The survival of humanity inhabiting the South Asian subcontinent critically depends on the demystification of the nuclear myths, that invest the Bomb with magical powers of immense proportions, and consequent denuclearisation of the region as an integral and crucial component of global disarmament.
“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One… I am become Death, The shatterer of Worlds.”
— The Bhagavad-Gita (quoted by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer after the first experimental overground explosion of an atomic bomb)
“I heard the earth thundering below our feet and rising ahead of us in terror. It was a beautiful sight. It was a triumph of Indian science and technology.”
— Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam describes the Pokhran II nuclear explosions, The Times of India, June 28, 1998.
The moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs even as violence cannot be by counter-violence. Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence. Hatred can be overcome only by love.
— M K Gandhi quoted in ‘Atom Bomb and Ahimsa’
Gandhian Legacy and Its Decline
The frail, slightly stooping and ageing figure of Gandhi leaning on a long uneven stick firmly held in his emaciated hand, clad only in bare loincloth with an old round watch hanging alongside his waist – marching down the dusty Indian roads with transparent grit and determination to demonstratively defy the diktats of the all-powerful imperialist rulers is perhaps one of the most abiding pictures that almost reflexively rises to mind’s surface whenever one thinks of India’s epic struggle against colonial bondage.
True, the new rulers of independent India did little to show any real respect for the Gandhian values and principles, most of all “truth and non-violence”. Even at the very dawn of independence, which was ushered in amidst almost unimaginable sectarian violence and gory bloodshed leading to the vivisection of the country, he stood a tragic and forlorn figure.
And yet it is the image of Gandhi as the indomitable marcher, or working patiently at his spinning wheel, symbolising peace and non-violence, and quiet yet determined opposition to oppression and injustice – that the Indian state took great pains to associate itself with.
Over the decades, however, even this purely formal obeisance got diluted almost to the point of nullity.
The Big Bang and Rupture
But it is perhaps only in the fitness of things that the real break came when the BJP, the mass political/parliamentary wing of the hydra-headed RSS, came to power at the Centre – albeit aided by two dozen sundry political formations, in March 1998. In less than two months’ time the new government deliberately and publicly launched India’s nuclear weaponisation programme through a series of five nuclear explosions. This not only completely overturned India’s official position on the nuclear issue -acknowledging nuclear weapons as an unmitigated evil, being maintained – even if rather tenuously, till then; it also evidently signified a clear and categorical rupture with the Gandhian legacy – anti-colonial nationalism imbibed with the spirit of universalism, or whatever of it had remained.
11th May 1998 was the day the Government of India, constituted of a motley crowd of about two dozen political parties led by the “Hindu” nationalist BJP, carried out, as per its official declaration, three nuclear explosions as a deliberate act of military exhibitionism in the western desert of Rajasthan at a place called Pokhran. Two days after followed another two in the midst of world-wide shock and condemnation.
Just after a fortnight the neighbouring Pakistan, which became the prime target of vulgar taunts and boastful threats of the BJP/NDA leaders occupying senior government posts, retaliated with a series of six explosions.
Since then the South Asian region has virtually turned into a live volcano just waiting to erupt and decimate the lives and dreams of more than one billion human beings along with their habitat.
Indian Nationalism vis-a-vis “Hindu” Nationalism
The very magnitude of the success of BJP’s masterstroke, which appeared quite stunning at that point of time – with rapturous crowds bursting crackers and distributing sweets on the city streets appropriately captured on the TV-screens and banner headlines of the mainstream and venerable newspapers on the morning after screaming full-throated support to India’s “Explosion of Self-Esteem”, regardless of Buddha – whose birthday coincided with the first instalment of explosions, and Gandhi, pointed to a rather complex and problematic relationship between Indian nationalism – or its changing profile, and the politics of Hindutva – which, not too long ago, appeared to belong only to the lunatic fringe.
This relationship we will try to explore, albeit in very brief within the scope of the present monograph, at two distinct, even if interconnected, levels. One, in terms of the (compositional and) attitudinal change of the Indian elite. Then we will also try to map the policy shifts of the principal, or ‘natural’, party of Indian nationalism – the Indian National Congress. Both having profound impact on the appeal of Hindutva, and the fortunes of the RSS/BJP. And consequently the destiny of India.
The politics of ‘Hindutva’ – a term first coined and popularised by V D Savarkar in 1923, and later identified with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – an organisation launched in 1925 on the Vijayaa Dashami Day by one Keshav Baliram Hedgewar to champion its cause, has a rather fascinating history. But before trying to plot the trajectory of Hindutva, it is imperative to keep in mind that the project of ’Hindutva’ is, in its essence, one of building up mass mobilisation, geared to the task of forging a new “Hindu” nation-state – out of the extant one through its appropriation and negation, around a core ’majority’, propelled by whipped up feelings of ’insecurity, paranoia, hatred and aggression’ against an array of ’adversarial and menacing others’, both internal and external, by making extensive and manipulative use of real and imaginary, past and contemporary ’history’ of fissures and conflicts. While religion is put to extensive and intensive instrumentalist use in this task of militant, exclusionist, majoritarian mobilisation, elements of (ultra)nationalism are also put to good use by borrowing and (mis)appropriating the idioms and icons of (widely accepted) mainstream (secular) nationalism, particularly (though not exclusively) of its rightwing variety.
Mainstream Indian nationalism, on the other, came into being through the process and as the culmination of India’s long drawn out struggle for emancipation from the British colonial rule. At its core lies the widely cherished dream of a democratic, pluralist and egalitarian India – at peace with itself and the world without. Consequently the ’idea of India’ that emerged and evolved over the last 150 years or so during the course of this epic struggle (and also in its aftermath) essentially recognises the legitimacy of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural character of the Indian society and consequently pluralist, secular, integrative democracy as the only viable basis for the independent Indian state. It bears reiteration that Hindutva calls for nothing short of deliberate negation of this ideological basis and undermining of the post-independence Indian state, along with its rather elaborate legal-constitutional and institutional framework, while masquerading itself as the greatest defender of the Indian nation state.
Before proceeding further with our investigation an important caveat needs be entered here for any meaningful journey down the line. Indian nationalism from its very inception assumed an ‘omnibus’ character. This deliberate ‘all-inclusiveness’ constituted its key characteristic and made it eminently suitable as the foundational ideology for the ‘India in the making’, given the size and vast diversities amongst the peoples of the subcontinent – in terms of culture, language, ethnicity, social-economic station and, of course, religious belief/practice. As a result we could find the call for ‘Ram Rajya’ and activist support for the Khilafat movement to go hand in hand. This tendency to (uncritically) accept all and reject nothing, overlook otherwise evident differences and contradictions, in so far as they meet the basic criteria of anti-colonialism, however, made it highly incapable of clearly demarcating itself from and consequently taking head on various aberrant tendencies within the broad spectrum. Moreover, the demography and history of the subcontinent saw to it that Indian nationalism, and its principal agency – the Indian National Congress, assumed a distinct (upper caste) Hindu flavour notwithstanding its pluralist and egalitarian commitments, particularly of its most visible symbols – Gandhi, Bose, Nehru, and also Tagore. The quest for and invention of a “golden past” as a critical element and the psychological ballast in the struggle against the commonly perceived civilisational superiority of the colonial rulers further blurred the dividing line between ‘secular’ liberal nationalism and “Hindu” communalism.
