May 27, 1999 | South Asians Against Nukes


By Pervez Hoodbhoy

Now reduced to silently spewing radioactivity into the
desert air, the crater of Pokhran 98 remains a grotesque
monument to the folly of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his crew
of nuclear adventurists. On this side of the border stands
the wretched mountain of Chaghi, so brutalized and disgraced
that its face had turned ashen white.

When the month of May returned, it should have been a time
to reflect on past follies. Instead diseased minds chose to
shamelessly rejoice. On that side they crowed about
"Technology Day", and on this side they called it
"Youm-e-Takbir". Drunk with the new-found power to commit
mass murder, they blew raucous trumpets and beat drums in
preparation of macabre, insane, officially sponsored
celebrations. Little badges with mushroom clouds were
distributed free to children, poetry competitions extolled
the greatness of a newly nuclear nation, and state
television went on a bomb-glory blitz.

It's time for a reality check, to make a tally of the gains
and losses, to separate winners and losers. Not every
inhabitant of this subcontinent is a loser in this rush
towards death and destruction. After all, an undertaker
prospers well during a plague. So, at least for now there
are many winners.

The Nawaz government is a clear winner and Chaghi was a
godsend to cover up its misdeeds in all that really matters:
economy, governance, law-and-order, education, and health.
Hence the need to stoke the fires of nationalist frenzy. How
else will they cover up for the fact that this year more
than 300 chose self immolation and death to living yet
another painful day of grinding poverty and deprivation?
Uranium there was plenty of, but bread and clean drinking
water there was little.

The men of faith have won too, although which faith
triumphed is not clear. The holy radioactive sand of
Pokhran, blessed by Lord Shiva, was sprinkled in temples by
the Vishnu Hindu Parisad. In Pakistan the Jamaat-I-Islami
transported a cardboard "Islamic Bomb" around the country,
while right-wing Urdu magazines like Zindagi wrote about the
wondrous miracles of Chaghi. They tell us that divine
intervention had protected the mard-e-momin who prepared the
nuclear test-site from poison-spitting snakes, that four
chickens sufficed to feast a thousand of the faithful after
the tests, and that the Prophet Mohammed has taken personal
charge of protecting the centrifuges of Kahuta.

But it's the Kalams and Khans, the Chidambarams and
Mubarikmands, who won like nobody else. Public adulation,
unlimited funds, private fiefdoms, they have them all now.
Their place in posterity has been reserved, and to their
worshippers and admirers they are the Oppenheimers and
Tellers, the Feynmans and Bethes. Alas, these subcontinental
heroes are quite unknown to those who do real science. No
formula or process is known by their names, and no discovery
of significance attributed to their efforts. But it is
perhaps the kilotons and megatons that matter.

And the losers? They are the people of Pakistan and India,
held hostage by civil and military leaders with tunnel
vision and bloated pride, now forced to live under the
fearful shadow of nuclear tipped missiles that will someday
appear without warning from the other side. Over this year
bombs have followed bombs, missiles have chased missiles
into the stratosphere, and the hawks have flown ever higher,
screaming obscene threats while feeding on juicy tit-bits of
uranium and plutonium. As weaponization accelerates, missile
bearing trucks shall eventually course the highways and lie
safely hidden in gullies and ditches. Each crew will have to
be fully equipped to send its deadly load across the border.
Will some fanatical crew commander someday decide it is time
to settle scores once and for all?

It is a tiresome truth that the poor are losers in any big
game, and they certainly are in this one too. But let's
recall that not long ago some glib-tongued apologists had
tried to make their cunning argument in two parts. Nuclear
weapons are cheap, we were told, said the first part. Maybe
so. But when you add on the costs of delivery vehicles,
measures and countermeasures, command systems, and the whole
infrastructure, then the cheapness evaporates. Bharat
Srinivisan of Columbia University has estimated the total
cost of the Indian nuclear program in 1998 currency terms to
be between US$48 billion to US$72 billion. That is hardly
cheap. The second part said that a country won't need
expensive armaments of the conventional kind if it goes
nuclear. Events have proved this to be complete rubbish. The
Pakistani chief or army staff has said this unambiguously as
well. Defence spending on conventional arms has risen in
both countries since last May, and is still rising. More
tanks, aircraft, ships, artillerySSthe sky is the limit.

Xenophobia kills civil society. Declare your nukes and
missiles as national symbols, get the slogan-chanting
hate-filled crowds on to the streets, and define hate of
India as love for Pakistan. He (the Raiwind estate one) and
she (the Swiss SGN one) are patriotic Pakistanis by the
definition. It matters little that our rulers, feudals,
bureaucrats, and soldiers plunder the country's wealth,
flout the laws of the land, and reduce its people to
destitution. Our patriotism gives sanction for harassing,
beating, and kidnapping political rivals, any one who
exposes corruption, and civil rights and human rights
activists. It allows for the abduction of Najam Sethi from
his bedroom in the middle of the night and charging him as
an agent of evil India. In truth, nucleomania destroys civil

I fear that the worst losers of the nuclear game may well be
the people of Kashmir. Much suffering lies in store for
them. Safely hidden behind their nuclear shields, the brave
leaders of India and Pakistan are perfectly willing to fight
for their noble principles down to the very last Kashmiri.
Clashes along the line of control have reached unprecedented
ferocity in recent weeks, prompting the UN Secretary General
to appeal for calm. Crossing of the LOC is imminent and the
Lahore Declaration has been buried. Meanwhile an emboldened
Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, based near Lahore, has declared that it
will throw acid on the faces of those women who walk on the
streets of Srinagar in tight clothes. But I suppose we
Pakistanis must still pray that they succeed in liberating

There is one loser for whom one need not feel sorry. Booted
out of office after his party lost support, Pokhran did
little good for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A nationwide survey
conducted in December for India Today magazine found the top
issue among voters to have been inflation, followed by
unemployment. National security was rated among the least
important; half the Indians interviewed had forgotten the
nuclear tests. Whereas Indian voters had mixed feelings,
most of Pakistans' Punjabi officialdom was sorry to see
someone in their own image exit the scene. But this may not
be for long and Vajpayee may yet return in triumph. After
all the Indians are no less drenched in madness than us.

(The author is professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam
University, Islamabad.)

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