The bomb conquers Ahimsa

The urban educated Indian’s love for the nuclear option is morbid and repudiates the Gandhian heritage, says Swaminathan S Aiyar.

In Hiroshima, even the birds seem to fall silent at the A-bomb memorial, built at the site of the nuclear explosion in 1945. A single bombed out building from the holocaust dominates the skyline. The adjoining museum gives visitors a glimpse of the sheer horrors of the event.

Video recordings show the fateful day, which flattened an entire city and killed perhaps 300,000 people (mostly through painful cancer induced by radiation). There is a stunned silence among visitors winding their way slowly past the exhibits — the charred earring of a little girl, a bicycle twisted grotesquely by the blast and heat, photos of half-burned and deformed bodies. Regardless of whether the visitors are Japanese or American, you can almost hear them muttering through clenched teeth, ‘It must never happen again’.

Regret to say this sentiment is almost totally missing in India. We are now approaching the 50th anniversary of the death of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of ahimsa. Non-violence was an article of faith with him. To those who argued that violence was necessary against a violent opponent, he replied that using violence degraded the user and tarnished his own cause. Wrong means led to wrong ends.

When he was assassinated fifty years ago, there was much talk of carrying forward his message, of making India a beacon of non-violence to the world. Today all that is gone. After the Pokharan explosion of 1974, Indians struggled briefly between the rival attractions of ahimsa and the bomb. The bomb won hands down.

This was overwhelmingly clear by last year’s debate on the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). Many castigated the perfidious hypocrisy of the nuclear powers, and stressed the threat from China and Pakistan. I did not write on the issue then be-it seemed to be much ado about little. I did not believe the western powers were going to use the bomb, and so their nuclear hegemony seemed largely irrelevant to me. I did not think India and Pakistan would ever fight a nuclear battle, nor India and China. So why get het up?

Proponents said this was all very well, but surely an unanticipated nuclear crisis could arise. This is just possible. But in such an emergency India would surely go Might ahead and use the bomb regardless of any treaty. Even if Mr Inder Gujral had signed the CTBT, a future government facing a real emergency would unquestionably ignore it. In sum, giving up the nuclear option was never within Mr Gujral’s power. The nuclear option will always remain with future governments, whether or not Mr Gujral’s government signed it. And indeed this option remains with every other country that has signed the Treaty.

In theory, abrogation of the treaty would attract penalties. In practice this would not happen if India faced a genuine emergency. Besides, no country will worry about niceties of a treaty if faced with a real threat of nuclear war.

So, as you can see, I am not greatly worried about the rights and wrongs of CTBT. What does worry me is the near-absence of horror of nuclear war. Mr Inder Gujral says there is a consensus in the country on retaining the nuclear option. That, I think, is putting it too mildly. Judging by discussions I hear in homes and offices, most educated Indians want India to pile up as many nuclear bombs as possible. It gives them a feeling of importance, of virility. If we had a referendum on whether India should have more bombs than the US, I suspect the overwhelming majority would say yes. Our only real objection to nuclear hegemony is somebody else has it. If only we could have such a hegemony, we would invent a thousand arguments to prove it was just, fair, and in the interest of the whole world.

In the CTBT debate, our diplomats at Geneva argued in favour of total disarmament. But if indeed all countries actually agreed to disarm, I suspect most educated Indians would be dismayed. For them the bomb is a matter of national pride, not a symbol of horror.

No doubt the Japanese had similar macho feelings till the fateful day at Hiroshi ma. Japan too objected to the hegemony of white nations in building colonial empires and so it created a colonial empire of it own backed by a military machine capable of defeating the most powerful of white nations. It regarded military conquest as glorious, not as a shameful subjugation of unwilling people. Japanese attitudes finally changed only after nuclear bombard-men and a crushing military defeat. This finally made them anti-war, and gave them a sense of horror of nuclear weapons.

In Japan, unlike in India, political par ties do not all press for the nuclear option Nobody regards the possession of nuclear arms as an essential macho symbol. Alas educated Indians seem incapable of learning from others. Maybe we will actually have to suffer nuclear bombardment before developing a sense of horror.

This would have horrified Mahatma Gandhi, who thought he had inculcated £ new sense of morality in Indians during the independence struggle. The consensus when he died was that nonviolence made Indians morally superior to military superpowers. Fifty years on, we still pay lip ser vice to the Mahatma, but the utter silence on his cherished theme of ahimsa is deafening.

Readers may have noticed that in all the preceding paragraphs, I have talked of the pro-bomb feelings of educated Indians, not Indians as a whole. The most comprehensive survey on the subject, by Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, shows quite clearly that the supposed national consensus on CTBT is actually a consensus of the urban educated elite. Those polled were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘there is no need for India to make the atomic bomb.’ Overall, 26 per cent agreed, 36 per cent disagreed, and 38 per cent had no opinion. In any poll, people tend to agree with the pollster. To this extent, the poll data may overstate anti-bomb sentiment. Even allowing for this, the data show it is farcical to claim there is a national consensus on the nuclear option.

The accompanying table gives an interesting break-up of the composition of those polled. It shows that illiterates are not het up about the bomb at all: 58 per cent of them have no opinion, 19 per cent are anti-bomb, and only 23 per cent are pro-bomb. But as the educational level goes up, the pro-bomb proportion rises steadily, and is by far the highest among post-graduates.

The rural-urban break-up shows something similar. In villages, 42 per cent have no opinion and 25 per cent are anti-bomb, but pro-bomb sentiment rises significantly in urban areas.

Lastly, pro-bomb sentiment is least among those above the age of 56 (who actually have some memory of Gandhiji) and highest among those below 25 (the post-Pokhran generation).

India is an overwhelmingly rural country where half the population is illiterate. This explains why only 36 per cent of people are pro-bomb. But they happen to be the most educated and articulate. That makes a difference.

I would like to repeat, I do not think it makes much difference whether we sign CTBT or not. But I do think it matters whether we have a horror of nuclear war. During the CTBT debate, only a handful of people like Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik displayed any sense of horror. These gentlemen are Marxists, who on most topics are so instinctively and irrationally anti-American as to sound quite ga-ga. Yet they were horrified so much more by the bomb than the US that they set aside their gut feelings and campaigned m favour of a treaty solidly espoused by the western powers. This took a lot of courage and commitment, and I wish India had more such people. Alas, fifty years after Gandhiji’s death, most educated Indians have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

What do you think?