Asia Goes Mad (8/98)


When I was a boy, my family and I joined hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in yearly anti-nuclear demonstrations through the center of London. The demonstrations were replicated in every capital city of democratic Europe, in the US, Australia, and New Zealand. We would go to "die-ins" outside Britain’s nuclear research facility at Aldermaston, and my mother would frequently join the women camped outside the military base of Greenham Common, protesting the presence of the US-made Cruise missiles. Few people now know what Greenham Common represented. But for politically aware Brits of my generation, the very words evoke a maelstrom of emotions.

Our protests grew out of a very specific fear: the terror of nuclear genocide. After the relative lull of the 1970s, the Warsaw Pact and NATO had, with a vengeance, again stepped up their nuclear arms race. The West ordered Cruise missiles, neutron bombs that would destroy populations with radiation while leaving towns physically intact, and MX missiles. In my home country of Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s government ordered the development of the submarine-launched Trident missiles, a weapons system with many times the fire-power of the Polaris, Britain’s previous nuclear arsenal. The Soviet Union developed the SS 20s, then the 21s, 22s, and so on. And Europe became a grandiose nuclear launching pad, a potential venue for what President Reagan once termed a winnable "limited nuclear war." The specter of thousands of nuclear missiles – each with the capacity to kill millions – being launched by the two Cold War antagonists came to dominate the world’s psyche.

Since the Cold War ended it’s become fashionable to argue that the anti-nuclear movement was misguided, somehow on the wrong side of history. The argument seems to be that since the arms race ended up bankrupting the Soviet Union (a sorry political system that deserved oblivion), the policies that pushed the world to the brink were correct. In this view, Reagan, Brezhnev, et al. hadn’t embarked on a crazed game of chicken that could lead to the destruction of human civilization; instead, history – that mythical, godlike force driving human society onward – was playing out a carefully choreographed game whose outcome was predestined. The fact that humanity happened to ride a wave of luck and survive this particular game of Russian Roulette is taken to signify that the game of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) – the framework of deterrence theory – is a sensible method of settling international disputes and assuring the triumph of the righteous.

Now, with the nuclear terrors of the Cold War fading into the background of our cultural awareness, the world suddenly faces another bout of MAD. But in this one, involving bitter enemies Pakistan and India, the defense establishments have even fewer safety mechanisms to prevent "accidental" war. And whereas last time around concerned citizens could demonstrate against the actions of their own governments in hopes of having a modicum of influence on their actions, this time it’s happening half way around the world and there’s very little nuclearphobes in the West can do.

Instead, we must hope that the nascent anti-nuclear movement on the subcontinent, led by groups such as the India-Pakistan People to People Forum for Peace and Democracy, and individuals such as Dr. Haroon Ahmed, the former regional leader of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, can exert a moderating influence.

The actual mechanics of this burgeoning nuclear flash point are well known: the two countries hate each other, harboring deep grudges over territory and religion. Visiting India last year, I saw a ruined city named Hampi, which Muslim invaders destroyed hundreds of years ago. For several Hindus I met, it had the same emotional resonance that the Fields of Kosovo have for Milosevic’s Serbian nationalists – a site of defeat that nourishes contemporary resentments and national paranoia.

India and Pakistan also resent that the world doesn’t really take them terribly seriously as international players. They are desperately poor (barely half of Indians are literate and per capita income is about $300 per year), and each has manifestly failed to deliver the promises of modernity to the bulk of their populations in the 50 years since independence. And now they’re controlled by nationalistic, militaristic governments with vested interests in stirring the masses up into patriotic frenzies.

Both have had nuclear technology for a long while. But, in a peculiar diplomatic game of "don’t ask, don’t tell," they’ve pretended not to, and in so doing have kept the lid on the type of nuclear arms race that Russia and the US pursued until Gorbachev came to power in 1985. However, with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power in Delhi, "don’t ask, don’t tell" has been replaced by "put your cards on the table and see what the other side will do in response." Whether MAD makes even minimal sense when the opponents are influenced by extreme religious emotions – and the promise of eternal salvation for destruction of the ungodly enemy – is a question the world is about to have answered.