It is against this backdrop that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – National Volunteers’ Federation) opened its shop in 1925, apparently borrowing the basic organisational model from the Anushilan Samity – a militant nationalist organisation in Bengal, to propagate its distinctive brand of “nationalism” under the cover of “character building”. It placed itself outside of the arena of “political” activities, unlike its ideological ancestor the Hindu Mahasabha (Hindus’ Grand Assembly). This made it easier to avoid any direct confrontation with the Congress, the principal vehicle of Indian nationalism, and also adverse attention of the colonial rulers. The strategy was essentially two-pronged : to critique and discredit the mainstream nationalism (in the eyes of its actual and prospective adherents); and (rather surreptitiously) supplant its broad pluralist vision with its own hate-filled sectarian one. In other words : delegitmise/subvert Indian nationalism; and (mis)appropriate it. It is quite significant that this basic duality till this day continues unabated. Praise Gandhi to the sky – claim him as one of your own; celebrate the memory of Nathuram Godse – his unrepentant killer. Demand forced respect for the national flag; spread disaffection against it for containing colours other than saffron. Ditto for the national anthem and the Indian constitution. Even as regards the nuclear explosions : project it as a bold departure from the pusillanimity of the nationalist/Congress traditions; claim it as the continuation and culmination of the earlier policy backed by broad national consensus.
While it definitely goes to the credit of the RSS that it could follow this strategy of duality with high degree of persistence and fiendish finesse, it could hardly have been possible without the intrinsic fuzziness of Indian nationalism, more noticeable on its fringes.
Transmutation of Indian Elite
Break with the Past
The imposition of the British rule, in the mid-eighteenth century, through the agency of the East India Company over vast stretches of the Indian sub-continent as the culmination of a series of persuasive and aggressive overtures to secure exclusive and unfettered trading rights for about two centuries and a half by the colonisers from the West across the seas – which would be, about a century later, converted into the direct rule of the British Crown, created more than a ripple in the life of the landmass called India. While the object was unmistakably to reap huge commercial benefits by buying cheap, mainly raw materials, and selling finished products from its mechanised factories at large margins, once the formal rule was established over the native population it had to be legitimised also in terms of a supposedly civilising mission. This was considered necessary to make the alien rule established on the strength of guns and cannons, aided by diplomatic manœuvres, a less disagreeable, if not outright welcome, development in the eyes of the colonised and thereby minimise the cost of maintaining such rule in a faraway land. But this also served an useful purpose in selling the blood-soaked venture to the domestic constituencies – another necessity, given the political structure at home.
While Marx had noted, with good justification, the revolutionary potentials of introduction of the railways on the Indian soil, it is the introduction of Western education, through the medium of English, with the express purpose of creating layers of subordinate state officials with unquestionable loyalty to the Crown from amongst the ranks of the natives to carry out the colonial rule which, at least on the face of it, turned out to be the most proximate factor in causing a ferment.
The Indian society, given its sub-continental dimensions and extremely wide diversities in terms of class, caste, language ethnicity, religion etc responded to this fundamentally novel experience in a highly complex and variegated manner.
A middle class, a new social category, arose – mainly in the newly emerging metropolises of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. And it is from the ranks of this English educated middle class, coming mainly from the various layers of upper caste Hindu gentry and purported to serve as the loyal agents of the colonial rulers, arose the future vanguards of the anti-colonial independence movement.
The “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857 was the last attempt of the “traditional” India under the nominal and symbolic, even if rather reluctant, leadership of the then Mughal Emperor of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to overthrow the ever-expanding alien rule and restore the “old” order. The incipient “middle class’, the offspring of the”new order” stood aside.
Genesis and Growth
The introduction of the English education with the express and explicit goal, as enunciated by Lord Macaulay as far back as1835, of creating “a class [from amongst the native Indians] who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” produced a profoundly contradictory set of results beyond the wildest dreams, or nightmares, of its initiators. While on the face of it, it did achieve its intended goals with a stunning degree of success, it also caused a new ferment in the intellectual life of the subcontinent. With English education came the ideals of liberalism, rooted in the legacy of the Renaissance, and the traditions of the French Revolution succeeded by the Italian and Irish liberation movements. The rising middle class could not be kept hermetically sealed off from the stirring influence of the Bolshevik Revolution either.
But to be sure the social spread of the English educated middle class, engaged in various layers of government jobs, also in slowly proliferating private mercantile and industrial enterprises, and in professions in the fields of law, education, media and modern medicine, remained fairly confined to the upper strata of the traditional Indian society. Then again, the Muslim aristocracy, perhaps as a consequence of the crushed Mutiny, remained by and large outside of this new ferment.
Indian Freedom Movement had its roots in the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 – composed exclusively of prominent and illustrious members from the uppermost strata of the English educated class. The distinction from the leadership of the failed Mutiny, about three decades back, could have not been any starker. But the Movement came into its own only with the advent of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a barrister who had studied law in London, on the Indian shores in 1915 back from his stay at South Africa for just over two decades. Under the leadership of Gandhi, who took over in about five years, the Congress not only adopted more radical stance, it also, for the first time, assumed mass character. Nevertheless the leadership remained firmly in the hands of the middle class – a class while mindful of its own specific interests and consequently by and large jettisoned any revolutionary forms of movement seeking radical rupture with the past and adopted an entirely novel and gradualist strategy based on non-violent non-cooperation with the colonial rulers, was also at the same time fairly awake and sensitive to the needs of the subaltern masses. Numerous members of the class, within and outside the Congress, showed highest forms of self-less idealism and inspired the masses. The protection of self-interests was consciously attempted to be organically integrated with the concerns of the common people. As a result, the middle class leadership of the Freedom Movement earned a very high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the entire ‘nation in the making’.
The middle class also, even if rather tentatively, worked out a new value system by synthesising elements of Western liberalism and Protestant work ethics e.g. rationalism, punctuality, objectivity, integrity with austerity and abstinence from the Brahminical traditions. However, it is the electrifying ambience of death-defying and self-sacrificing anti-colonial anti-imperialist independence struggle that had the most decisive impact on the moral world of the Indian middle class.
With Independence attained things changed, and changed rather radically – in more ways than one. With Independence the morally uplifting influence of the epic struggle started fading out. And the Nehruvian vision of nation building and his call for “tryst with destiny” failed to adequately fill the vacuum in spite of some initial success under rather trying conditions of abject economic backwardness in a highly diverse society riven by the extremely traumatic experience of the Partition. It did not take too long to start loosing its moral halo. Things had in fact started changing even before Independence, when Congress ministries took reins of power in their hands in the provinces under British rule. In time Khadi Kurta and Gandhi cap came to be recognised as the trademark for corruption and depravity rather than symbol of self-less patriotism as had been the case earlier.
With the launching of the massive industrialisation drive propelled by direct interventions of the ‘welfarist’ state rapidly proliferated the salaried middle class which included patronage dispensing state functionaries. The implementation of the land reforms, even if formulated and implemented in a rather scrappy fashion, together with other measures to promote food and agricultural productions caused the rise of a new strata of rich and middle peasants, mainly from amongst the ranks of the middle castes – the bulk of which have since come to be labelled as ‘Other backward Castes’ (OBC). The massive expansion of economic activities together with land reforms and job reservations in government/public sectors under a parliamentary democratic regime based on adult franchise thus triggered off irreversible changes in the social composition of the burgeoning middle class. The value system, earlier evolved, somewhat tentatively, by a class engaged in an intense anti-establishment struggle infused with egalitarian ideals, based on the synthesis of Western liberalism and elements of Brahminical traditions could not sustain the resultant strains. The new middle class, much larger in proportion than it had hitherto been, arose virtually as a junior partner of their much less numerous but decidedly more weighty cousins – the vastly expanded and expanding class of commercial, industrial and agricultural bourgeoisie, a community of self-seeking “rational fools” bereft of broader social commitments – driven by unenlightened, narrow and consumerist self-interests – for whom “greed is great”. It, however, took some time to decipher this new and momentous development.
