June 21, 2021
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Duck And Cover

But that was the fifties, when no one knew much about nukes, and the American government didn't want them know.

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Duck And Cover
Last year, I told my father the true story of how some over-zealous VHP guys, elated over India’s testing of their nuke at Pokhran, wanted to "gather the sacred dust of Pokhran and scatter it in the four corners of India." (Sacred radioactive dust. Uh huh. Right. Let’s rub it on our foreheads, why don’t we? Let’s use it as prasad, how about that?) So, predictably, as soon as the war rhetoric and breast-beating between India and Pakistan intensified, the US embassy, consulate and warden weren’t the only ones telling me to leave the country immediately; my father said: "Those macho fundamentalist types have no idea what they’ve triggered off. I’m sending you a plane ticket. Be on a flight by next week." Luckily for me, I decided to wait for results of the Armitage talks. Unluckily for the Indian economy, a lot of foreigners took their embassy warnings seriously, and took themselves and/or their money out of India.

And who can blame them? Over the past few months they’ve seen out-of-control rioting and massacres continuing in the state of Gujarat while Atal Bin Vajpayee rattles on in Goa like the Superior Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and George Bin Fernandes declares rape a natural phenomenon in Parliament. They’ve seen General Bin Musharraf look into the camera and say, "Nothing is happening on the Line of Control". (Just like Bill Bin Clinton: "I never had sex with that woman.") Recently, they saw the MLAs of Maharashtra kidnapping and sequestering one another as if the running of the country’s financial nerve centre is some kooky schoolboys’ game. Meanwhile, millions of troops are eye-balling one another across the LOC.

It is only natural then, that a majority of foreign residents and investors would wonder, "are we safe with these guys in charge?"

"Duck and cover, indeed," as my friend Neil put it.

For those of you unfamiliar with this term, when the USSR was still a major player and at the height of nuclear paranoia in America, the US government ran a series of absurd ads in movie theatres and on television with the alleged intent to advise citizens on what to do in the event of nuclear holocaust (as if one could actually do anything). These ads were in stark and grotesque contrast with the reality of holocaust as experienced by Japan. In the ads, a teacher would conduct a drill and school children would be shown ducking and covering themselves with their school desks in an orderly fashion (as if they’d have time to do this, and as if it would help). The ads were called "Duck and Cover". There was even a little ditty that went with the ads, to make the whole business of war and nukes appear less scary to an unsuspecting American public. But, okay, that was the fifties, when no one knew much about nukes, and the American government didn’t want them know.

Michael Moore is a film-maker, the author of Stupid White Men (which has sold more copies than Harry Potter), a rabble rousing man of the masses, and a perpetual pain in the ass for the US government and corporate America. Shortly after the nuke testing at Pokhran, he made an appointment with the Indian Ambassador in Washington, posing as a US government official designated to "help" India prepare for nuclear war. The interview was video taped (and I’ve got a copy to prove it). Moore played the "duck and cover" ads from the fifties for the Indian ambassador. He did the same with the Pakistani ambassador. By the end of it, he had both ambassadors "ducking and covering" to the inane tune on the ad. It was hilarious. But it was also terrifying. Because it was a metaphor for how unprepared India and Pakistan are with regard to the reality of a nuclear war.

Several domestic journalists have also exposed their mind-boggling ignorance of all things nuclear, blowing off the entire affair as a "phoney war". As a matter of policy, the Indian Government routinely informs the US State Department of both the intent and the level of military engagement, so it is unlikely, as some members of the domestic press have frivolously implied, that India was merely crying wolf to gain international attention, and the US merely panicking and responding in a knee-jerk fashion. Never before has the US issued such a warning to its citizens with regard to India. Another incredibly naïve proclamation from the press both in India and in Pakistan, was that the US was only acting as peace broker in its own interest. This is not news. Which country doesn’t act in its own interest? Whether we plebs like it or not, nations are not charity organizations and this is not the point. The point is: is it in either India’s or Pakistan’s interest to engage in a full blown war? And, given India’s military superiority, is it likely that such a war could remain restricted to conventional use of weapons? And, if not, what would be left of either country?

(Margaret Mascarenhas is, inter alia, the author of Skin)

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