The "established powers" urge India and Pakistan to halt the arms race and name-calling, and it would be a strange person indeed who didn’t wish this competition to end. But there’s an hypocrisy at work here, one that those Cold War historians who argue that the previous gamble was sensible would do well to note: Apparently, MAD only works for certain people and countries, conveniently those who first unlocked the atom’s power.

This logic isn’t terribly appealing to either India, Pakistan, or – one can assume – any of the other second and third world countries whose physicists are hard at work on their own nuclear projects. And so, progressives find themselves in the paradoxical position of having to support the nuclear old guard’s calls for traditionally neutral countries such as India to observe a nuclear moratorium.

India and Pakistan are now where the US was 53 years ago: They have a new weapon most of the population doesn’t understand, beyond the fact that it could devastate a hated enemy. As environmental journalists Kalpana Sharma and Ayesha Khan wrote in an article published in both countries, "Ordinary people understand little of how much nuclear weaponisation has cost their governments and do not know how many millions will die a swift death if weapons are ever used. Yet they have been asked to sacrifice and both governments presume that they have given their consent."

Unhindered by mass domestic opposition, the US first dropped the bomb in 1945. Many of us like to think, perhaps na•vely, that its warrior leaders were prevented from using it again, in Korea and Vietnam, and during the revivified Cold War of the 80s, by the threat of an informed public in mass revolt. Whatever the truth, that braking mechanism doesn’t exist today in India and Pakistan. The bomb is too new, and popular awareness of nuclear responsibilities too shallow.

Small anti-nuclear demonstrations have occurred in Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore. In the latter, nationalist extremists violently broke up a meeting of anti-nuclear scientists. Many women’s groups and environmental organizations have condemned the tests, and expatriates have demonstrated outside the Indian and Pakistani consulates in New York. But overall, the number of vocal opponents hasn’t been large.

The scenes of mad mob joy that followed India’s explosion of nuclear devices at its Pokhran test site and Pakistan’s retaliatory tests 18 days later, the arming of missile systems, the increased tensions on the Kashmir border, and the rush-to-war rhetoric (Farooq Abdullah, the state’s chief minister, boasted that now India can "wipe out" Pakistan), all provide terrible evidence of the flawed nature of MAD logic.

Whether or not the outcome of this exercise in nuclear theatrics is war, the subcontinent will suffer. In the best case scenario, with the bombs remaining in reserves, both impoverished countries will have to finance the new arms race in order to maintain the equilibrium of terror. Between 1990 and 1996, India and Pakistan spent a combined total of $70 billion on defense and only $12 billion on education. That ratio will be further skewed toward military expenditures. They also will have to absorb the myriad international sanctions that kicked in as soon as the bombs were exploded.

India’s government figures it can absorb the financial repercussions easier than Pakistan, which is totally reliant on international aid, and calculates that a nuclear arms race might bankrupt Pakistan, much as it did the Soviet Union. They also probably reckoned that this could be the BJP’s equivalent to Nazi Germany’s burning of the Reichstag: Opponents could be labeled traitors, and the populace whipped up into a nationalist frenzy against the enemy within, thus boosting the BJP’s appeal amongst the illiterate and downtrodden. At the same time, further militarization also may deflect attention from the economic disaster being created through these policies. Claims that Pakistani and/or Chinese military action is imminent further undermine the civil society that acts as a brake on the BJP’s sectarian agenda.

The likely result will be a weakening of the democratic foundations of post-colonial India, pushing it toward a style as intolerant and closed as that of Pakistan. At least in the short term, fundamentalists on both sides win. And our nuclear nightmares, supposedly banished by the fall of the Berlin Wall, return to haunt us with a vengeance.

Sasha Abramsky is a regular TF contributor.