Even the international scenario took a turn towards deradicalisation, ironically with the successful conclusion of the struggle for Vietnamese liberation in the early seventies as the befitting climax of a long drawn out process of decolonisation of the Third World – interspersed with Chinese liberation, Korean War, Cuban revolution and so and so forth. After a big spurt of radicalism in the sixties, both nationally and internationally, the manifestations of the ongoing profound changes and the consequent shift to the Right of the whole political spectrum across the board became unmistakably evident since the early/mid seventies. The trend picked up further momentum with the inauguration of the frankly neo-liberal new economic policies in the early nineties, with which the upcoming middle class developed a symbiotic relationship. The gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” widened. The phenomenon of the “secession of the successful” came into being. And yet even the subaltern classes could not escape the morally corrosive influence of this hedonistic “new” middle class.
Degeneration of Congress and Rise of Hindutva
In order to make sense of the complex web of developments since Independence, observers had to perforce resort to periodisation. In the following we also do likewise, albeit in our own way and with necessary approximations .
1947 – 1965 : Predominance, Stability and Transformation
During this period, since 15th August 1947 when (truncated) India attained freedom through a negotiated transfer of power to the Indian National Congress (INC) – as the sole recognised representative of the Indian people, the INC was spectacularly successful in consolidating its hold. While the legacy of the long drawn out and gigantic freedom struggle played a very crucial role, the Nehruvian vision of New India – incorporating the agendas of (a) ‘national integration’, (b) ‘economic development’, (c ) ‘social equality’ and (d) consolidation of multiparty parliamentary democracy – also played no mean part. India declared itself a Republic on the 26th January of 1950 and the Constitution as worked out by the Constituent Assembly came into operation. With the demise of Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, since the early fifties Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, became the unassailable leader, both at the government and party level.
In the first three general elections, in 1952, ’57 and ’62, the Congress polled 45.0, 47.8, and 44.7% votes and gained 76.0, 77.0 and 73.5% of the seats in the Lok Sabha. The degree of predominance of the Congress becomes even clearer if we consider that the sum of votes polled by the top 2 parties were 56, 58 and 55%. And the sum for the top three were 61, 67 and 63%. So as compared to the second largest party the vote share of the Congress was around 4.5 times, and in comparison to the third largest it was between 5.5 and 9 times. The predominance appeared so overwhelming that Indian democracy came to be dubbed by the Western scholars as ‘One Party System’ or ‘Congress System’.
From the party of struggle the Congress transformed itself into the party of governance – governance not through mass mobilisation with the help of the extensive network of party organisation that was built bit by bit during the years of struggle – particularly since 1920, but an elaborate state machinery – the basic structure of which was inherited from the repressive colonial state, networked with the party caucuses at various appropriate levels. The concept of “planned economy”, worked out much before the actual attainment of Independence was operationalised in the form of Five Year Plans commencing in 1951. The planning process, however, came into its own with the inauguration of the Second Five Year Plan in 1956 with its explicit and elaborate emphasis on massive and direct state investment in building infrastructure and heavy industries requiring huge investments with long gestation periods, and thereby beyond the reach of private capitals. This was to serve as the foundation for further industrialisation, apart from opening up large job opportunities and facilitating growth of private capital in the consumer goods sector. The entry of foreign capital and goods was strictly regulated to protect the indigenous capital. The Third Five Year Plan continued on the same note.
The one area in which the rupture with the past was most noticeable was the coercive method of dealing with popular discontent in general – be it Tebhaga or Telengana movement led by the communists or movements for linguistic states. But it was by far at its brutal worst in the case of Naga and Mizo movements for independence in the North-East.
By the end of this period, in October 1962, came the Sino-Indian border war in which the Indian Army was badly humiliated. For the first time since Independence Nehru’s authority was seriously challenged. The then Defence Minister, V K Krishna Menon, a protégé of Nehru without independent political base had to resign. The hitherto highly acclaimed foreign policy was ferociously assailed. Right wing politics, both within and outside Congress, received a big boost and the RSS gained new respectability. Nehru himself died broken-hearted in the summer of ’64. Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded as the Prime Minister.
1965 – 1977 : Turbulence, Instability and Repression
After ’62 the defence budget had been substantially augmented. Then came ’65. The war with Pakistan. It again took its toll on the economy. Relation with the West was seriously impaired. Flow of aids throttled. Crisis of foreign exchange erupted. A large devaluation of the Indian rupee was resorted to. Agricultural productions failed for two consecutive years : ‘65-‘66 and ‘66-’67. Economy suffered severe recession. The planning process collapsed. For three years, ‘66-’69, there was ‘Plan Holiday’.
However, in ‘67-’68 the agricultural production, and food production in particular, rose significantly on a sustained basis as a result of use of hybrid seeds, better irrigation, increased use of fertilisers and pesticides, and mechanisation of agriculture. The rich and middle peasants, mainly from the ‘middle castes’ became the main vehicle and beneficiaries of this technology driven “Green Revolution”. The increased economic clout, in due course, sought and found reflection in social and political spheres as well. Aspirations spurted. Tensions in rural society further aggravated.
Indira Gandhi was installed by the Congress High Command, known as the Syndicate at that time, as Shastri’s successor, who died in January ’66. At the state levels Congress started facing large scale desertions of the local satraps, mainly representing the upcoming rural bourgeoisie.
The year 1965 saw food riots in Kerala. In 1966 severe food shortage triggered off organised mass protests under the leadership of the Left in West Bengal on an unprecedented scale. India was beset with widespread mass discontent and political agitation.
The Congress received a serious jolt in the 1967 elections. Its vote share in the Lok Sabha elections came down by about 4% points. Its number of seats fell more dramatically. From about three fourth it was reduced just over half. But even more significantly it lost power in as many as nine states. Something undreamt of even a couple of years back. Political instability at the state levels became the rule rather than exception. On top of that militant student and agrarian movements emanating from West Bengal started spreading to various other parts of India. Two decades after Independence India all of a sudden appeared to start wobbling.
After initial years of fumbling Indira struck out on her own. By the end of 1969 she split the Congress in pursuance of a populist politico-economic agenda. In the process humbled the ageing Congress bosses, adopted confrontationist politics, rejected the concept of Nehruvian/Gandhian consensus of the earlier years, virtually destroyed the complex hierarchical organisation structure of the Congress and crippled the independent support base of almost every other leader in the organisation – whether at the Centre or at the states. The Congress was in due course renamed after her as Congress (Indira).
The Lok Sabha was prematurely dissolved. Early election was called. She notched up a stunning victory, with 43.7% of the votes and 68.1% of the seats, on the strength of her call of garibi hatao (expel poverty). And yet the Congress under her leadership fell short of its 1962 performance. By the end of 1971 Pakistan was mutilated. Bangladesh came into being in place of the erstwhile East Pakistan. Indira played a decisive role in the whole process. She was hailed as goddess Durga even by her opponents. Her popularity reached the peak. In 1974 India carried out its first underground nuclear explosion, dubbed as ‘implosion’ in those days – ostensibly for peaceful purposes. No one took the claim too seriously. The move was widely hailed within the country, by the Right in particular.
