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Continued from "Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma"

‘Countdown’, a small book of 106 pages with 13 unmarked chapters exposes the nuclear lobby in India as well as Pakistan. It is a spontaneously written book. The occasion of writing it is India's nuclear explosion test on 11th May 1998, followed promptly by the Pakistani tests. Ghosh visits Pokharan in Rajasthan, the site of tests, Siachen glacier at India-Pakistan border and then finally Pakistan. He talks to many people and forms his impressions on nuclear testing. People of Pokharan are full of grief and sorrow when they recount their horrendous and horrifying experiences regarding nuclear testing. Ghosh feels that reasons behind this nuclear testing are not related to the security of either nation. It is indeed sad to note that our region is dominated by 'stunt' politics, which seldom cares for the peace and prosperity of people. The book grows into a mild satire on this petty politics. The book does not miss on Pakistan's poor social, political, economic and religious conditions.

We can take a cricket match as a fine analogy. Defeat Pakistan and all the ills of this country [India]  vanish into a momentary euphoria. But nuclear testing is no cricket match.

The author went to Pokharan three months after the tests. The book opens with an apocalyptic vision of the Pokharan site. Ghosh openly satirizes the celebration held to celebrate the great day. Party workers and sympathizers distributed sweets to people. They even talked of sending dust from Pokharan to different parts of India as sacred soil. They wanted to build a sort of a monument of strength at the site. Even the Prime Minister is not left unscathed by Ghosh. ‘On 15 May, four days after the test [...] a celebration was organized on the  crater left by the blasts. The Prime Minister was photographed standing on the crater's ruin, throwing flowers into the pit. It was as though this were one of the crowning achievements of his life' (6). But people in and around Pokharan are not happy for obvious reasons. Manohar Joshi, one of the first journalists to know about the tests, says, 'In the years after 1974 there was so much illness here that people didn't have money to buy pills. We had never heard of cancer before in this area. But people began to get cancer after test. There were strange skin diseases. People used to scratch themselves all the time' (7). Many other people of Pokharan tell Ghosh about the birth of deformed children, growth of tumor in cows and birth of blind and deformed calves. 

It is so tragic that those in power, for their selfish interests, play with the lives of people. As King Lear says, 'What flies to wanton boys, are we to gods. They kill us for their sport.' How it suits the visionless leadership of India. As one parliamentarian tells Ghosh that the explosions were done to save the government from exploding from within; to quiet voices of dissent from within the coalition government. Still, many sleep in this country without food. Floods and famines are a regular feature. There is no comprehensive plan to deter these annual natural calamities. All that we are doing is adding to them by nuclear testing. For one single battle tank, one hundred schools could be opened in rural areas. And yet our annual defense budget is horribly high. 

Had this mind-boggling expenditure been for defending the country, it would have been okay. But it is not so. As a noted defense affairs expert, K. Subrahmanyam tells the author, 'Nuclear weapons are the currency of global power. Nuclear weapons are not military weapons' (13). Ghosh goes on to prove that these tricks are nothing but post colonialism of the perverted order. The fifty years of unfulfilled promises, the frustration of not being able to realise potential, the growing corruption-all these find a temporary atonement in such exercises. 

We can take a cricket match as a fine analogy. Defeat Pakistan and all the ills of this country vanish into a momentary euphoria. But nuclear testing is no cricket match. It is a very costly and more dangerous ploy to build our lost self-respect and nationalistic mood. As a historian tells Ghosh that with two hundred years of colonization India has lost national cohesion. With loss of self-esteem, the bomb has become a symbol of self-esteem. It is the global currency with which India wants to be a player, a manipulator of the international order. But according to Ghosh, India's nuclear program is like minting false coins to purchase, world-wide influence. 

The message is clear that we can become influential only by sorting out our real problems like population, poverty, unemployment and corruption and not by these cheap (or not so cheap) stunts. Ghosh uses the discussion to show the wrong direction of our decolonization. For him, it only symbolizes the complicated mindset of the still not mentally decolonized people of India. The bomb is a false symbol of re-arrangement of global power, a political insurgency or any kind of military movement.

‘Countdown’ is a kind of shock for readers of Ghosh. He has always been an author, disagreeing with the British and the Western world in its treatment of India. His writings always depicted double standards shamelessly followed by the controlling powers of the world. But here he takes an introspective look. He is viewing Indians rather ruthlessly. But then, why not? Self-criticism can always lead to healthier attitudes and better practices. It is in this spirit, I take this book although I must admit that it is depressing in its effect. 

