Postcolonial fantasies about the bomb

by Sudhir Chella Rajan

"Out of the blackest part of my soul, across the zebra striping of my
mind, surges this desire to be suddenly white." Franz Fanon, 'Black
Skin, White Masks'.

Twenty four years after India's "peaceful" nuclear explosion came a
series of blasts to trigger global nuclear "disarmament." But one
"scientific achievement" was too quickly replicated by another, and most
annoyingly so by a sibling nation which was quite obviously "borrowing"
the technology from another, less repressible neighbour.

The fallout was that the fervent euphoria among the middle classes of
India was tempered somewhat by the first seeds of doubt that perhaps the
BJP government had set in motion events that common folk would no longer
be able to comprehend, let alone control. But that initial sense of
defiance among the vast majority of the elites in both India and
Pakistan endures, unfailingly fed by pundit hawks in newspapers and
television who, with quiet dignity, inform citizens of both countries
that their standing in the world has indeed improved after the blasts.

Still, for the small minority of dissenters, the popular enthusiasm for
South Asian nuclearisation is both profoundly despairing and puzzling.
Their sense of bewilderment is understandable. First, neither country
has faced any recent "security" threat as such, notwithstanding a
carefully orchestrated campaign in various national newspapers about
such imaginary things. Witness, for instance, the China card that was
crudely played by the Indian Defence Minister only in preparation for
the tests. The only real securtiy concerns are the tiring and mundane
ones relating to food, social and economic security, apart from the
growing sense of insecurity among minorities and women in the face of
fundamentalist and patriarchal violence.

Second, and despite all pretensions to the contrary, neither India nor
Pakistan is more powerful in the arena of global politics today than it
was before the explosions. The Cold War, the only significant threat of
major global conflict which sharply divided the world into two, is now
clearly over. Today's politics by other means, to paraphrase Clausewitz,
is no longer war or even deterrence but trade sanctions, and these even
the giants in the subcontinent do not have the clout to exercise
meaningfully.

So why do Indians, in particular, across the diaspora seem so elated
about the latest explosions? A recent statement by the physicist behind
Pokhran I, Raja Ramanna, provides some clues. He is reported to have
said that while "Indians were treated as a subhuman species during
colonial days", India has now finally "declared its greatness" with all
the other 'haves' after detonating nuclear devices. Thus, a most
inconvenient and embarrassing explanation for the popular euphoria
appears to be located in the social psychology of colonialism and its
aftermath.

As the quote from Franz Fanon at the beginning of this essay indicates,
the person of colour from the former colonies often wants nothing more
than to grow up to be just like his erstwhile coloniser. Fanon, a
French-Caribbean psychologist arguing within the psychoanalytic paradigm
of his time, goes on to say that this obsession takes the form of sexual
fantasy, and typically as a male fantasy of virility demonstrated to the
European. It is therefore no accident, in this reading, that the
intrepid Bal Thackerey should claim that the explosions proved that "we
are not eunuchs." Since the eunuch cannot command sexual mastery over
others, his very identity is in question. But to "possess" nuclear
weapons is to consume like the white man, to come nearest to being white
and thereby declare the nation's greatness.

To the West, persons of Indian origin are renowned for their endless
chatter about their nation and culture. To most of us, it is simply the
expression of our national pride, a form of discourse about ourselves in
which an assortment of ideas, people and achievements relates to the
distinct identity of Indianness that is not quite South Asian. This is
the planetary chain that unites V.S. Naipaul, Kalpana Chawla and
possibly Salman Rushdie to the diaspora, but not Hanif Qureshi, Michael
Ondaatje and the Dalai Lama. It is a reassuring tale about our distant
origins and our recently acquired territory, but is always told with a
sideways glance at the North American or European as if to say, "pay
attention to us, we are interesting and we are a nation with borders and
pride." We cannot avoid that yearning for approval, nor can we stop
translating our speech endlessly into a conversation that they can
understand and admire. Look, we are building supercomputers and sending
satellites into space! Watch as we explode nuclear bombs! (But please
stop reminding us of the depths of poverty and the heights of corruption
we live amidst, the enduring problems of caste, gender and class
relations or the relentless degradation of our environment)

Alas, to the disappointment of the postcolonial citizen, admiring
Western narratives of her nation remain few and far between. And even
when the acknowledgements arrive, they continue to have patronising and
demeaning overtones. What could be more disturbing than an editorial in
the New York Times that terms the explosions an "arrogant challenge" to
international efforts at arms reduction and in the same breath refers to
India's "crushing poverty"? Or the permanent members of the Security
Council dismissing out of hand India's claim to now be a member of the
nuclear power states?

What needs to be recognised in all this is that nationalism as a fetish
is still yet another colonial legacy. What constitutes our distinct
identity as a people is the largely accidental contiguity of our
individual habitats and our shared but diverse cultural institutions,
not the redeployed symbols of a mythical past. What gives us strength
is our democratic polity that can effect meaningful social and economic
change, not the achievements of a techno-military establishment whose
very purpose is becoming obsolete. And what ultimately matters is our
ability to bootstrap ourselves out of our myriad problems, including our
destructive preoccupation with a definite national identity, not the
occasional round of applause we purchase or the fear we attempt to
induce in our former colonisers and their peers. To set our priorities
right is therefore that very uphill task which the Kenyan writer Ngugi
Wa Thiong'o called decolonising the mind.