And yet the political instability and mass discontent could not be squashed. Particularly since 1974 the anti-government agitation under the leadership of Jaya Prakash Narayan became more and more virulent. In the night of 25th June 1975 Emergency was proclaimed. All democratic rights were suspended. A reign of brutal repression was let loose. Thousands were sent to jails. The media was completely gagged.
During the course of Emergency Sanjay Gandhi, the second and youngest son of Indira, holding no official post emerged as the second most powerful person in India – exercising power in the most arbitrary and profligate manner. Under his leadership a highly coercive population control drive was launched – treating human beings, and the poor in particular, as no better than cattle. In the name of beautification of cities extreme cruelties were perpetrated against the homeless poor. Both these campaigns had noticeably anti-Muslim edge. In 1977, with the political opposition completely crushed and the terrorised media singing hallelujah to her, Indira Gandhi called for parliamentary elections, presumably to legitimise her reign of terror. But the eventual outcome was beyond the wildest dreams of her opponents. The Congress was swept aside in a massive avalanche of mass disapproval. Indira herself had to bite dust. The Congress vote rather dramatically fell to 34.5% and seats to 28.5%.
1977 – 1998 : Years of Drift
From ’77 to March ’98, in twenty one years, there were seven elections and eleven governments at the Centre. Out of these, three served full term or nearly full term. And all these three were Congress governments, two with comfortable majority. But the last one was actually a minority government led by Narasimha Rao, which survived with the (tacit) support of the BJP. It was somewhat a mirror image of what Indira did between ’69 and ’71 – indicative of the underlying shift in the balance and equation of political forces. Of the short-lived ones, the first one was a Janata Party government, which assumed power in 1977 with a comfortable majority. The now-dissolved Jana Sangh constituted an important component of the Janata Party which was formed out of the merger of the Cong(O), BLD, Jana Sangh and CFD. Another one was a National Front Government led by V P Singh supported by the BJP and the Left. In the fall of both these governments the JS/BJP played a major role.
In ’96 an United Front government came to power with the backing of the Left, some of the regional parties and also rather reluctant support from the Congress. The Congress caused the fall of the government in less than two years after effecting a change of leader in between.
In March 1998 eventually the BJP occupied the coveted seat of power at the Centre heading a coalition of about two dozen parties.
Over this period the actual distance between the Congress and BJP, or rather Saffron politics, considerably narrowed, and the dividing line blurred. While Rajiv Gandhi’s role in reopening the doors of the Babri Mosque to allow worship by the Hindus have been widely noted, the (spine-chilling) significance of the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, in which Congress polled 48.1% votes and 76.7% seats – an all-time record, with highest ever voter turn out, has not been adequately discussed and comprehended. This was an election which was almost literally fought over the dead bodies of hundreds of Sikhs – painted as anti-nationals and mercilessly slaughtered by the Congress goons led by some of its prominent leaders duly aided by the RSS. Consequently even during the elections the RSS support was mobilised behind the Congress to further reinforce the ambience of siege and fighting the election capitalising on the resultant paranoia. In a way, 1984 LS elections prefigured the Gujarat assembly election in 2002.
It is during this period, in 1996, the Congress vote share dipped below 30%. And that of the JS/BJP rose dramatically from around 10% ( 9.4 in ’67, 7.4 in ’71 and 11.5 in ’89) to over 20%.
In the two subsequent elections, in ’98 and ’99, Congress vote share further plummeted to 26-29% range. And the BJP improved its tally further – hovering around 25%. Then again, as the Congress remained a prisoner of its imperial hangover, the BJP managed to capture power by deftly indulging in coalition politics.
But before going over to this next and last period, i.e. ’98 March onwards, it is necessary to note that it is the period from ’77 to ’98 March which saw the most dramatic upsurge of the Saffron politics. And this did not simply mean the emergence of the BJP as the major player in the political arena. The Congress, which was and is still occupying the large middle ground in Indian politics, itself got more and more saffronised. This was both the cause and effect of the saffronisation of the civil society itself – which eventually led to the emergence of the BJP as the ruling power.
The steady switch over, endorsed by the successive Congress governments, from the time-honoured, even if somewhat cliched, slogan of “Unity in Diversity” to the strident exhortation “Join the National Mainstream” was only indicative of this profound subterranean shift. And this could have not but only gladdened the adherents of the Saffron camp as the legitimisation of their frank and unashamed, and till recently highly despised, drive for cultural homogenisation encapsulated in the call for “One Nation, One Culture, One People” or “Hindi, Hindu, Hindusthan”. Similarly the slogan coined during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime : Mera Bharat Mahan (My India is Great) was also indicative of the Indian elite’s desire to emerge as the regional bully, in the image of the international super-bully – reflected graphically in India’s disastrous intervention in neighbouring Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, and meshed well with the Hindutva vision of India’s role as a militarist superpower on the global stage – shorn of the ‘baggage’ of moral and ethical principles and considerations. (The total unconcern for ethics, or rather strong unconcealed contempt for it, is one of the defining characteristics of Hindutva – (identity) politics explicitly linked to Hindu religion. Quite in sharp contrast, Gandhi – a deeply religious Hindu but not given to performing traditional/customary religious rites, was elevated to the status of a Mahatma (a great soul) by the vast multitude of common Indians – predominantly Hindu, far overshadowing their established religious gurus and the likes, precisely because of his perceived adherence to the highest ethical principles – ‘Truth and Non-Violence’, in an unfaltering manner.)
At a more tangible level, however, the complicity of the Congress governments, led by Rajiv Gandhi and Narsimha Rao, in promoting the Ram Mandir Movement spearheaded by the Hindutva Brigade leading to the eventual demolition of the Babri Mosque turned out to be the most proximate cause in their phenomenal electoral success. The other major factors facilitating the rise of Hindutva include the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by V P Singh-led National Front government and insurgency in Kasmir valley, since early nineties, preceded by the rise (and fall) of Sikh separatism in Punjab, in turn, coming on top of ongoing turbulence and insurgency in the North-East – contributing to the ambience of siege.
1998 March Onwards : ‘Hindutva’ On Top
After an extremely brief stint as the Prime Minister of India at the conclusion of the 1996 general election, when he lost the confidence vote just after twelve days of being sworn in, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP leader in the parliament, occupied the highly coveted chair after the 1998 election at the head of a coalition comprising around two dozen parties of widely varying size and influence. This time his government lasted for about thirteen months and collapsed after withdrawal of support by AIDMK, a key supporting partner, led by Jayalalitha. These thirteen months turned out to be quite eventful. ‘The party with a difference’ did not quite disappoint its traditional constituencies. If compulsions of coalition politics brought about a semblance of moderation – particularly on the temple front, then the tension between their age old commitments and the new imperatives were attempted to be resolved in a rather spectacular manner with a big bang or to be more precise, a series of five nuclear explosions in the first half of May barely seven weeks after assuming power. The causes and consequences of these we will examine in the following sections. Here it will suffice to note that these blasts were followed, quite ironically, by Vajpayee’s trip to Lahore in the following February, soon after the visit of Strobe Talbott, the Deputy Secretary of State of the US, to the region, ostensibly in search of peace with neighbouring Pakistan, the traditional bugbear of the Hindutva politicians, which had gone nuclear in about a fortnight of blasts on the Indian side of the border. Soon after in the month of April ‘Kargil War’ erupted on the Line of Control (LoC) running through the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The (undeclared) limited war came to an end only by the end of July after active intervention of the US President, Bill Clinton. In the meanwhile Vajpayee had already lost majority in the parliament and became the head of a caretaker government. In the ensuing election the ‘Kargil War’, which was made possible because of gross intelligence failure on the Indian part, quite paradoxically came to his rescue. And on 13th October 1999 he resumed charge as the head of the BJP-led coalition, NDA, with a significantly increased majority.
