by Mandakini Menon
3rd Yr. undergraduate student of Film & Video at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad
The mushroom clouds have faded beyond the horizon. The screams are silent. Only stones remain. These stones stand solemn guard over the forgotten past, buried six feet under. But the hourglass rests, waiting to be upturned. History awaits the moment when it will bear down on humanity, with a new found vengeance. For it is criminal to forget, and time does not forgive.
The greatest tragedy ever to befall humankind has been its consistent denial of history. The denial of grave mistakes and unthinkable tragedies engineered by so-called men of integrity. Watching Anand Patwardhan’s documentary War & Peace (Jung aur Aman), on the trials and tribulations of a world thrust into the atomic age in one swift stroke, one cannot help but wonder about the fervour and impeccable regularity with which we continue to repeat our past follies. One would have imagined the memory of Hiroshima to have been a deterrent powerful enough to prevent a build up to yet another travesty of its kind.
Gandhiji died for the second time the day India tested its first nuclear bomb. The nation embraced not only the bomb but with it the violence and aggression inherent in the very notion of a weapon of mass destruction. The very anti-thesis of non-violence became the new mantra for a nation drunk on misplaced national pride. To Patwardhan, and many others involved in the fight against nuclear proliferation, the bomb is an open affront to democracy and the people’s right to choose.
The Bishnois of Rajasthan are known for their innate understanding and respect for the fruits of nature. It is ironic then that it is this very community that bore the brunt of the tests at Pokharan. A people who would lay down their lives for the revered Khejri trees were mute spectators to the brazen desecration of their land. Did anyone even consider the predicament of these people who, from their tranquil existence, were thrust into a struggle for normalcy? Did anyone ask the unborn children of Hiroshima before forcing upon them a future riddled with uncertainty?
As Patwardhan’s narrative unfolds, one sees two sides to the nuclear debate. The young blood of the nation boils at the ignominy of underdevelopment, in the face of western stereotypes of nationhood and nationalism. Patriotic fervour often morphs into a eulogy of military prowess, praising to the skies the stockpile of arms and ammunition, while more than half the nation slaves to eke out a living. All everyone wants is a patch under the nuclear umbrella.
Feelings of allegiance towards a nation are born not out of the simple fact of birth. Unless a sense of belonging is nurtured actively by the various agencies of the state, the alienation of the individual from the state is only heightened. Patwardhan shows us heartwarming scenes from a visit across the border to Pakistan by an Indian delegation. The hospitality and warmth with which both parties receive each other stands out in stark contrast to the media image propagated by both countries.
Throughout history powerbrokers have appropriated misguided nationalism and patriotic fervour to further their own vested interests. There is little difference between Hitler’s pogrom and the Indian far right’s new brand of nuclear nationalism. Both seek to propagate a belligerent and aggressive jingoism through the politics of hate. So in this day and age, nuclear nationalism appears to be the weapon of choice.
Patwardhan raises pertinent questions every step of the way. Questions that start at the basic underlying morality that ought to override an issue that looms large over democracy and civil society as we know it. Barkha Dutt reporting straight from the war front is indeed commendable. But what is the responsibility of the media in times of crisis? Is it not criminal to legitimize war and violence by bringing it into the living room? As we sit in front of the eternal idiot box watching the bombs fall, the ominous axiom rings true – one death is a tragedy, a thousand… mere statistics.
The consumer culture that puts a price on everything has made money the measure of all things. The need for self-worth translates itself into an identity crisis that has gripped the majority of the younger generation today. Years of servility have left an indelible mark on the national conscience, if there is such a thing. Blinded by the global giants, and the persona of violence and exploitation epitomized by them, the country is plunging itself into a more parasitic servitude. Swadeshi and Swaraj are mere words, their meaning lost in the winds of change. Self-reliance has been twisted around to mean a nation capable of defending itself from any external or internal threat. And where is the opportunity for debate?
Are we losing the capacity to feel? Is patriarchal tyranny finally reaching its zenith with the glorification of war and violence? Indian society even today thrives on machismo and entrenched ideas of masculinity. It is not surprising then that in a culture that extols the patriarch to death, the aggression inherent in the notion of nuclear proliferation goes unnoticed by many.
August 6th. Hiroshima remembers. The tears are still flowing so many years later. Yet the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are joined together in the uncanny solitude and emotional wisdom that comes with the knowledge of a shared tragedy. Do we still believe in the innate goodness of all human beings? Hibakusha is the Japanese word for survivors of the A-bomb. These people, as Patwardhan would say, are ‘the conscience of the nuclear age’. They stand testimony to the moral debacle that is the arms race.
The role of peace and non-violence has been drowned out by the cacophony created by the songs of war, sung by the most powerful nations of the world. How can we question the relevance of peace at any point in history? What makes war a valid choice at any given time? What twisted logic is it that makes us think weapons are indispensable to preserve peace?
Patwardhan’s War and Peace is a labour of love. A candid exercise in introspection, it shakes the very core of our existence as human beings. It questions the assumed power of a few to dictate the fate of many. It demands that we as human beings look critically at the morality that allows war to become the norm. More than anything, it is an appeal to respect the right to dignity and life of each and every being. It is a plea to humanity to take responsibility for its past, present and future.
Bombs for peace. The ultimate oxymoron. What could be more twisted and warped than that? The nuclear test is successful. ‘The Buddha is smiling’. But Patwardhan reminds us that this time the joke is on us.
* First published in the November 2005 issue of ‘Cut Here’ the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad’s Film Club Magazine on cinema and related arts.