This essay was written in response to the current round of nuclear testing
in India. The article is due in Economic and Political Weekly, Bombay on
21st May, 1998. The writer, Shiv Viswanathan is a Senior Fellow at the
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. He is the author of
"A Carnival for Science", (Oxford:1997) and has edited "Foul Play:
Chronicles of Corruption,"(Banyan Books:1998, forthcoming).
Welcome to the Patriot Games
by Shiv Visvanathan
Antonin Artaud could not have done better. The timing was so immaculate
Celebrating the 50th year of our independence, Atal Bihari
Vajpayee erased in one stroke the legacy of the national movement and its
modernist aftermath: Panch Shila, non-alignment, non-violence and the
dream of a world of alternatives. It was a killing of the fathers that
Freud would have been intrigued about.
The props were simple. A man pretending to be prime minister. The
national flag as backdrop. Vajpayee announced that `India today carried
out three underground nuclear tests at Pokhran at 3.45 p.m.' A quick terse
announcement. A political statement to be followed by a technical
briefing. One correspondent even felt it was like an American press
conference. As American as apple pie and Hiroshima.
The obscenity lay at several levels. It was not just the presence
of Pramod Mahajan with a fascist bully boy smile,standing at the back
playing Pierre Salinger in pyjamas. It was the timing.
On Buddh Purnima, India exploded three nuclear bombs. The era of
the pseudo-secularists has actually arrived. Only a civilization
illiterate about itself would knit the bomb and Buddha together. Yet
strangely, Buddha was the signifier of continuity for both nuclear events.
When Pokhran took place in 1974, the news of the blast was conveyed to
Mrs. Gandhi as `Lord Buddha has smiled'. History repeats itself, first
time as a tragedy and second time as illiteracy. Gandhi was once asked
what do you think of western civilization? And he said `It would be a good
idea'. If he were to return today and had been asked `What do you think of
Indian civilization', he might remark `that would also be a good idea'. In
fact, the first thing that went out of the window was the ideal of a
civilization with its notions of myth, religion, morals, good conduct and
tradition. We abandoned it all for history and the Nation State. Welcome
to the amoralism of the Patriot Games.
The Patriot Games is played on a subtle chequer board. Let us
state its moves. Step one. It enacts the national movement as a
simulation. There is a new sense of imperial oppression and there are new
liberators. First, there is George Fernandes, the eternal adolescent and
the army as chorus complaining about China. There is a touch of caring
here. When George talks of snowmobiles for our jawans, I love him for it.
Then there is the drumbeat of middle class machismo overthrowing Babar,
Clive and Churchill in cafes and the internet. Militarize. Muscularize.
Masculinize goes the modernist litany from Mambalam to Matunga. It is a
plea for technology as a sign of toughness. If only we would get our act
together, we would be taken seriously. We have the fourth largest army in
the world. We have the third largest pool of scientific talent. Beware. We
are one of the six in the nuclear club.
Beating the drums are two kinds of shakas; the RSS and the
scientists in designer khakhis. The Ramannas and the Iyengars and the
Brahmin hawks like K. Subramaniam. Hearing Raja Ramanna say `Our boys have done a wonderful job' reminded me of an old Groucho Marx joke.
Groucho is pretending to be a scientist. He gets up and says `I am
going to make a great contribution to science. I am planning to retire'. I
am reminded of the old men of Indian science, the Menons, the
Swaminathans, the Ramannas. I wish they would retire. They have done
enough damage to the idea of peace, sustainable development and the
transfer of technology. This generation of scientists are not like the
Ramans, Sahas or Kosambis. It is a generation of clerks salivating at
every bell ring from the state. The Nation State. Sorry, the National
Security State which is against democracy and peer review, which will not
even allow a simple economic audit of the Indian nuclear programme.
Scientific connivance and political illiteracy make perfect bedfellows.
Step two. Stage a spectacle. Carry out a controlled experiment
with all its grandeur and secrecy. A circus no one saw but everyone has
heard about. Did you hear that India exploded three bombs at 3.45 in the
morning? A state secret to be shared by all. What more could a democracy
The first three experiments encapsulate the history of the bomb
from Pokhran 1974 to Pokhran 1998. There is progress for you. India has
joined the nuclear club. Club is the key word. Not community. Not
movement. Club. Suddenly a whole nation feels upwardly mobile. We have
arrived, after a long pregnancy. Look at the way we read our history. The
early efforts at nuclearism were shrouded in ambiguity and hypocrisy, with
weakness. Remember how Narasimha Rao backtracked under US pressure. But
now we have moved from ambiguity to clarity. Clarity. A bully is clear. So
are the stupid. Truth is more complex. But we have outgrown truth as we
become a national security state.