Apart from the ebb and flow of tensions between the two nuclear neighbours, India and Pakistan, largely mediated by the sole global superpower, the US, the other most important event during this period is the genocide of ‘minority’ Muslims in Gujarat, understandably planned and executed by the BJP government in power led by Narendra Modi, as the central piece of an unfolding agenda, with somewhat ambiguous backing of the Vajpayee-led Central government. The Congress in Gujarat abjectly failed to offer even any semblance of resistance.
To sum up, the rise of the Hindutva politics, constituting just not of ‘minority’/Muslim bashing but encompassing a changed conception of “nationalism” itself, since early eighties in particular, has a strong and clearly discernible correlation with the steady drift, decline and vicissitudes of the Congress, which had till then been not only the ruling power at the centre, albeit with a brief interlude, but also regarded as the very core of Indian nationalism.
Conversely, in the early days after Independence, despite the traumatic experience of the Partition, Hindutva was kept well under check by the Congress under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru in spite of many of its Chief Ministers in the states, and also quite a few other senior leaders, having been closet communalists. Nehru was, however, rather providentially aided in his task by the shocking assassination of Gandhi by a self-proclaimed “Hindu” militant – with RSS background and a close associate of V D Savarkar – the Hindutva mascot, and the consequent eclipse and premature demise of his main challenger – Vallabhbhai Patel, the first, and the then, Home Minister, and also Deputy Prime Minister, of Independent India.
India Goes Nuclear : Tracing the Trajectory
Nuclearisation of a state has essentially two dimensions : technological and doctrinal/ideological. It requires a certain level of scientific/technological development in a certain specific direction. More so, as unlike other armaments nuclear weapons and related technologies are not tradable commodities in the international markets. But then that by itself is not enough. It also calls for a conscious and deliberate political decision making based on an ideology/doctrine favouring a decisive move in the required direction. These are two distinctly different aspects, but not wholly unconnected and autonomous. The ‘technological development’ while by itself is not ‘sufficient’, even if ‘necessary’, it tends to generate its own momentum/pressure to reorient the ideological sphere. Similarly, the ideological orientation may very well precede the ‘technological development’ and in fact guide and steer it along a route, at least broadly, charted out in advance. Then again, quite significantly, there is no clear fault line demarcating the ‘technology’ required for ‘peaceful’ use of nuclear energy, or to be more precise nuclear power generation, and that for production of nuclear explosive devices meant for mass destruction. So, while the shift from peaceful use of nuclear energy to nuclear weaponisation involves a big leap in the realm of political decision making, in the domain of technology the transition is virtually seamless.
In order to make sense of the emergence of India as a declared Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) from the status of a founding and leading member of the Non Alignment Movement championing the cause of decolonisation, pacifism and nuclear disarmament over a period of just over half a century it is imperative to keep the broad clues offered above in close focus. But before we go into the specifics of the Indian case, we will have a cursory look at the international scenario to have a better appreciation of the proposition enunciated above. The terms of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (CTBT) adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1996 provide that the treaty will come into force after being ratified by 44 states who were participants in the 1996 session of the Conference on Disarmament held in Geneva and possess nuclear power or research reactors.
Evidently the underlying assumption is that possession of nuclear power, or even research, reactor amounts to nuclear weapons (production) capability or thereabout. That is why, as the official argument would go, it was necessary to obtain their ratification as the precondition for the treaty coming into force. Now out of these 44 countries only five were recognised, as per the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Nuclear Weapons States (NWS). Another two, India and Pakistan, subsequently became declared, even if unrecognised, NWS. Apart from these, Israel is held to be (clandestinely) in possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea and Iran enjoy somewhat ambiguous status. All the rest do not have the Bomb. Not only that, quite a few of them – e.g. Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Sweden, Ukraine, renounced their nuclear weapons programme/capability at some stage or the other. This does clearly illustrate that mere technological wherewithal for producing nuclear weapons, or nuclear capability, does not automatically and axiomatically lead to nuclear weaponisation. Nuclearisation, in the ultimate analysis, is a political act – albeit overlying a base of technological capability.
Coming back to India, the distinction between ‘technology’ and ‘ideology’ becomes all the more relevant and important if one is not to lose sight of the fact that Independent India started off its journey with no blueprint whatsoever for its eventual nuclearisation even as the endeavour for building up the requisite scientific/technological base had commenced even before the actual independence. With independence attained, the drive for technology in general, and nuclear in particular, gained further momentum. But that was more reflective of Independent India’s supreme leader Jawaharlal Nehru’s telling faith in science and technology, in stark contrast with his mentor Gandhi, not just as a great developmental tool but also as a liberating force of immense proportions. (Only with the benefit of actual historical experience and the hindsight of more than half a century one can now proceed to pronounce such visionary faith and optimism on his part somewhat naïve and misplaced). The other important aspect of India’s drive for nuclearisation, which would start off much later, is that quite contrary to the claims of its apologists this had only a tenuous correlation with any external threat perception. This has been rather brilliantly captured by a perceptive Indian observer in the following words : “Speaking after the nuclear tests that he had ordered [in May 1998], with a clear sense of being vindicated, Prime Minister Vajpayee declared ‘I have been advocating the cause of India going nuclear for well over four decades.’ In triumph were forgotten the careful, laboured explanations of the need for the bomb; there was no problem with the fact that four decades earlier China was seen as a special ally not threat, that China then had no nuclear weapons, that Pakistan was struggling to find its feet as a state.” A foreign observer, of great diligence and distinction, has also arrived at a broadly similar, even if rather prosaic and more detailed, conclusion : “Domestic factors, including moral and political norms, have been more significant in determining India’s nuclear policy… Often, tensions between domestic interests have made this policy appear ambivalent and ambiguous. India has been torn between a moral antagonism toward the production of weapons of mass destruction, on one hand, and on the other hand, an ambition to be regarded as a major power”.
Stages of Development
India’s journey towards eventual nuclearisation in May 1998 (and further development onwards) since Independence has passed through a couple of distinct phases.
1947 to 1964 : The first phase covers from 1947 to November 1964. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, with funding from the Tata Trust, had been launched in 1945 in the then Bombay. It was the brainchild of Dr Homi Bhabha, an extremely gifted world class physicist. Bhabha was its first Director and would often refer to this institute as the cradle of Indian atomic energy programme. In 1946 the Atomic Energy Research Committee was instituted, again Bhabha as its Chairman, to promote studies in nuclear physics in Indian colleges and universities. Within a year of attainment of Independence, at the initiative of Nehru, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) came into being, under an appropriate act passed by the parliament, led by Dr Bhabha reporting directly to the Prime Minister. Through the establishment of the AEC India’s atomic/nuclear energy programme was formally launched. The programme from the very beginning received highest indulgence from the PM and its progenitor highest degree of autonomy and institutionalised protection from parliamentary and other forms of enquiry/intervention. While the large overlap between the programmes for peaceful use of nuclear energy and weapon producing capability was clearly recognised, the Indian state at the doctrinal and policy level remained firmly wedded to the ideal of abjuring nuclear weapons. And this was very much in keeping with the overall foreign policy and its status as a pioneering and leading member of the Non Aligned Movement.
