The Cultural Politics of Indian Nuclearism

Vinay Lal

This year, as India marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the 'Father of the Nation' has finally been liquidated. In 1974, less than three years after concluding a victorious war with Pakistan, India exploded what was called a "peaceful nuclear device", as though even its nuclear explosions had to carry some of the burden of Gandhi's non-violence. For the subsequent 24 years, India exercised virtuous restraint, but it has now broken the self-imposed moratorium with a series of five nuclear tests over the last few days. Writing to Clinton and other political leaders, the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, pointed to the "deteriorating security environment" in South Asia, and the aggressive designs of its two principal neighbors, China and Pakistan, as providing India with a sufficient warrant for seeking to acquire nuclear deterrence. The political party over which Vajpayee presides, which draws some of its membership from other political associations that were implicated in the assassination of Gandhi fifty years ago and which have ever been the ardent champions of Hindu ascendancy, has finally removed the specter of Gandhi which has been haunting India's modernizing elites. The Indian nation-state will no longer live in consummate fear of Gandhi's critiques of modernity, big science, instrumental rationality, development, war, and masculinity.

While economists, foreign policy experts, and defense specialists will continue to debate the reasons that led India to assume nuclear testing at this particular juncture, the cost to India of economic sanctions, the possible escalation of an arms race, the palpable failures of American foreign policy and intelligence gathering, and the geopolitical consequences of South Asia's nuclearization, there are other, more interesting and poignant, considerations to which we should be attentive. During the height of the Cold War, Nehru attempted to place India in a 'third camp' and place it at the helm of the leadership of the non-aligned movement. This was even, in some measure, a continuation of Gandhi's policy of repudiating realpolitik. The non-aligned movement, however, would become increasingly irrelevant, until the fall of the Soviet Union rendered it obsolete, and some commentators have consequently interpreted the nuclear tests as India's cry for attention. Clinton appeared to have echoed this view when he noted that India, perhaps lacking in self-esteem, thought itself "underappreciated" as a "world power".

The history of India's nuclear tests extends back, in a manner of speaking, to the early days of India under colonial rule. The British were apt to describe Indians as an "effeminate" people, leading lives of indolence and womanly softness; following the rebellion of 1857-58, the entire country was divided between "martial" and "non-martial" races. One response was to embrace a certain kind of hyper-masculinity, which would enable Indians to be construed as a people just as "manly" as the British. Indians have never been able to live down the taunt of "effeminacy", and those who know of the cultural nuances of South Asian history are aware that some Indians imagine Pakistani Muslims as a meat-eating, virile, robust, and militaristic people. It is a telling fact that the first comment of Balasaheb K. Thackeray, the chauvinist leader of the militantly Hindu Shiv Sena party who is an open admirer of Hitler, upon hearing of the tests was, "We have to prove that we are not eunuchs."

By signaling its departure from the body of world opinion, India has sought to arrive on the world stage. It is the one resounding cruelty of our times that no nation-state which refuses to partake in realpolitik and the brutal zero-sum politics of our times can receive much of a hearing. The recent nuclear tests may represent the shallow triumph of India as a nation-state, but they signify the saddening defeat of India as a civilization, an irony made all the more bitter by the posturing in which Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party engages as the vanguard of "Hindu civilization". True bravery and courage consist, not in an empty renunciation of what is not possible, but in forsaking the military force that one has at one's command. Thus might what Gandhi called "non-violence of the weak", which is no non-violence at all, be transformed into "non-violence of the strong", and from India's descent into nuclear madness might some good emerge.

Vinay Lal, Assistant Professor

Mailing address: Department of History, UCLA
405 Hilgard Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1473, U.S.A.

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