The Fallout of Pokhran

Jonah Blank

The battle-lines seem clearly drawn: On one side are those who regard India's nuclear tests as a legitimate expression of national will. On the other, those who feel the tests make war more likely and are a waste of scarce national resources. As an American who loves India as his second homeland, I would agree with both of these camps, and with neither: India (in my opinion) had every right in the world to join the nuclear club-- and yet, I wish she had chosen not to exercise this right.

First off, let's clear the air of some hypocritical pollution coming from the West: The decision of India to nuclearize, and of Pakistan to follow suit, are the business of nobody but the people of these two nations. None of the countries which condemned the tests stand on any sort of moral high ground. The admitted nuclear powers-- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France-- can hardly criticize others for following their own lead. Unacknowledged nuclear states (like Israel) or wannabe nuclear states (like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) are on similarly shaky ground. Countries that have given up their nuclear programs (like South Africa, Brazil and Argentina) or voluntarily abstained from developing them (like Germany, Japan, and South Korea) made their decisions on the basis of their own coldly-calculated national interests, not on any sort of moral principle.

It is this moral hypocrisy, in part, that made nuclear tests so popular among the people of the subcontinent. Indians looked at how the Great Powers treated both their nation and China, and saw a stark contrast: India is the world's largest democracy, has never engaged in nuclear or advanced weapons proliferation, and has a human rights record that (while hardly perfect) is far superior to the records of most other developing nations. China, by contrast, is the world's largest dictatorship, has provided nuclear and advanced missile technology to several nations hostile to both Indian and Western interests, and possesses one of the worst human rights records of any country in the world.

This is a regime that emprisons its own people for the crime of free speech (holding several thousand political prisoners in labor camps and gulags, according to Amnesty International), threatens its neighbors (firing long-range missiles within miles of Taiwan in 1996), and attempts to sweep an entire culture into oblivion (denying Tibetans not only autonomy, but even identity). China had intercontinental ballistic missiles targeted at the United States until President Bill Clinton's visit, and can retarget them back in less than fifteen minutes. "I would ask Bill Clinton only one question," said Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes in June. "Why is it that you feel yourself so close to China that you can trust China with nuclear weapons," he asked, "but you cannot trust India?" The president of the United States has never given an answer.

Last spring, after the tests at Pokhran, President Clinton scolded India like a stern father admonishing a wayward child. About a month later, he travelled to China and announced a "strategic partnership" with India's most powerful (and potentially dangerous) adversery. He visited Tiananmen Square, and later toasted Li Peng, the man who ordered the infamous massacre there less than a decade ago. He personally conducted the military band of the People's Liberation Army. He fawned over President Jiang Zemin, proclaiming that "China has the right leadership at the right time." Meanwhile, this very leadership dragged peaceful dissidents to prison before, during, and after Clinton's visit.

The unequal treatment accorded India and China is nothing new: throughout China's gradual reopening over the past two decades, the West been far more solicitous of a dangerous, nuclearized China than of a friendly, unnuclearized India. This may have been due to financial considerations more than nuclear ones, but the people of India are not stupid: if you want respect, many Indians concluded, you've got to have cash or nukes.

And respect-- now to sweep away some of the hypocrisy coming from New Delhi-- was at the heart of India's decision to nuclearize. The tests countered no strategic threat: a nuclearized India is still no military match for a far-more-nuclearized China, and even a non-nuclear India would face no real threat from Pakistan. Without a delivery system, the mere detonations at Pokhran were so much hot air. And ever since 1974 the world had already known that India possessed the capacity for nuclear weapons-- the blasts in the desert of Rajasthan didn't tell anybody anything they didn't already know. Proof of nuclear status was a boost to India's pride-- but not to her safety. In fact, quite the opposite: by going nuclear, India may have increased rather than decreased the threat to her own people.

This is the first reason I feel that India's tests-- while wholly legitimate-- were a very bad decision. What was the outcome? Pakistan had little choice but to go nuclear as well: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried hard to avoid this move (and the USA put tremendous pressure on him not to counter the Indian tests), but there was no way any Pakistani leader could have refrained from testing and remained in power. Think about if the situation were reversed: if Pakistan had tested first, could India have failed to follow? Now think about how much higher the stakes are for Pakistan: she has fought three conventional wars against India, and lost every time; she is no match for a non-nuclear India, so how could she meet the challenge of a nuclearized neighbor without going nuclear? India's detonations guaranteed that Pakistan would follow suit, and the BJP knew it. Immediately after Pokhran, Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani went so far as to taunt Pakistan by bragging that India's new status would change the whole strategic balance in the region.

This raises the stakes for everyone who lives in either nation. Although neither country now possesses a reliable delivery system, both are trying to create one-- and developing (or buying) a long-range missile is only a matter of time and money. The risk is enormous: during the Cold War, the USA and the USSR would have had about twenty minutes' warning of any intercontinental missile attack. For neighboring India and Pakistan, the period would be only about two minutes. This means that the possibility of accident-- and the incentive for either side to launch a preemptive strike-- will be much, much greater. In order to safeguard their nukes, both nations will have to spend enormous sums of money: not only are the bombs themselves expensive, but they will require vastly complicated command-and-control structures, early-warning technology, anti-missile defenses, and many other high-tech systems. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has said he has no plans to weaponize India's nuclear program, but being a "little bit" nuclear is sort of like being a "little bit" pregnant: either you are, or you aren't.

The novelist Arundhati Roy and other intellectuals have bravely spoken out against the pro-nuke majority in India, and their arguments are good ones: India has too many pressing needs to waste so much money on dangerous-- and unneccessary-- weapons. Every rupee spent on the nuclear program is a rupee that could have helped build a school, dig a well, irrigate a field, or heal a sick person.

I have made my home in Mumbai, and I have made my home in Lahore. I love India, and I love Pakistan as well. I do not want to see the people of either country suffer, especially when such hardship can so easily be avoided.

Pride is important. Indians have every right to be fiercely proud-- both of their ancient civilization and of their modern-day political achievements. But this pride should not be dependent upon the respect of outsiders. Americans, Chinese, British, whoever-- none of them can give India pride, and none of them can take it away. This was the truth that prompted Rabindranath Tagore to toss back his knighthood in disgust after the Amritsar Massacre, the truth at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi's teachings, the truth that half a century ago set India free. After all, it wasn't guns that won Independence, but self-knowledge and self-respect: once the people of the subcontinent decided they would no longer be governed by the will of outsiders, the colonial Raj had no choice but to fall.

If the Mahatma were alive today, I feel sure he would agree: Satyagraha-- "The Force of Truth"-- is more powerful than a thermonuclear bomb.

Jonah Blank, Senior Editor of US News & World Report magazine, is an anthropologist and journalist who has taught courses on various aspects of Indian culture at Harvard University. An Indian edition of his book "Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India" (original edition: Houghton Mifflin, 1992) will be published by Penguin Books India in November, 1998. The author lived in India and Pakistan during and after the first publication of his book and has reported from or conducted research in 19 Indian states. Since November, 1998, he has been reporting from Kashmir for US News and for National Public Radio.

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