India’s foreign policy for the first time, however, came under serious assault, as had been noted in the foregoing, in the wake of October 1962 – as a consequence of terrible humiliation of the Indian Army at the hands of its Chinese counterpart. The Jana Sangh, the earlier incarnation of the BJP, took the opportunity to repeatedly put forward its decade old demand that India at least now must go nuclear. But Nehru, however, was able to weather the storms in spite of losing much of his moral/political stature.
On 16th October 1964 China carried out an overground nuclear explosion pursuant to the state policy adopted as far back as in 1958. On November 27, as the culmination of an ongoing outcry for an Indian Bomb – encouraged and reinforced by none other than Homi Bhabha’s public pronouncement promising cheap and quick nuclear deterrence capability if backed up by the Indian state, the Jana Sangh introduced a motion in the Lok sabha calling for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. While Lal Bahadur Shastri, the successor of Nehru, could manage to save the day, in the teeth of dissenting voices from influential quarters even within his own party, and even reiterated his earlier position of renouncing the Bomb, he nevertheless had to make two important concessions. From “No Bomb Ever”, the position shifted to “No Bomb Now”. And then, along with energy, the goal of developing technological capability for Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) was adopted. At that time it went by and large unnoticed, given the rather meagre presence of the JS in the parliament, that the politics of Hindutva had scored a significant victory with far-reaching consequences, with backing from the Samyukta Socialist Party and a section of the Congress itself. As would happen about thirty three and a half years later there was a complete convergence of interests between the scientocrats/technocrats representing India’s nuclear establishment and the rabidly chauvinist/jingoist “Hindu” nationalist party.
1965 to 1974 : During this period India fought an intense ten day war with Pakistan in August-September 1965. Faced economic/military sanctions from the US on that account. Both Shastri and Bhabha died premature death in January 1966. Indira Gandhi was installed as Shastri’s successor. And Mrs Gandhi chose Dr. Vikram Sarabhai as Bhabha’s successor. Sarabhai was unique in that he was the only head of India’s nuclear establishment who did not exhibit any marked enthusiasm to develop technological capability for manufacturing nuclear weapons or even (peaceful?) explosion. India in 1968 reiterated its resolve not to go in for nuclear weapons on practical considerations and refused to sign the [Nuclear] Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the ground of it being discriminatory. In 1971 facilitated by India’s direct military intervention Pakistan was dismembered and the new state of Bangladesh came into being in place of the erstwhile East Pakistan. Dr Sarabhai died prematurely on 30th December 1971. On May 18, 1974 India carried out its first (underground) nuclear explosion, dubbed as ‘implosion’ for peaceful purpose, in Pokhran in the bordering state of Rajasthan. As per available accounts, which are at any rate rather scanty, the explosion was carried out at the initiative of India’s nuclear establishment and was endorsed by Mrs Gandhi to counteract the raging mass discontent against her rule. Nevertheless she took special care to emphasise the ‘peaceful’ nature and intent of the blast and even wrote a letter singing the same tune to Pakistani Prime Minister to dispel his misgivings four days after the blast. The blast was perceived as a great feat for Indian science and technology and India’s de facto entry into the big league. With few exceptions, the media and the political parties, the “nationalist” Jana Sangh in particular, welcomed the development with rapturous applause. But in so far as the official position was concerned, the attainment of nuclear weapon capability, which the ‘implosion’ demonstrated, however, remained only a powerful subtext – carefully and emphatically denied in all formal enunciation. While the nuclear establishment scored a landmark victory, Indira gained a political dividend which appeared quite impressive for a while but would soon prove to be rather transient and dubious.
As regards the external consequences, “[i]t increased US and international pressure on India to conform to the nonproliferation regime. It appeared to have no effect on China, and it had the negative impact of hardening Pakistan’s resolve to develop nuclear weapons.” As regards the process, “[t]here was no systematic analysis of costs and benefits. India’s foreign affairs establishment was not asked to assess likely international reactions and repercussions. The military services were not consulted…” The ‘process’, more than the ’consequences’, clearly points out that the motivation underlying the blast flowed essentially from domestic compulsions – and definitely not from any external threat perceptions.
1974 to 1984 : The ten years from ’74 to ‘84’ proved to be rather uneventful in terms of development on the nuclear front. Of the two Prime Ministers, who ruled for significant periods, Morarji Desai was implacably set against any nuclear programme. Even Indira seemed to have regained, at least partly, the strong moral aversion of her father, Independent India’s first Prime Minister. Despite persistent efforts the nuclear establishment failed to obtain any authorisation for any further test, peaceful or otherwise. Genera Sundarji, an advocate of nuclear weaponisation, later bitterly lamented, “Between the mid-Seventies and mid-Eighties, India’s [nuclear] decision-making … appear to have enjoyed something between a drugged sleep and a deep postprandial siesta.”
1984 to 1995 : After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi took over the reins. In March 1985 an American documentary on Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear programme drew attention of the Indian press. In 1986 border tension between the two neighbours rose to a new pitch. Nevertheless commitment to restrict India’s nuclear programme to peaceful use only was repeatedly reiterated. India also took some initiative in the direction of global nuclear disarmament but steadfastly rejected any overture for regional disarmament. Concurrently the programme for developing nuclear weapon capability and also ballistic missiles went apace without resorting to any further test explosion.
1995 to May 1998 : The Final Push
In 1995 May the NPT was indefinitely extended without any commitment from the NWSs for a time-bound programme for deweaponisation. This in India was perceived as a perpetuation of the ‘nuclear apartheid’ regime and consequently a setback. Parallelly the negotiation to finalise the CTBT draft had already been under way since January 1994. This added to the nervousness of the nuclear lobby in India, comprising top functionaries of the DAE, BARC and DRDO, the so-called ‘strategic enclave’ on the one hand, backed up by a loose group of ‘strategic analysts’, and a section of the political milieu – the BJP in particular, on the other. They foresaw in the forthcoming CTBT a permanent closure of India’s nuclear weapon development programme in absence of the facility to carry out explosive testing, as the Treaty was meant to ban all explosive testing save the sub-critical ones. The objection, to be sure, was not because these developments would allow the P5 countries to maintain their nuclear arsenal indefinitely, as had been publicly claimed, but because it would stop India from joining this big league as a new member. At any rate, pressure was built up for authorising test explosions before the CTBT coming into force. Narasimha Rao led Congress government grappling with serious corruption charges and due to face election in the next year apparently gave green signal to the scientists to carry out test explosion in the month of December. However, the US intelligence got wind of it and under pressure the attempt was abandoned. Though at that time for evident reasons such report was vehemently denied. The Rao government somewhat compensated for the abandonment by flight-testing a 250 kilometre range Prthvi missile on January 27 next.
The Congress lost its majority in the election for the eleventh Lok Sabha. Vajpayee was sworn in as the PM on May 16 and on May 28 he lost the vote of confidence. Even within this short span the nuclear establishment and the BJP toyed with the idea of going ahead with nuclear explosion. For whatever reasons the attempt did not fructify.
H D Deve Gowda, the chosen leader of the United Front, with Congress support from outside took over. Inder Kumar Gujral became the External Affairs Minister. While the UF government reportedly turned down the nuclear lobby’s ardent plea to carry out further tests, it nevertheless came under tremendous pressure of BJP’s hawkish posture on the issue of CTBT to which it had to succumb. Rather ironically the position of the Left, an important prop for the UF government, on this issue remarkably converged with that of the BJP.
