The Hindutva Bomb


Gail Omvedt

``BRIGHTER than a thousand suns,'' is how Martin Oppenheimer is said to have described the first American nuclear test, quoting apparently from the Bhagavad Gita. A colleague is said to have reminded him that following this were the lines, ``I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.'' The beauty of the mushroom cloud is indeed the harbinger of death. Only, whereas in the first days of the bomb the death-bringers were Americans and the death-takers were the Japanese citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, today the threat of the dance of death is looming over the Indian subcontinent.

However much the countries possessing nuclear weapons are assuring us that they are being held in order not to be used, it is too easy to forget the costs of using them. Mark Selden, in an introduction to the book, The Atomic Bomb: voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has given some translations of the survivors' experiences. Perhaps it would be well to recall some of the descriptions following the bombing of Hiroshima, which resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths. A five year- old girl recalled, ``Black smoke was billowing up and we could hear the sound of big things exploding... Those dreadful streets. The fires were burning. There was a strange smell all over. Blue-green balls of fire were drifting around. I had a terrible lonely feeling that everybody else in the world was dead and only we were alive.''

A young Japanese soldier, describes a burnt-out wasteland the following day: ``Houses had been shattered and their inhabitants buried in a welter of tiles and plaster, their naked bodies covered in ashes. Here and there an arm or a leg protruded. Other bodies lay strewn about, their stomachs torn open and their entrails pouring into the ashes... The expressions on the dead faces as they gazed emptily into space was more contorted and agonised than those of the fierce gate-guardian deities of Japanese temples.'' The human misery caused by the bomb has lasted a lifetime afterwards for many of those who survived. And these bombs were miniscule in relation to those developed later.

India and Pakistan will soon have, it seems, missiles armed with this deadly brightness poised at each other's large cities. Millions of people in the subcontinent will be hostage to the questionable sanity of governments walking the tightrope of ``mutually assured destruction.'' Americans and Russians lived with the knowledge of this kind of national insecurity for decades; why should not others join the nuclear club? Now the Hindu bomb and the Muslim bomb are poised against each other, swadeshi and quami weapons of destruction and the patriotic young men of both countries are dancing in the streets. Garv se kaho, ham Hindu hain; ya Muslim hai, it makes not much difference, the spirit of fanaticism is the same everywhere.

The nuclear tests were ultimately political statements for both the countries, statements that we too are scientific adults, members of the bully club. But to whom were the statements made? In the case of Pakistan, it is clear: the tests were a direct response to India, mutually active determination. In the case of India, it is not so clear. Were the tests a global statement, to inform the world that here is a country not to be taken lightly? It is doubtful if anything like this really was accomplished. India had a bit of a reputation of being the land of the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, but only a bit; there was a greater mystique of heat and dust and hunger and communal riots in the last few years have torn away much of the theme of morality and peace- bringing the country had once sought to embody. India has sought to project itself as ``secular'' in contrast to Pakistan as a self-proclaimed Muslim nation, but the world has never taken this seriously, and the overall image of the recent series of tests simply confirms the unfortunate popular conception in many other counties of Muslim Pakistan, Hindu India, traditional enemies at each others' throats, spending money on arms rather than on education.

As for their economic results, it is quite clear that whatever India's ability to ``withstand'' any economic sanction, few of the world's business community seemed to be impressed by the tests. The rapidly declining rupee and the falling stockmarkets are indications that both the global and swadeshi business, at lea st, find the tests more a harbinger of insecurity.

The greatest political statement of the tests is undoubtedly directed at the Indian people. Regardless of the claims of consensus and non-partisanship, this is a Hindutva bomb, a BJP bomb, a bomb proclaiming that the country's foreign policy is going to take a different and more aggressive direction from the stance it had taken under Nehru and more recently, under the United Front. It is a bid for popular support which it seems to have fairly thoroughly won, at least for the moment. The tests also seem to have been rather useful in stilling at least temporarily the clamour of the BJP allies, though it is doubtful if Ms. Jayalalitha is going to pay very much attention even to nuclear weapons.

The charges of hypocrisy against the U.S. Government for trying to prevent other nations from joining the bully club are quite justified; the only country which ever used this weapon of death has little right to say anything about it. American ``patriots'' if anything are more jingoistic, more racist more chauvinistic than any of their saffron correlates in India or green correlates in Pakistan. A couple of years ago when the Smithsonian Institute proposed an exhibition of Enola Gay, the airplane from which the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, there was a storm of protest from the right because it included criticism of the Government's decision to drop the bomb. The exhibition had to be cancelled; the Americans as a nation are not yet ready to face up to their responsibility for the havoc of destruction and misery caused by the use of the atomic bomb.

There are other ironies. The U.S. pressure to formulate a test ban treaty and move away from the weapons of war is also a recognition of some democratic pressure, not simply a matter of trying to throw its weight around but of also being pushed to discipline itself. It is important to remember that Mr. Bill Clinton is under pressure from the American rightwing; just as India has refused to sign the CTBT, the Republican- dominated U.S. Congress has refused to ratify it. In both the countries hawks and doves, that is warmongers and peaceniks, are in conflict and in both the countries the hawks do not like ``national security'' to be hemmed in by any international agreement.

The greatest irony of all is the holding of the nuclear tests on Buddha Poornima. After 50 years of Independence, India is seeking to declare itself as a great power, not by economic achievements, not by spiritual and moral values, not by addressing science to the cause of hunger and poverty but through sheer military power. Seeing the bomb in terms of the Mahabharata was more fitting; the epic is, after all, centred round the slaughter of kin, and Indians and Pakistanis can fairly be called ultimately kin, however much they may each define their national identity in terms of the negation of the other. But proclaiming that the ``Buddha smiled'' is either a deliberate insult or unconscious arrogance. Buddhism was sidelined a long ago in the land of its birth; that the cooptation on nonviolence has only been a matter of rhetoric is shown in the casual use of such phrases.

The nuclear tests are the BJP's answer to challenges to its power and they project a path away from the `ahimsa' that the Buddha represented and that Gandhi sought to harness in the cause of nationalism and anti-imperialism. The Dalit-Bahujan spokesman, Mr. Kancha Ilaiah, has been arguing that it is not accidental that all Hindu gods are armed; there is, according to him, inherent violence in Brahmanism. The nuclear tests represent an awesome, deadly upgrading of the weapons of destruction and while the bomb has clearly been developed by all the preceding Governments, it is not surprising that the ``arming'' is being done by a Hindutva Government.

We might hope that the political opposition will learn to define itself in the very different terms of the morality and compassion of the Buddhist and Gandhian traditions and that it might attempt more to devote science to economic growth and the removal of poverty rather than military might. The immediate response of the Opposition parties - criticising only the BJP's use of the nuclear tests - does not give much scope for this hope, but the genuine traditions of non-violence and sanity in India are represented in the signs of a growing anti-nuclear and peace movement.

(The writer is Professor of Sociology, University of Pune.)

[From The Hindu Date: 20-06-1998 :: Pg: 12 :: Col: c]

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