Funnily enough, the India/Pakistan nuclear tests of May 1998 were triggered by a Tamil lady from India’s south. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, humiliated by a mere 13 days in office the first time around exactly two years earlier, was unwilling to lead his party through another ignominious early ouster. And so when the querulous partners in his shaky coalition, most importantly J. Jayalalitha of the AIADMK, threatened to pull out of the BJP-led government, Vajpayee went nuclear. It was as simple as that. The resulting nationalist wave would sustain the government a few months longer. A political party’s short-term interest had decided national policy with grave regional and international fallout.
After India tested, Pakistan tested. Two countries, made essentially of the same people sharing the same history and sensibility, having land borders and adjacent population centres, now make plans to cap their missiles with nuclear tips. They contemplate atomic war. What was unthinkable in April became hard reality over the course of May.
Pakistan had it easy in explaining its own tests – it was only responding to India’s. It was India that had to resort to unconvincing ex post facto justifications, such as the sudden emergence of a ‘China threat’. As for the unfairness of the international non-proliferation regime, why did India alone among the 180-odd non-nuclear weapon states feel that it had to make the point? Nuclear hegemonism could have been fought by making common cause with other powerhouses of the South, from Brazil to Indonesia.
At the United Nations and elsewhere, India has long reserved for itself the high moral ground, armed with reference to Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ashoka and Buddha. Today, India speaks the language of power and machismo. But has this buttressed its own security? Whereas earlier India was one ahead within the Subcontinent, with Pokhran I, now Islamabad stands shoulder-to-shoulder at the doors of a South Asian Armageddon. India seems to have hurt its own security by goading the overt nuclearisation of Pakistan, a much more unstable state than itself, with fewer failsafe mechanisms in its polity.
The Indian and Pakistani public’s so-called support for the blasts, based on superficial polling, does not persuade. What does ‘support’ mean when it comes from a public unaware of death in a massive fireball, the impact of economic sanctions, or the inevitable crowding out of the social sector? In a Subcontinent where leaders are not even bothered to devise a nuclear doctrine before they go about exploding devices, how can one take the ‘opinion’ of the ‘public’ seriously?
Let us also note that the television cameras which focused on people stuffing ladoos in Delhi and Rawalpindi streets did not show the hundreds of millions who were not distributing sweets. Even among the middle class, the idea is sinking in after the initial elation of nuclear ejaculation, that the Subcontinent is suddenly vulnerable. A conflagration is much more likely here, today, than ever was during the tactical rivalry of the Cold War or in China’s low-intensity animosities. Pinch yourself and dare to accept that there is a real possibility of a nuclear war in South Asia. Just as ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nagasaki’ mean more than just names of cities today, so could ‘Kanpur’, ‘Multan’ or ‘Ahmedabad’ tomorrow.
But do not say this to the analysts who speak with such self-assurance of “mutually assured destruction”. After decades of waiting on the wings while the Western doctrinal gurus pontificated, these South Asians have gone quite MAD. On both sides of the Wagah/Attari divide, they are delirious with newfound importance. But then they represent the same demographic slice as those who ordered the tests. The India/Pakistan bomb, one may say, is but part of a single programme of the political elite on both sides to keep the entire Subcontinental populace at bay.
Some misguided young hijackers sought to make the point when they took a Pakistani airplane off its route – that the tests then being contemplated by Islamabad did not have the support of the Baloch. In the same vein, we do wonder how much the Rajasthan tests speak for the Indian Northeast or the Deccan aboriginals, the Muslim poor or the Hindu poor. Does even the Indian South support Pokhran II with the same vehemence as New Delhi’s charmed circle? And what of Nepalis and Bangladeshis who stand in the direct line of fallout when a India/Pakistan bomb goes off in the Indus-Ganga-Brahmaputra basin?
If anything is to be salvaged from Pokhran and Chagai, perhaps it is a region-wide movement to wrest the initiative away from the ‘defence analysts’ and into the hands of the economists, environmentalists and social-scientists among whom ‘peace’ is not a dirty word. It is ‘war’ that is obscene, especially when laced with radioactivity.
Fortunately, times have changed enough that one can fight the nuclear agenda without being tarred ‘anti-national’. Rational and considerate Indians and Pakistanis have raised their voice and staked a claim on the mainstream discourse. This has been the beneficial fallout of the blasts, and the anti-nuclear message should now be taken beyond the liberal confines of the English literati to the larger Hindi- and Urdu-reading public. Everyone should know that after the euphoria of going nuclear, all you are left with is radioactive earth.