It was only since October 1995 the Indian government started making a clear linkage between the CTBT and a time-bound programme for disarmament by the P5 as a precondition for its accession. But as the negotiation inched towards the final phase Indian objection became more and more shrill and high-pitched reflecting the general mood amongst the debating ‘experts’ within the country.
On June 20, India’s representative at the Geneva talks, Arundhati Ghosh rejected the CTBT draft not only on the ground of discrimination, between the NWSs and non-NWSs, (quite unjustifiably, as the CTBT draft did not recognise different classes of state parties as regards its implementation) but also on the ground of “national security considerations”. This was a crucial departure from India’s traditional position on nuclear weapons. Even as recently as in March 1996, India’s the then Foreign Secretary, Salman Haider, had submitted to the same august body, Conference on Disarmament (CD) : “We do not believe that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is essential for national security, and we have followed a conscious decision in this regard. We are also convinced that the existence of nuclear weapons diminishes international security. We, therefore, seek their complete elimination. These are fundamental precepts that have been an integral basis of India’s foreign and national security policy.” On July 15 Gujral, the External Affairs Minister, reiterated in the parliament India’s resolve to scuttle the treaty by blocking the required consensus. On August 14 India carried out its threat in Geneva. The Treaty, however, eventually taken to the UN General Assembly and, on September 10, was voted for by a margin of 158 to 3. India was in the august company of only Bhutan and Libya.
The next day the Times of India noted : “India has hardly ever been so united internally, or so isolated internationally, as on the issue of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty”. In fact, it is the CTBT ‘debate’ – a virtually one-sided misleading campaign replete with deliberate disinformation, that had gone on furiously for the last one year or so in the domestic circles subsequently proved to be a major facilitator for India, under the “Hindu” Nationalist rule, to come out openly as a Nuclear Weapon State throwing all moral inhibitions of the yesteryears, so to say, to the dustbin of History. And the whole political class, without any significant exception, including the mainstream Left became willing participants in this grand extravaganza of political/moral degeneration.
The United Front government which became instrumental in rejecting the CTBT died a premature, and yet not wholly unexpected, death by the end of ’97. In between, I K Gujral, who had by then become the Prime Minister, made a public declaration on May 31, 1997 that India would not sign a prospective treaty banning fissile material production – in keeping with the hardened and belligerent posture adopted at the time of CTBT negotiations. This, however, went hand in hand with intermittent reassertion of India’s resolve not to go in for nuclear weapons.
On March 19, 1998 Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in as the Indian Prime Minister. This time he could survive the confidence vote, even if rather narrowly, held on March 28. On 11th May, the Government of India claimed, before the stunned nation and the international community, to have carried out three underground nuclear explosions in Pokhran, to be followed by another two – two days later.
The Dynamics and The Propellants
The propulsion for ’nuclearism’ is often derived form a quest for raw power and potency, ’power’ shorn of any ’moral’ or ’ethical’ principles, ’power’ to dominate and subjugate, and ’potency’ coupled with grossest exhibitionism. While the ’elite’, or a section of it, functions as the main driving force; in order to gain legitimacy and momentum the ’quest’ must also infect and intoxicate the ’masses’, who would then join the ’quest’, even if in a vicarious manner. So, in the process , ’nuclearism’ has to and does actually set off a whole chain of motions transforming the individual and collective mind-set. Peace and non-violence is projected, and eventually comes to be regarded, as ’effeminate’, and ’machismo’ as the ’ultimate’ virtue.
In the specific Indian context, the leading support for the drive towards nuclear weaponisation, as has been narrated above, comes mainly from three distinct and yet somewhat overlapping segments. These are :
1.The scientific and technical establishments associated with the development of nuclear weapons. Their prestige and power are directly at stake. The scientocrats and technocrats connected with the BARC, AEC and the DRDO fall in this category.
The top echelons of the ’defence’ forces and the current breed of defence analysts played supportive roles, even if, as late entrants and junior collaborators.
These are the people who have most consistently and with single-minded fiendish determination pushed India towards nuclearisaition.
2. The new Indian elite, a product of the post-independence economic development, who gradually sidelined the ’old’ middle and lower middle classes – whose ideals and value systems were by and large rooted in the experiences of the epic anti-colonial liberation struggles of the past decades, and emerged as the most vocal section of the society.
Particularly since the mid-seventies the mainstream political parties more and more transformed themselves into the vehicle and mouthpiece of their hopes and aspirations. Fiercely narrow-minded and self-centred, they started viewing acquisition of nuclear weapons as the shortest path to enduring glory.
3.The triggering force behind the Pokhran-II blasts was, however, unarguably the forces and politics of ’Hindutva’.
For these sickeningly evil forces the nuclear explosion was to provide a grand opportunity to stir up bestial passions and trigger off an avalanche of murderous mass-hysteria, which would, at one go, radically consolidate and crystallise the exclusionist and majoritarian ’national’ identity sought to be built by them. And that is precisely why the explosions were engineered, in less than two months of their coming to power, as a part of a predetermined agenda, without the least pretence of carrying out any systematic and comprehensive review of India’s current security concerns and strategic needs. Even the Defence Minister and the three Service Chiefs, it came to light subsequently, had been informed, so to say, only at the last moment; even though the publisher of the RSS organ Organiser had been made privy to this schedule so that they could advance and coincide the publication of their special issue to commemorate the first nuclear blast (ostensibly for peaceful purpose) eighteen years back on 18th May 1974. This ‘leak’ alone is sufficient to blow the lid off the claim that the concern for ‘National Security’ was the motivating force for undertaking these explosions, even if ‘security’ is interpreted in the most narrow-minded right wing fashion – completely disconnected from the issues of food, shelter, health, education and such other basic necessities for sustaining human life.
Here it would be pertinent to mention, at least in passing, that in the immediate aftermath of the blasts two major strands of explanation emerged from its critics, particularly from the Left. One, the nuclearisation of India actually constituted a critical and essential component of the grand US imperialist strategy to encircle and contain the People’s Republic of China. The other, it was only a ploy on the part of the BJP-led government to sign and join the CTBT regime, which in any case is nothing but an imperialist trap, under the cover of the euphoria manufactured through these blasts. It goes without saying that both these lines of argument are actually complementary and built upon a common set of premises.
The major underlying assumptions are that the explosions were not an independent act on the part of India’s incumbent rulers. These were carried out at the behest of the US imperialism and hence enjoyed their covert, even if not overt, support. This explains the apparent failure of the omnipresent and omniscient US spy satellites to detect the preparations in advance and block further activities.
It would, at any rate, not be superfluous to reiterate that the subsequent developments completely rubbished these projections. For one, China itself discovered no hidden US hand and pinpointed compulsions of India’s domestic politics as the underlying cause. Then, the US under Bill Clinton took active and leading initiative in blackballing India, however, without closing the channels of communication altogether. Moreover, China was in those days dubbed as the strategic partner of the US. Bill Clinton once even suggested that China as the major regional power should mediate between the two feuding nuclear neighbours – India and Pakistan. A highly publicised trip was undertaken by the US President to China soon afterwards to cement the bonds of partnership.