Step Three. Declare a holiday. Create a festival. Tell the people
the bomb is for them. Fernandes is already claiming people should be
involved in security. Involvement... Participation. The lovely language of
World Bank governance. Now we know his sibling. Wonder what his German socialist friends think of Fernandes. Hello Petra Kelly. Didn't know your
Judas friend, did you? When Petra died, George and Jaya Jaitley shed
crocodile tears over her "suicide" at Gandhi Peace Foundation. Wonder how
Petra would have reacted to this green Judas had she lived? Khadi and
Nuclear bombs can only exist in complementarity in a mind like George
Fernandes. The radio-active Gandhian.
There is a tremendous sense of euphoria, of achievement. Of
competence. Of David against the Goliaths. Every--almost every--Indian
stands proud at being nuclear, of becoming Goliaths. Look at the long
lines waiting with flowers to congratulate Vajpayee. The Prime Minister
stands bedecked and bewildered like the bridegroom of the year. Our tryst
with destiny is complete. Everyone feels nationalistic. Pass out the
barfis. It could be a hockey match. A Tendulkar century. A riot or a
nuclear blast. We are happy with all four spectacles. Our scientific
Tendulkars have struck effortlessly five times in a row. The crowd is
berserk with joy. Yet there is a sadness when everything is a spectacle. A
match. A riot. A blast. When there is little difference between these
events. Worse. People forget that the worst kind of consumerism is the
unquestioning consumption of science.
The BJP got it right. It knows that nationalism is tough to beat
as a populist idea. After all, caste is fragmentary and class is divisive
but the Nation represents the whole. Look at the way dissent is silenced.
Every political group wants to be implicated, get a lick of the nuclear
ice-cream. The Congress insists that it was Rajiv and Indira who made the
ice stick. The UF insists it is a three-in-one ice-cream. The first layer
belongs to Indira, second to Gujral and the third to BJP. A truly
coalitional ice-cream. A national nuclear ice-cream. Even communists are
salivating wondering if there is a Soviet component they could lay claim
to. What is worse, they know you can't criticize nationalism. When
Vajpayee fights the US imperial bully, Bardhan and Basu will clap.
Dissenters sound silly. Praful Bidwai on BBC sounds as if he has got up
from a hangover and murmurs the first thing that comes into his head, that
"It is a BJP plot to look decisive." He is right but when he mouths it,
the message has all the inanity of "the butler did it". The audience
orchestration is superb. Gujral loves it. And Ramanna. And K. Subramaniam.
And Jasjit Singh. Throw in a touch of Raja Mohan and Bharath Karnad. It is
an orgy of agreement. Prim and proper. All the newspapers quote IAEA as
saying "it was not illegal". The patriot games of Vajpayee beats any Asiad
spectacle of Indira and Rajiv.
Even luck favours the BJP. Abdul Kalam is the ideal citizen and
scientist. Ascetic as P.C. Ray. As nationalist as Meghnad Saha. A bachelor
wedded only to science. You don't get them better. It is as if Aslam Sher
Khan were to score the winning hockey goal against Pakistan. All of India
seems to be celebrating. We have beaten China, Pakistan, USA, Germany and
Britain. We have gatecrashed into history. Every Indian feels proud. We
have won the Battle of Plassey, the Swadeshi struggle, the 1962 China war,
all at one go. It is victory as virtual reality. Saare jahan se accha, ye
nuclear India hamara.
There is truth in the lie. A convincing truth. A fragment of
history. The nuclear club has been a coercive and hypocritical one. It is
a search for monopoly. A demand of good behaviour by the one nation that
has used the bomb twice on a people. The amoralism is stunning. Whether it
is Thatcher, Blair, Bush or Clinton, you can't get lower than that. Third
rate moralism dished out with equal ladles of Dale Carnegie and Ron
Reagan. The Original sin pretending to be the Immaculate Conception.
