February 26, 2020
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Guns ‘N’ Butter

The intelligentsia warns against pop-nationalism and the prevailing ignorance about nuclear horrors

Guns ‘N’ Butter

POKHRAN II goes to the heart of middle class nationalism. Who is the better Indian patriot? Is it the peaceful social welfarist or the aggressive nuclear realist? Some argue that sovereignty lies in the capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons, because international realism demands we demonstrate to the global hegemons that India has a right to tackle its national security in the way it thinks fit. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the bomb, they say, being bullied by America is the final, most unacceptable insult.

Others say that sovereignty lies not in nuclear sabrerattling, but in a war on poverty and illiteracy. They say Indian nationalism should be secular, civic and democratic, not Hindu, militarist and based on a revivalist "glory of India", which they believe, is aimed at creating an "India under siege" mentality, designed to yield an absolute electoral majority.

Veteran sociologist D.L. Sheth confesses to a dilemma. He regards the explosion of 1974 as the "original sin" and finds "nothing to celebrate" in the recent tests. However, Sheth maintains that he’s not an unconditional pacifist and that the Indian "protest culture" has been far too alienated from the grassroots. "Democrats and liberals have not adequately appreciated the power of the nationalist identity, thus surrendering it to the forces of Hindutva," Sheth says. He believes the ‘Hin-duisation of the bomb’ is utterly deplorable. On the contrary, he feels, ordinary people are supporting the tests as a victory for India not as a victory for Indian Hindus. But politically, with the demise of Nehruvianism, there seems to be no alternative nationalism to that of ‘Hindutva’.

The government’s version of technological modernity appears to coexist with revivalist religion. Noted film-maker Mrinal Sen, who is also a student of physics, simply cannot understand why Prime Minister Vajpayee declares the tests as a triumph of Indian science, yet even as he announces this has a tilak smeared on his forehead. "Look at the contradictions! Science and religion going hand in hand, poverty and the bomb going together. It’s sheer madness," says Sen. Sociologist Partha Chatterjee explains that from the days of the anti-Mandal agitations, the middle class has been feeling impatient with too much democracy. Amidst such a feeling, someone who takes a ‘powerful’ decision like exploding a bomb is bound to be applauded by the middle class.

Historian Barun De declares that militarist nationalism does not square with his vision of India and that going nuclear is against the tenets of the democratic State. "What is this big debate on sovereignty?" De demands. "With the coming of the UN, the concept of sovereignty has changed. The WTO, for example, infringes on our sovereignty more than anything. The measure of sovereignty is not strength but the capacity to remain together."

Macho nationalism obscures economic priorities. "Have we lost our marbles?" asks novelist Kiran Nagarkar. "Though the West has no business lecturing to us, we seem to be playing the same tune. Middle class men and women are into macho strutting. Whether we like it or not, these are our neighbours and we should have friendly relations with them...hasn’t one thrashing from China been enough? Economic strength is the only strength, let’s get food in our bellies first!" Award-winning writer Mahasweta Devi echoes similar sentiments: "There are more vital issues like poverty alleviation, land reforms and liberating de-notified nomadic tribes from the stigma of criminality.These should be our priorities, not the bomb!" Khushwant Singh wonders why these tests were undertaken, since we already had enough weapons to flatten Pakistan and did not need more. "It seems," says Singh, "that the tests were carried out to build support for a shaky coalition."

Ecology expert Darryl D’Monte points out that, according to the 1998 UN Human Development Report, India and Pakistan spend $12 billion per year on defence. If there is a reduction of 5 per cent per year for five years, universal primary education can become a reality in both countries. "This display of nuclear virility will lead to an overall escalation of arms race in the region. A country so poor, which suffers from so much illiteracy and gender inequality, can scarce afford this kind of pride."

 Yet others argue that guns and butter are not a sequential choice, that you can defend security and divert more funds towards development at the same time, that the choice between defence on the one side and development on the other is a false dichotomy. Defence writer K. Subrahmanyam says that Japan does not have a nuclear weapon, is considered a part of the developed world on the strength of its economy and not its military strength, but at the same time has enjoyed US military protection.

It is unreal to expect poor countries not to be nationalist, says Sheth. Nationalism has grown all over the world and India is no exception. "Some of us liberals and democrats have disassociated nationalism from democracy and socialism. But the truth is that all nationalism does not have to be jingoism. The protesters have tended to endorse the language of the nuclear monopolists, instead they should press for total nuclear disarmament," he says.

In a sort of political coup, the democratic right to protest is suddenly seen as anti-national. In a single stroke, the government seems to have destroyed the moderate middle ground and polarised the debate between peaceful traitors and aggressive patriots. In Bangalore, a meeting of anti-nuclear demonstrators was disrupted by the Hindu Jagarana Vedike and the participants were denounced as anti-national. Prof. Hassan Mansur of the Bangalore PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) says the tests are aimed only at "militarising the political arena to secure an absolute majority in the next elections". It is a skewed view of sovereignty, say the dissenters, that only deposits of radioactive uranium guarantee India freedom of action. Amit Sengupta, doctor and anti-nuclear writer, says that the loss of India’s traditional nuclear ambiguity will lead to further loss in economic sovereignty. "We have bartered our economic sovereignty for the sake of the nuclear bomb, because America will now ask for more and more economic concessions in return for the tests," says Sengupta. Prof. Nagari Bab-aiah of Bangalore University points out how the economy nose-dived after the 1971 war with Pakistan. "These tests too will bomb on the Indian economy," he says. N. Ram, editor, Frontline, also feels that the economic costs of the tests will be very high. "The Vajpayee government’s RSS-inspired hawkishness could swing from adventurism to appeasement," he warns.