As regards the CTBT, one must remember that the BJP had always been earnest in the extreme to scuttle it by making India withhold its assent. The point is not that the option of signing the CTBT, in the aftermath of the blasts, was never considered – but only as a fallback option and by no means as the preferred one. Notwithstanding all sorts of confusing and ambivalent statements from time to time, evidently to dodge American pressure, this they could eventually evade. (Of course, the transfer of the baton from Clinton to Bush, a die-hard opponent of the CTBT, in January 2001 came as a great providential help). In fact, to do anything otherwise would have gone against the very grain of their politics. It would be well to recall that Vajpayee, on a subsequent visit to America to attend the General Assembly session of the UN in New York, took special pains to meet Republican Senator Jesse Helms, the then head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate – a known nuclear hawk and a leading opponent of the CTBT, through the good offices of an NRI businessman. It is the same Helms, it would be of interest to note, who had pronounced, immediately after the Pokhran blasts, that the “Indian government has not shot itself in the foot – it has most likely shot itself in the head.” .Helms would subsequently play the decisive role in blocking the Senate’s ratification of America’s endorsement of the CTBT – a statutory requirement.
These deeply flawed analyses and projections must, however, not be taken as indicative of any ineptitude on the part of the individual analysts. They rather reflected the utter inadequacy, or profound irrelevance, of the analytical frameworks used – rooted in the long outmoded experiences and the imperatives of the Cold War days.
But what is most relevant and crucial from our point of view is the fact that these arguments tend to deny an autonomous role to the politics of Hindutva and thereby severely underrate the grave danger that it signifies by itself – irrespective of its equation with the US at any given point of time.
The strong international censure, which erupted almost instantaneously, and the attendant punitive measures, which would follow soon thereafter, apart – the most obvious and enduring outcome of Pokhran-II was evidently Chagai. Just in a fortnight’s time Pakistan retaliated with (the claim of) six blasts – in response to India’s five now and another one eighteen years back to square off the account. Those who had gone euphoric proclaiming India’s “strategic” superiority over Pakistan attained through the recent blasts and hailed it as the “Explosion of Self-Esteem” went livid with frustration and gave vent to their deep sense of bitterness by calling it a “Copycat” reaction. These descriptions, however, even if rather unwittingly, brought out a crucial element of the subcontinental reality. While Indian nuclearisation did not stem from any threat perception from Pakistan – having been rooted in its quest for Big Power status and the ascendancy of Hindutva politics, Pakistan’s was a purely reactive one. Be that as it may, at one single stroke India’s massive superiority in terms of extant military strength, estimated at around 2.5 (or 3) to 1, got virtually wiped out. Pakistan attained a ‘parity” of sorts, through Chagai triggered off by Pokhran – to the great dismay of the Indian elite, through their own monumental folly.
What, however, rather dramatically laid bare the depth of Indian ineptitude, amidst all sorts of fanciful and clamorous claims in the wake of Pokhran-II, is the utter lack of political anticipation and ground level intelligence on Pakistan’s reaction. On the 28th of May, 1998 an MP in the Lok Sabha rose to seek confirmation during the ongoing session from the treasury benches regarding the Pakistani blasts by then already reported in the electronic media. It caused a veritable flutter among the cabinet members. The Prime Minister himself was present. The Defence Minister rushed out of the hall. After a while the news was confirmed. Subsequently, in response to the queries made by the journalists, the Prime Minister solemnly observed that it was quite unfair to expect him to keep track of the Pakistani moves while he was sitting in the Lok Sabha.
Even a cursory look at the chain of events since 11th May ’98 , which evidently constitutes a watershed in the history of this subcontinent , up to the present would clearly demonstrate that every bit of the claims and projections made by the proponents and apologists of Pokhran-II in its defence have been thoroughly falsified by the subsequent developments. It is not only the Kargil episode in the summer of 1999, when Pakistan indulged in military adventurism – albeit on a limited scale and in a clandestine manner, after a lapse of about thirty four years, even the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft, IC 814, in the following December, which obliged the Indian External Affairs Minister – a former army man himself, to personally escort the three Kashmiri militants released from Indian jails to Kandahar in exchange of civilian hostages, made nonsense of India’s claim to greater glory and military strength – in relation to Pakistan in particular. The pathetic fizzling out of the Operation Parakram (Show of Might), the biggest peacetime military mobilisation on the international border as a demonstrative act of “coercive diplomacy”, launched with much drum beating in the wake of terrorist attack on the Indian Parliment on Decmber 13, 2002, further underscored this predicament.
By including Farooq Abdullah, the then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in the entourage of the Prime Minister on his ceremonial visit to the blast site after the explosions a deliberate linkage was made between Kashmir and the Bomb, evidently to intimidate Pakistan. In the process, the Kashmir issue got internationalised, as never before since 1949, and identified as the most inflammable nuclear flash point in the present day world.
Instead of raising the level of India’s autonomy, India since May 1998 has become, along with Pakistan, far more vulnerable to American pressure and interference than ever before. The US has emerged as the de facto, even if not yet de jure, arbiter between the two perennially feuding nuclear neighbours.
The defence expenditure, even on conventional arms, has since sharply escalated – again contrary to the earlier claims.
Most importantly, Pokhran-II has triggered off an open-ended nuclear, and non-nuclear, arms race between India and Pakistan – as the cause as well as effect of perpetually mounting tensions and hardening postures on both the sides. This has seriously degraded the security environment of South Asia, instead of bringing about any ‘stability’ as had been projected. A nuclear holocaust now is no longer a distant possibility. During the Kargil War itself threats of nuclear strike and retaliation were exchanged with frightening frequency.
As recently as on September 1 2003, at its first meeting chaired by the Indian Prime Minister, the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) – eight months after its creation consequent upon finalisation and formal adoption of the triadic Nuclear Doctrine, has decided to further “consolidate India’s nuclear deterrent”. And, Pakistan’s President in turn chaired a meeting of its National Command Authority only two days after, reminding very much the way Chagai had followed Pokhran in a prompt and almost reflexive tit for tat response, and announced that Pakistan would “keep upgrading its arsenal in order to maintain its minimum deterrent capability”. It is quite self-evident that the term ‘minimum’ in the present context is only an euphemism for ‘maximum possible’. This mutually reinforcing mindless drive for the weapons of mass destruction can only have spine-chilling consequences for the region. It is even more so, given the abysmally poor safety records of both the countries in all walks of life. Even an innocuous accident can very well lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
Last but not the least, the nuclearisation of South Asia has also significantly contributed to the weakening of the process of global denuclearisation that was set in motion, howsoever tentatively, at the end of the Cold War.
Pokhran-II together with the demolition of the Babri Mosque, about five and half years earlier, constitute the two darkest spots in post-colonial Indian history – far more ominous than Gandhi assassination as it, in any case, had elicited massive and visceral disapproval on the part of the Indian masses. Both the cataclysmic events are symptomatic of a considerable closing of the gap, especially over the past quarter century or so, between Indian Nationalism and Hindu Nationalism – a rather unanticipated spin-off of India’s grand project for modernisation, and symbolise grave threats to the very concept of ‘India’ as had evolved through the epic freedom struggle. In spite of all the dismal consequences and, waiting to be realised, mind-numbing possibilities, Indian elite is yet to get over its phase of denial. It continues to most obstinately refuse, like a thoroughly spoilt brat, to acknowledge the stark reality staring in the face.
The survival of humanity inhabiting the South Asian subcontinent, nevertheless, critically depends on the demystification of the nuclear myths, that invest the Bomb with magical powers of immense proportions, and consequent denuclearisation of the region as an integral and crucial component of global disarmament.
This story first appeared on sacw.net