Against the Bomb

The Hindu
January 6, 2002

Literary Review: Out of the Nuclear Shadow

In the midst of war-like postures emanating out of New Delhi and Islamabad, Out of the Nuclear Shadow is a must-read. It brings some of best writings of the intellectuals and activists of the subcontinent and is a contribution to the anti-nuclear struggle, says KANTI BAJPAI.

AS war clouds gather in South Asia after the December 13 attacks on the Parliament, and as the prospects of a nuclear confrontation grow larger, this volume on the Indian and Pakistani decisions to test and deploy nuclear weapons is a timely “intervention”. Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian, two well-known South Asian academics/activists, have produced a wonderful anti-nuclear handbook — and something much more than that. This handsome, portable volume is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what happened in May 1998 when India and Pakistan tested a series of nuclear weapons and what the consequences of those fateful decisions may be. Indeed, as the two countries joust in public and threaten retaliation and counter-retaliation, it seems clear enough that we are living one of the consequences of those momentous, flawed decisions. For all the talk of peace and stability attendant on going nuclear, this is the third crisis since 1998 (the Kargil war and the hijacking of IC 814 being the earlier ones).

Out of the Nuclear Shadow is not just the best collection of anti-nuclear writings ever assembled anywhere, it is also a rare political handbook. The many distinguished contributors, some of whom are household names in the region if not internationally, don’t stop at a critique of the Indian and Pakistani tests and the two nuclear weapons programmes. Their nets are cast wider, on the larger question of what the tests tell us about contemporary State and society in South Asia and the larger structure of international relations.

Whether you agree with the anti-nuclear positions held by the authors or not, Out of the Nuclear Shadow is a book that you should have on your shelf for a third, not trivial reason and that is the pleasure of engaging, passionate, intelligent, critical writing by some of the best known “public intellectuals” of the Subcontinent. Where else can you get, in one place, Mahatma Gandhi, Eqbal Ahmed, Rajni Kothari, Beena Sarwar, I.A. Rahman, Praful Bidwai, Amartya Sen, Tanika Sarkar, Surendra Gadekar, Anand Patwardhan, Kumkum Sangari, Shiv Vishwanathan, Ashis Nandy, Aijaz Ahmad, Zafarullah Khan, T. Jayaraman, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Achin Vanaik, Lalita Ramdas, A.H. Nayar, Bittu Sehgal, and Amulya Reddy, amongst others?

As a concerned citizen, there is a fourth reason to invest in this fine volume. A full 150 pages are devoted to anti-nuclear statements by groups right across the region (from the smaller countries in South Asia as well), six thoughtful, evocative poems, an excellent, largely “non-partisan” bibliography (where you will get references to pro-nuclear writings too), and a list of films, peace organisations, and websites.

Anyone who wants more information, alternative perspectives, and a way of getting involved in anti-nuclear and other peace initiatives will find no better source — and will have run out of excuses for his or her apathy and indifference.

The volume consists, in the main, of 30 or so essays — some short and some long, some spectacularly well known such as “The End of Imagination” by Arundhati Roy, some much less well-known but no less important; some written in the immediate shocking aftermath of the tests (Eqbal Ahmed, Aijaz Ahmad), some written up to two years later, such as Amartya Sen’s “India and the Bomb”. Virtually all of the pieces published here are reprints or revisions of earlier articles: putting them all together is a contribution to the anti-nuclear struggle in and of itself. Those who are anti-nuclear but faint of heart, or who falter now and then, should draw sustenance from the fact that the best minds and spirits of the region are unequivocally and forthrightly against these terrible weapons. Those who are published here may themselves be surprised by the quantity and quality of what was written in the wake of the tests. Many probably did not know each until the publication of Out of the Nuclear Shadow. In that sense, the book performs yet another function, namely, to bring into being a new, virtual community of novelists, poets, social and natural scientists, journalist, and activists.