In any case, the government’s foreign policy seems rather arcane, caught in a time warp where it is believed that the US will—in the event that India now signs the CTBT—ally with India to contain a belligerent China. Says Probir Purkayastha of the Delhi Science Forum: "For the US, China is no longer a threat, it is a market.India is also a market. To try and set up an anti-China axis with the US is to remain a prisoner of a ’50s mindset which believes that the ‘containment’ of China is a US priority." Ram, however, also points out that in the sphere of foreign policy—although the responsibility of the present situation must be accepted by the Vajpayee-led government—all political parties and all sections of the people must oppose and resist any intimidatory tactics and any attempt to ‘punish’ India. Feminist writer Urvashi Butalia wonders why the BJP-led government is so anxious to be taken seriously by the West. "To me it is a contradiction that on the one hand you keep emphasising how you want to build up an authentic Indian identity yet at the same time you need to attract American attention." Buta-lia says that she’s always been proud of being Indian, but after the tests, she felt ashamed. Historian Shahid Amin is saddened at the manner in which the government is conducting the public debate. "The debate on the bomb is being made into a debate on secularism—so that those who oppose it are immediately painted as pseudo-secularist—when it should not be. Government ministers should be much more responsible in the manner in which they lead such a debate, the tone adopted by the government is a dangerous development," Amin says. And adds that if the BJP-led coalition government claims to speak for all Indians, it should do so in a more responsible manner.

SO, the government has tried to position itself as a party of the nationalist centre but ended up promoting illiberalism; it has attempted to enter the Big Boy’s Club but burdened the country with an embarrassing foreign policy.

There is an increasing glorification of science, the creation in the middle class mind of a class of mystical wielders of the brah -ma-astra in their secluded shrines in the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). Scientifically, says Sengupta, the tests are nothing to be proud of because the technology is 20 years old and, to put it crudely, only a few nuts and bolts have been screwed on and set alight. Computer scientist Subhashis Banerjee says there is need to regard science as a political and social activity not as an amoral process, divorced from society. "Some scientists may opt out of a weapons programme because of their personal conscience, but often scientists have knowledge without wisdom." According to M.R. Srinivasan, former chairman, AEC, there is need for science and technology to be properly dovetailed into civilian industry. "Nuclear technology can help agriculture and industry and we should ensure that the talented people do not only work in the weapons programme," says Sriniva-san, who believes that we should use nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes.

T. Jayaraman, a theoretical physicist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, stands by the long tradition of eminent scientists who have consistently argued against nuclear weapons. Scientists like Oppenheimer and Einstein were horri-fied by the destructive potential of science. Technology for its own sake can often be devoid of morality. "Many of us were disgusted by the way the US media turned the 1991 Gulf War into a show of technological supremacy," says Jayaraman.

An insecure and frustrated middle class, living by and aspiring to standards that are set in the West, operating increasingly in an international community that does not take their own country seriously—the NRI predicament is an important dimension here—has fallen back on the bomb as the last vestige of Indian pride, says Achin Vanaik, writer and ‘peacenik’. Vanaik admits that the protest movement—made up generally of Gandhians, groups affiliated to the Left and popular science groups—has in some senses allowed the BJP to hijack the nuclear agenda. Also, in the absence of an actual felt danger, there has been no opportunity to create a wider constituency of protest.

Yet Vanaik points out that nuclear weap -ons should be opposed on moral grounds. "The acceptance of a pro-nuclear discourse leads you down an immoral path and we lose our sense of moral balance. These are the worst devices manufactured by man, they follow no principles of warfare, the effects of the ‘nuclear winter’ are horrendous, there are just no winners in this war." Vanaik believes that the principle of a nuclear deterrence is also immoral, and there is no possible justification for even threatening to use devices that can destroy all life on earth.

Middle class euphoria seems to coexist with lack of information on the actual horrors of the weapons themselves. S. Nedunchezhiyan, convenor of Poo Ulagin Nanbar-gal, a Chennai-based environmental group, says his group plans to show anti-nuclear films and publicise articles in popular magazines like Nakheeran. Vanaik and Sengupta are also planning demonstrations through their own groups. But "one day internationals, Sushmita Sen and the atom bomb," as psephologist Yogendra Yadav puts it, seem to be the touchstones of middle class pop-nationalism. And Vanaik wonders if anyone is actually interested in knowing about the political folly and the moral shame of these "weapons of evil". Nevertheless, sections of the thinking class seem to be in a dilemma: shocked by the tests and subsequent warlike threats, yet at the same time concerned that Indian sovereignty must not be totally compromised by an economic sell-out or a succumbing to US pressure.

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