From Buddha to Ganesha - Education for Peace -
Talk for Anti Nuclear Convention at Chennai

by Lalita Ramdas
- July 26 1998

I speak here tonight not as an expert - an economist, scientist, military
person or journalist, nor as a politician. I speak primarily as a citizen
and a woman - one who is not a member of any political formation, but who
has clear and strong political views which I hold dear as part of my
democratic rights and part of my democratic duties.


On the night of the Pokhran Blasts - May 11 1998, certain things changed
within me for all time. I sat up all night hitting at my computer keys,
to churned out a piece entitled "Has the Buddha Smiled?" and was
startled by the intensity of my own feelings. I kept asking myself why
this action had stirred me to the depths as nothing else had for the
past many years - the answers came slowly but they came surely. And it
is this that I would like to share with this august audience today -
hoping that it will provide some food for thought, and provocation for

My overwhelming emotions on that night were anger; sadness;fear; and
what I can only describe as an all-consuming determination to fight a
leadership that could take such cynical and dangerous decisions in order
to hold on to power. Until the night of May 11, I too was half willing,
like several others, tired and weary of the corruption, the infighting
and inability to govern, displayed by the many alliances of political
parties, to "give the BJP a Chance" ! May 11 marked a turning point -
what a grotesque travesty of BuddhaÇs philosophy. Since that night I
have spent most of my waking hours engaged in one way or other with this
question of dealing with a `Nuclear India - a Nuclear PakistanÇ, the
related issues of Nuclear Apartheid and the hypocrisy of the `Nuclear
HaveÇ nations, and the role of citizens in this context.

Before dilating on the question - it might not be out ofplace to spend a
few minutes on what I do. My field has been education - formal,
non-formal, informal - with a special emphasis on issues of
access,equity and social justice for large sections of those deprived
and marginalised because of gender,class,race ,religion and ethnicity.
My experience over three decades has spanned urban and rural areas,
national, regional and international forums, and has moved between the
micro level and actual delivery systems, to policy and advocacy issues
at macro level.

Over the years it has become an article of faith that Education in its
broadest definition offers us the only real possibility of building a
true democracy and of creating the kind of awareness that can lead to
social and political transformation. Our failure as a nation and people,
to have made the right investments in ensuring universal access and
quality education for our people has cost us dearly in many ways - most
starkly in the kind of leadership that we continue to elect and trust.
My own strong reaction to the nuclear tests are based on certain
fundamental premises.

1. The most compelling one comes from a longstanding conviction that
nuclear weapons are evil, inhuman and should be destroyed and banned. A
visit to Hiroshima in 1995 served only to reinforce this stance.
India, was among those nations that introduced and piloted the Bill
before the International Court of Justice - the Hague to declare the
use, or even the threat of the use of a nuclear weapon as UNLAWFUL,
ILLEGAL on the basis of the existing canon of humanitarian law.

It is incomprehensible that a government which does not even have a
clear majority in Parliament, could choose to exercise the NUCLEAR
option in such total disregard of the countryÇs own established and
documented positions on this question. But it is even more
incomprehensible that so many of us - the so-called educated, so
completely misread the intentions of this,and previous governments, and
did nothing over the years to spread a better and wider awareness of the
horrors of what this phrase "keeping the nuclear option open" actually

2. Our existing notions with regard to Nuclear power and the whole
notion of Atoms for Peace are fraught with contradictions and nuances
which need far more indepth analysis. A recent film made [clandestinely]
by Yorkshire Television exposes the stark reality of the horrendous
situation caused be the laxness of safety regulations in our nuclear
power plants - from Tarapore to Kalpakkam and the suffering of countless
villagers and residents in the vicinity. The tragedy is that most
victims of our callousness (not peculiar to just the nuclear industry by
the way), are poor,voiceless and certainly not organised enough to do
what the residents of one group of locals did in the USA - near the
Fernald Plant - a nuclear bomb processing facility. They fought a five
year legal battle claiming that the plant had "dumped 400 thousand
pounds of uranium into the air and 150 thousand pounds into the local
Miami river and nearby streams " causing radioactive pollution and
widespread health disorders in the community. The US Dept of Energy was
ordered by a federal Judge, to pay US$ 73 million in damages to the
community. (article by Isa Daudpota in Viewpoint Nov 16 1989).

