The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 10, 2003

India’s nuclear dream and Iraq’s nightmare
J. Sri Raman

Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream
edited by M.V. Ramana and C. Rammanohar Reddy.
Orient Longman, New Delhi.
Pages 502. Rs 575.

Prisoners of the Nuclear DreamLAST May 11, it was already five years since Pokharan II. Must we still go on debating whether India needs nuclear weapons or not?

Another way of asking the question: It is now over five months since the outbreak of the Iraq war. Must we go on and on about South Asia as a flashpoint, when the focus of world attention has shifted to West Asia?

The considered answer to both the questions must be a categorical "yes." They have been answered from several viewpoints represented in the Indian peace movement. Running through the arguments, however, there is a common thread that illustrates the crowning irony of the Pokharan explosions and their Chagai echoes.

The mantra of "security" was the main argument cited for nuclear weaponisation in both India and Pakistan. The counter-argument is that the process has only spelt increasing insecurity for the region. The insecurity has increased at every major turn since those testing times.


The first of these occasions came months after the tests. It came even as the nuclear hawks were still eloquent about the pro-peace virtues of the new arms race in the region. Now, they exulted, even the spectre of a conventional war had ceased to haunt the subcontinent. Nothing like a bomb-achieved balance of terror, they agreed, to make India and Pakistan live like the neighbours and brothers they were. Came Kargil, and the claim was shattered. In retrospect, it was a bomb-born confidence that had prompted Pakistan’s army under an ambitious Pervez Musharraf to provoke the conflict.

The second turning point came with September 11, 2001. That the tragedy at the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York, too, led to increased insecurity in South Asia, is a point noted sharply in the latest of the books on India’s nuclear weapons programme — Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream edited by M.V. Ramana and C. Rammanohar Reddy.

The editors are unambiguous about this: "While the finer details of some of these arguments (against India’s nuclear weaponisation) may be changed with regard to the attack (on the WTC), it is certain that concern about South Asia’s nuclear weapons has only become that much more grave." The situation could not have become graver than it did, when an attack by suspected Islamic militants on Indian Parliament three months after 9/11 led to a long India-Pakistan military standoff all along the border. The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of a million soldiers of two nuclear-weapon states continued though the chilling summer of 2002.

That both India and Pakistan officially became allies of the USA in its "global war on terror" spelt nuclear terror for the entire region. The alliance made the subcontinent’s rivals more implacable adversaries than ever. The superpower, quick to waive post-Pokharan II and post-Chagai sanctions against both, winked at their war games.

The danger posed by the standoff might have passed. However, it has returned with a vengeance after the most recent turning point. The US-UK invasion of Iraq has provoked not only popular anti-war protests in India, but also official protestations sparked by no passion for peace. The immediate reaction of New Delhi was to plead for an equal right to pre-emption, with particular reference to Kashmir. Washington has rejected the plea, but the war can promote nuclear militarism here in another way.

Iraq is a heaven-sent opportunity for the Indian nuclear hawks to revive the argument that makes the bomb synonymous with security, to peddle the "deterrence" theory as proven beyond doubt. The common purpose of the essays in this volume, compiled before the "Coalition of the Killing" blitzed Baghdad, is to prove this theory to be a tattered myth. As the editors sum it up: "The people of India and Pakistan`85have now to come to terms with Robert Jay Lifton’s assertion: ‘The central existential fact of the nuclear age is vulnerability.’ The nuclear dream only makes us prisoners of insecurity."

Ramana and Reddy have brought out earlier the physical and human aspects of such insecurity. Ramana—along with Pakistani peace activists Zia Mian and A.H. Nayyar as well as M. McKinzie—worked out the possible toll of human lives (nearly three million) in an India-Pakistan nuclear war. Reddy was the first to work out the cost of India’s nuclear weaponisation (a whopping Rs 70,000-80,000 crore over a decade), and the title of his essay, Nuclear Weapons versus Schools for Children, makes his telling point.

The political linkage is provided by M.V. Krishna Ananth, who draws attention to the fact that the Congress and even sections of the Left, in their first reactions to Pokharan II, talked of it as a proud achievement of Indian science that could strengthen security. The absence of consistent political opposition to nuclear weaponisation per se should add considerably to the Indian peace movement’s post-Iraq concern.