Soviet Union would not have collapsed,” he said.
Initially, business and industry shrugged off threats of sanctions, saying that they would not really affect the economy as India was too big and quite self-sufficient. But slowly analysts began to see the difficulties ahead and realised that the sanctions would pinch.
On 20 May, Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Pokhran with a large entourage of prominent political leaders. They flashed “V” signs and the prime minister addressed the assembled gathering. But local villagers boycotted his meeting, saying they were suffering from after effects of the explosions. They complained of burning eyes, bleeding noses and respiratory problems. Scientists asserted there had been no radioactive fallout.
In Bangalore the same day, the Centre for Education and Documentation (CED) held a meeting to condemn the tests, but unfortunately, it was disrupted by the Hindutva brigade.
Two days later, Calcutta-based scientists, intellectuals and human rights groups wrote to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India asking him to stay “any further nuclear explosion by the Government of India”. The letter said the government had acted in a manner which was “absolutely against the people’s fundamental rights to life and personal liberty guaranteed by the Constitution”.
On 23 May, several top Indian scientists issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the nuclear tests. They belonged to elite scientific institutions of the country. The statement, echoing the beginning of a movement, was circulated through e-mail and is now posted at its own web-site where several scientists working in India and abroad have signed to register their protest. The statement says: “The horrors of a nuclear war cannot be forgotten…can we feel happy and secure in a situation which every country feels proud of its nuclear weapons capability and is convinced of the deterrence tactic?”
But even as anti-nuclear sentiments were coalescing, Ashok Singhal, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, called the nuclear tests an “emphatic assertion” of Hindu pride and said he favoured a constitutional amendment to make India a Hindu state. He said the movement for the construction of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya and the recent nuclear explosions had a common theme: “Both were aimed at awakening the Hindu pride.”
The pro-bomb lobby was increasingly hijacked by the forces of Hindutva until ultimately Prime Minister Vajpayee was compelled to call a halt to partisan celebrations.
On 26 May, Congress President Sonia Gandhi finally came out openly against the nuclear tests. The opposition at last got its act together and lambasted the government in Parliament for going in for the tests without seeking a national consensus. The government appeared completely on the defensive and the opposition felt the tests could worsen rather than improve the security situation.
The 28 May Pakistan tests proved just how accurate they were. But the government was pleased and said their own testing was now justified. Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani made a strong speech condemning the Pakistanis and warning them of dire consequences if they planned any misadventures against India.
Belligerent voices began to be heard from both sides of the border, causing more and more people to consider the security implications. Activists gathered on 29 May to stand around a busy Delhi traffic intersection with placards protesting nuclear bombs. “Na Hindustan rahega, na Pakistan rahega. Ab to sirf Kabristan Rahega” (Neither India, nor Pakistan will remain. What will remain is a graveyard) read one.
These activists then got together to form MIND, or the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament, and have been meeting every Friday for demonstrations. Their preamble reads: “There was a national consensus in favour of elimination of all nuclear weapons; there was a national consensus that in the absence of any tangible movement towards global disarmament, India must keep its nuclear option open. This consensus has now been breached in the pursuit of narrow political ends and in the name of a fake national consensus supporting nuclear weapons that is now belied in Parliament and in the streets. The Indian government’s dangerous move has now brought forth a similar Pakistani response which also needs to be condemned.”