What is the message of the book? Clearly, it is ranged against the testing, development, deployment, and use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. Virtually everyone, either explicitly or implicitly, is for complete nuclear disarmament by both India and Pakistan but also by the other nuclear powers. No one sees any merit in the arguments of nuclear deterrence. Even Amartya Sen’s essay, easily the least polemical in the volume, in the end must be read as anti-deterrence. There are no Polyannas here. No one thinks that the Indian and Pakistani programmes can be easily stopped and dismantled and that the addiction to nuclear weapons can be overcome in the near future. Nor does anyone think that global nuclear disarmament is around the corner. No one is predicting immediate nuclear war either: there are no irresponsible alarmists here. As for building an anti-nuclear movement, there is a goodly sense that this will be arduous and will encounter great resistance. There is a passionate, critical intensity in many of the essays and a cool, analytical sensibility in others; some essays crackle and pop, others are matter-of-fact and descriptive (such as the essays on the media’s reactions to the tests). There are no fanciful, wide-eyed agitators here. No one is trivial or innocent.

What will readers learn from these various essays? They will learn that there is a whole range of military, economic, political, moral, and existential reasons for opposing nuclear weapons. Militarily, it can be shown that nuclear weapons produce more insecurity than security, as indeed they are producing today in the standoff between India and Pakistan after December 13, and that deterrence is an edifice that must eventually fail. Economically, they will learn of the toll that nuclear weapons can take on economic growth and development even if they do not beggar us completely. Politically, they will learn that atomic decisions affect internal institutions and the cut and thrust of ideological contests, that they threaten democracy and accountability in public life, that they militarise societies and debase science, and that they impoverish our notions of nationalism — in sum, that these decisions are not merely “security” choices in the “the national interest”. Morally, this book shows that nuclear weapons are an abomination as no other weapons have been historically and that even deterrence, which is the threat to use nuclear weapons, is objectionable. Lastly, they will learn that nuclear weapons are an existential nightmare, for any use of nuclear weapons will be a physical catastrophe, one that will kill and maim millions of human beings, destroy their societies, and burn and poison the lifeworld of all living things.

Could the anthology have been better than it is? At 500 pages, it is a big book already. Nevertheless, I think that there are gaps here that could have been filled. For instance, it might have been useful to include at least a couple of pieces by non-South Asians — an independent-minded Chinese scholar or activist, someone from Japan, and a Westerner. So also a former general or admiral who made the case for the uselessness of nuclear weapons would have been a “tactical” gain for the collection — Admiral L. Ramdas from India could have written just such a piece, or the American, Lee Butler (the volume does have a statement by retired South Asian generals, but it is too hortatory to be very useful). Third, the collection lacks a really good, exclusive essay on the prospects of global disarmament. Fourth, it would have been strengthened by an essay that would have struggled with the difficulties and contradictions that exist and that will have to be faced within the anti-nuclear movement in both India and Pakistan (and the two movements are unlikely to face the same hurdles). Comparisons with the United States and European cases, or Japan, would have enlivened such an essay. Fifth, there are some personal favourites missing from the volume, especially the pieces by Sumit Sarkar, Partha Chatterjee, and Rustom Bharucha in Economic and Political Weekly. Also, why not an extract from Amitav Ghosh’s New Yorker article (and later book, Countdown)? And if memory serves, Ram Guha had some rather interesting commentary on the tests as well. Finally, a question: was there nothing in Hindi or the other vernacular languages worth reprinting?

These minor reservations notwithstanding, Out of the Nuclear Shadow is a terrific addition to the growing archive of sophisticated and critical-minded works on South Asian nuclearisation. Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian have done Indians and Pakistanis a service by publishing this fine selection of writings. Anyone who cares about war and peace and democracy and the welfare of a billion and a half people should buy this anthology. Read it, cherish it, and, if you can, act on it.

Out of the Nuclear Shadow, edited by Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian, Delhi: Lokayan and Rainbow, 2001 and London: Zed Books, 2001.

The writer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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