How we learned to love the Bomb

 

As a child it was hard for me to believe that there were people in this world who took pleasure in the killing of six million Jews, and people in the world who thought that killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians with atomic bombs was justifiable and people who thought that the murder of Mahatma Gandhi was fine. I now have the same feeling of disbelief at the moral bankruptcy and intellectual idiocy of a nation grown mindlessly euphoric about the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

The argument that America did the same and therefore has no moral right to complain is no doubt a valid one. America was not only the first to make the Bomb it is the only country to have used it. Not only did America build up its own arsenal, it forced the Soviet Union and then China to divert vitally needed resources towards building up their arsenals at the cost of building up their economies.

But the question of America’s moral right is a red herring. Today it is not America that will suffer the consequences of a nuclear war or arms race in this region. The cold war is over. Nations that had pointed nuclear weapons at each other find themselves without good reason for further posturing. Today the greater danger of nuclear war comes from countries like India, Pakistan, Israel and Iran and from the possible use of nuclear weapons by international terrorists who can quite conceivably lay their hands on a technology that has begun to proliferate and has become portable.

Every child knows that in a nuclear war there can be no winners. Deterrence is cited as a reason for deployment but history has repeatedly shown the opposite to be true. Why is it so difficult to put ourselves in Pakistani shoes? What would our response have been in 1974 if a nation that had defeated us in a war three years ago, suddenly exploded an atom bomb? We would have been forced by hook or crook, to reply in kind. So Pakistan acquired it’s A Bomb. Now we have upped the ante with a Hydrogen bomb. How long will it take for Pakistan to get theirs? Pakistan and China are bound to reply to Indian tests, overtly or covertly, and a huge escalation of a regional nuclear arms race is inevitable.

Such an escalation is not only disastrous because it can push nations into a catastrophic war but because even if peace is tenuously maintained while scientists keep playing with the atom and generals keep itching to test their new toys, no country can claim today to have full and fool proof nuclear safety standards. Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in Russia are grim reminders of the fact that even the most scientifically advanced powers have failed to maintain nuclear safety standards and placed their populations at considerable risk. Our own record at the Bhabha Atomic Energy plant is abysmal though this has been a well guarded secret and workers who were radiated by atomic leaks went on to die from cancer without getting into the news. No doubt they would have been cheered by the announcement that “the country is willing to pay any price for its security.”

In the West there has always been a strong and vocal anti-nuclear movement. Peace protesters in the US forced a nuclear plant in California to shut down. In the UK over a hundred thousand people linked arms at Greenham Common to surround the Cruise missile base. Greenpeace activists in New Zealand forcibly entered the testing zone at Mururoa to offer their lives even as the French were insisting on testing its nuclear device. Eleven years ago one Greenpeace activist died at Mururoa. For ten years thereafter the French were shamed into stopping their tests. Last year, amidst international protests, they resumed.

For the time being in India (and I suspect, in Pakistan) there is only a cacophony of “patriotic” fervour that equates the Bomb with national pride. People dance in the streets as if it is Diwali in the astounding belief that their world has become more secure. Newspapers roar “Bravo India” and “The Buddha smiles”. Young men sign messages of congratulations in blood. It would not be so disturbing if all this were being orchestrated by those who took pride in the killing of Mahatma Gandhi and those who distributed sweets when the Babri Mosque was demolished. But when every political party including some “Left” parties and some “Gandhians” join in to demonstrate their “patriotism” and when press, politician and populace unite as one and the common man takes leave of common sense, there is little choice but to take refuge in the wisdom of children.

 

Anand Patwardhan
May 1998