The book succeeds in showing the mess in which we have placed our country. It boldly points out the glaring leadership crisis in India. We have politicians, but we do not have leaders. In fact, about thirty or so pages of this book deal with the author's visit to Siachen with the then defense minister of India. The author reminds the minister of his earlier involvement with anti-nuclear writings and peace-marches. But in the typical fashion of a politician, the minister says that although a bomb is morally unacceptable to him, yet India should keep all the options open and so on. The author feels that the minister is only lip-serving. Ghosh cannot conceal his severe disappointment when he says that one day we will sink, not because of Pakistan or China but because of our own acceptance of  apathetic leadership. What is implied is that we do not care for our country. And let me say that these comments do not come from an Asian American standing on a high pedestal but from someone among us. Ghosh's sincerity cannot be doubted.
Anyway to go with the line of the book, Ghosh describes the condition of soldiers deployed in very difficult places like Siachen Glacier, Leh, Ladakh and Suronk. Nature is indeed cruel at these places. With rising hostilities on the border these soldiers face the double threat of natural calamities on one hand and bullets on the other. The cost of maintaining these soldiers at these places is again shocking. But what is even more shocking is that the soldiers of the two countries are not very hostile or bitter in their words and approach to each other. Although the term 'Dushman' (enemy) is used but the Indian soldiers always spoke of their Pakistani counterparts with detachment and respect. Ghosh did not hear any verbal abuse. It only shows that soldiers do not want wars. But one  army officer horrified Ghosh with his plan for winning the supposed war at Siachen Glacier, 'A nuclear explosion' inside the glacier, a mile deep. The whole thing would melt and the resulting flood would carry Pakistan away and also put an end to the glacier. We can work wonders (43).'
When Ghosh crosses the border and meets people in Pakistan, he finds starker belligerence there. In his interview the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, very readily expresses the possibility of a nuclear war. Ghosh says' 'In India I met very few people including anti-nuclear activists-who believe that a nuclear war might actually occur in the subcontinent. In Pakistan the opposite was to be. Almost everyone I met thought that nuclear war almost certainly lay ahead, somewhere down the road' (62). Qazi Hussain Ahmed even goes on justifying his stance by saying that no nation can have monopoly over scientific knowledge and technology. He says that with ever-increasing hatred between the two nations and with a history of wars who can deny the possibility of a nuclear war. He says that a nation would do anything to spare itself the shame of losing a war. The repulsion at such irresponsible comments is very clear. Ghosh quotes a member of a group called international physicians for the prevention of nuclear war, 'In the event of a nuclear explosion [...] the ones who will be alive will be jealous of the dead ones' (102).
Any sensitive human being would be horrified at the extent of indifference regarding human welfare among people of this sub-continent. People talk of nuclear weapons and wars as though they are talking about fairy tales. Leaders go for nuclear testing to get the votes. Ghosh cites the opinions of scientists like Raja Ramanna on the impact of a nuclear holocaust. It is indeed terrifying to imagine the destruction that such an explosion will cause in densely populated cities like Mumbai, Karachi, Delhi and Lahore. Ghosh also meets liberal activists in Pakistan like Asma Jahangir. She tells Ghosh about the hostility that she received from her own countrymen when she defended the human rights of religious minorities in Pakistan. She was held like a demon engaged in blasphemy against the holy prophet. She also feels that the two countries are engaged in an unnecessary and imaginary race. She rightly feels that the policies of the two countries are irrational and ad hoc. There is lots of false propaganda. She almost sounds desperate in her hope, 'I think once you break the barriers of disinformation, people's own instincts are what we have to depend on. I feel hopeful' (81).
For Ghosh, as for any thinking Indian, India-Pakistan relations have always been intriguing. He wanted to have a first hand experience of the people's expression. He says' 'I wanted to hear them for myself. What I heard instead was for the most part a strange mixture of psychic, and grandiose fantasy and cynicism, allied with the deliberate conjuring up of illusory threats and imaginary fears. The truth is that India's nuclear program is status driven, not threat driven. In Pakistan's case too the motivation behind the nuclear program is parity with India. That the leaders of these two countries should be willing to run the risk of nuclear accidents, war and economic breakdown in order to indulge these confused ambitions is itself a sign that some essential element in the social setup has broken down: ‘that there is no longer any commensurability between the desires of the rulers and the well being of the ruled. The pursuit of nuclear weapons in subcontinent is the moral equivalent of civil war: the targets the rulers have in mind for these weapons are, in the end, none other than their own people' (106).
‘Countdown’ is a deeply psychologically revealing analysis of the attitudes that lead to extreme animosity, abhorrence and suspicion between these two neighboring countries. The politicians want to avert every future crisis by building an atmosphere of war and hatred for the neighboring nation. Had it not been for the sophisticated and soft use of humorous language by Ghosh, this book could have been a literal lashing for everyone in India and Pakistan. Ghosh punctures the false ego. Our thinking is that we have tried everything to improve the conditions but all in vain, so this war (nuclear or cultural) with the neighbor is our last chance. We are actually getting desperate in our attitudes.

Ghosh. Amitav. 1999. ‘Countdown’. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher.  

Continued to "The Glass Palace"  


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Comment To take a broader, realistic view of the relationship between India and Pakistan, we see the evidence in the events. To comment on these events is not to remove the evidence, nor even to change continuing events. Not so strangely, the peace has been kept between India and Pakistan as the traditional bequest of nuclear arms to all who would so assume them. To those that would assume them as new members, like Iran, there is always the paranoia manifested by existing members of their actual use - so they are pre-emptively debarred.

The point I am making here is that ever since the end of World War 2, warfare itself has been scaled down to petty proportions, relatively speaking, and on the scale of nuclear weapons deterred: this incurs the happy phenomenon of life expectancy in this troubled world of ours; and to it we owe the advances in science and technology that make flat screen TVs and mobile phones, modern transport and hybrid cars, not to mention the enhanced quality of life, entertainment and sport. To it we owe the staging of the 2012 Olympics and all the spectacular Olympiads before it. We owe all this to nuclear deterrence.

The long effects of nuclear deterrence have induced a belief in the 'goodness' of human nature. This assumed goodness argues for and expresses shock against the presence of nuclear arms, and even, as in the article, creates some nightmare scenarios of use by neighbouring India and Pakistan. The truth is we owe the peace to express such views to nuclear deterrence.

26-May-2012 14:39 PM

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