The Indians were brilliant in their counter response. Not since
Krishna Menon played Chanakya in English were Indians so pleased with
their own performance. It was the debate on CTBT that convinced India that
it was on the right track. Arundhati Ghosh was superb as Rani of Jhansi.
Translate that as Joan of Arc for first world illiterates. It showed us as
powerful dissenters of the global world. That set the stage for our moral
crusade. But we were not just heroic. We were realists. It is this
transition from Nehruvian idealism to global pragmatism that needs to be
emphasized. It is like switching from the old Ambassador car to the new
Maruti. Morality is now more slick, mobile and profitable.
Implied in this is a sense that mere goodness is weak, that good
guys are dead guys. What one needs are good guys with nuclear sharp
shooters. Acquire the nuclear colt, look the enemy dead in the eye and
talk of a nuclear free world. Peace is what tough guys understand.
Suddenly every Indian feels a nuclear bulge in his biceps. The Akhada
langurs show it to the world. The Mani Dixits play it down. To see this in
operation one had to watch his performance in Aap ka Faisala, Aap ka
Adalat. It was debate between Dixit and Kanti Bajpai, professor of
International Relations at JNU. Bajpai is the peacenik as scholar. Quiet.
Quietly courageous. Full of questionmarks and footnotes. Bajpai
understands peace. He knows it is a slow bumbling process and Indians have
played a great role in its evolution. He is honest, ready to cite chapter
and verse when Indians have sinned. Ironically he appears shy, hesitant,
ectomorphic. A Ph.D., still fresh behind his ears.
Mani Dixit is like an old bear, amiable with a pot of honey
inside, oozing the experience of power. The foreign secretary as hero.
Talking to his IIC group. He exposes the hypocrisy of USA, the nukespeak
of China. He underlines the Indian efforts to be moral. The struggles with
complexity and ambiguity; of how Nehruvian idealism was whipped into
muscular pragmatism. It is time to tell the world we are tough like you
that we are high calorie nuclear heroes.
Kanti Bajpai is sincere, persistent but Dixit is tough, clipped,
amiably dismissive. A politician who smells a crowd. History is about
tough guys. No more subaltern pap, old chap. We are pragmatists now. Love
me, love my bomb.
The crowd loves it, applauds, happy to be a part of history. Even
compere Manoj Raghuvanshi's moustache quivers like a weathervane in the
right direction. How many Agni missiles did Gandhi have?
To the potent nationalist gin, the BJP adds the right twist, a
touch of swadeshi lime. The bomb is Indian. Conceived by Indian science.
Executed by Indian technologists. We don't smuggle technology like Dr.
Khan. No nuclear Dawoods please, we are Indian. Our nuclear bomb is home
grown as Abdul Kalam. The MIT in his bio data stands for Madras Institute
of Technology. Between Kalam, K. Subramaniam, Dixit, Ramanna the swadesi
hum kissi se kum nahin is echoed clearly.
There is a hijacking and distortion of discourse that we must
challenge. The new Dandi march must begin at the villages of Pokhran by
challenging the trustees of this new official morality. We have to state
that the above cast of characters cannot define our moral universe,
anymore than ethical mutants like Clinton or Thatcher. We have to apply to
the bomb, the Gandhian model of technology as one enhancing innovation,
community, debate, trusteeship, and love.
Let me put it tersely and personally. The current ideas of the
bomb, of the nation state, of the new Indian self violates:
-- My sense of security
-- my feelings of community
-- my theory of democracy
-- my celebration of science
-- my idea of foreign policy
-- my sense of history
-- my legacy of swadesi
-- my emotion of being Indian, very very Indian
The nuclear rath yatra has to be halted.
I appeal to our scientists to stand up and be counted. Say no to
the bomb but do it openly and in conversation.
I request PUCL, PUDR to accept Indian and even Pakistani
dissenting scientists as Prisoners of conscience.
I appeal to our people and those in Pakistan to start a people to
people foreign policy. Our states have run out of ideas for peace.
I ask every community to say no to the bomb from Panchayat to
I request our human rights activists, our Gandhians, our
feminists, our ecologists, our Dalits, our housewives, tribals, trade
unionists to stop this closing of the Indian mind.
India is and has to be a clearing house for ideas on peace,
alternatives, non-violence for the global world. The future is now. We owe
it to our children. Withdraw from the Patriot Games. Its noise as music
covers the jackboots of a coming totalitarian era.
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