Not many of us know that in India (possibly in Pakistan too?) there
exists a special set of laws governing everything to do with Atomic
Energy, the department, its institutions and decisions, which are exempt
from discussion and questioning - even in Parliament?

Question: For a start, perhaps we can form small Citizen Action groups
to investigate the reports of the TV film, organise communities and file
public interest or other appropriate litigation aainst the DAE and the
State and central governments?

3. The Nature of the State

The next equally strong ground for opposition to the decision to test at
Pokhran is related to the sheer hypocrisy, inconsistency and dishonesty
with which our leadership has behaved on this issue. After two months of
travel and intensive reading and conversations, I am clearer than ever
that the demands of political expediency, a long standing ideological
compulsion, and not `national securityÇ, influenced the decision to
test. This in turn has clearly exacerbated the `securityÇ environment in
our region and turned back the clock of the tentative peace building
exercise with Pakistan. One has only to listen carefully to the way the
hawks in both our countries are talking today, to understand that
weaponisation and a new arms race has to follow, unless there is a very
powerful movement and expression of popular opposition

This display of wanton jingoism and cynical disregard of all ethics,
morality or humanity by those in power throws up some fundamental
questions with regard to the nature of the state, the role of citizens
in a democracy and the right to information and debate about the
underlying assumptions of IndiaÇs role in the world, her priorities and
responsibilities to her people.

In any other functioning democracy, such a gross transgression of time
honoured and accepted norms and codes on the decision to exercise the
`Nuclear OptionÇ by the government of the day without even the pretence
of a debate, would have resulted in a widespread protest, questioning
and opposition. Alas, in this country, it led to the opposite - a
thoughtless and mindless expression of euphoria and popular support by
the public, and a complete confusion in the ranks of the existing
political opposition.

4. Defining Nationalism and Patriotism - sadly, the debate about the
Bomb has got hopelessly entangled with the question of demonstrating
ones loyalty to the country. I believe we must challenge this at every
quarter. While a BJP government might have added an extra edge to
this,to my mind this is an underlying thread that has been running
through our political system about which, for the most part, we do not
talk. Recently in Toronto, I was accosted by the representative in
Canada of the Visva Hindu Parishad - and harangued for my opposition to
the decision to go nuclear, which he equated by being anti-national. The
same gentleman, when I suggested that Canadian-Indians might chose to
demonstrate their concern for India as they celebrated the end of the
Golden Jubilee year by making a commitment to ensure that every child in
India was in school within the next decade, said that it was for
different groups to decide what they saw as priorities. With a few
notable exceptions, most of the Indo-Canadian business community really
did not want to hear of the anti-nuclear voices being raised back home.

To the best of my belief, I am as much a patriot as the next man or
woman - and this has nothing to do with my religion, community, or
having been a service daughter and a service wife. I totally reject any
suggestion that those of us who have spoken up against the bomb are in
some way less nationalistic than those who mindlessly support the bomb.
Perhaps some of you have heard or read a wonderful presentation made by
Professor Amulya Reddy in which he speaks of "Poverty being the defining
characteristic of India", and the need to use the Gandhi Talisman of
recalling the face of the poorest man before deciding on whether a
decision of yours will truly help him or her.So says Dr Reddy "Poverty
reduction should be the touchstone of our reaction to the nuclear tests
" And as to the question : what is patriotism? "It is repaying the
people the debts one owes them.Patriotism consists of "wiping every tear
from every face". So, those who stress that making bombs increases tears
are patriotic; those who divert attention from the central reality of
India - its poverty - are anti-national"

5. Nuclearisation, Defence and the Right to Information

For more than half of my life I have "bought into" the web of myths and
beliefs surrounding all matters connected with the Armed Forces, the
government of the day and their inviolability and immunity from any form
of questioning. It goes without saying that the "Sacred Cow" of defence
secrets formed a major part of ones socialisation - and this applied to
everything from something as innocuous as taking photographs at our
[sadly ancient] airports, to getting accurate information about the way
the defence budgets are actually designed to conceal more than they

About two decades ago - when I first began questioning and challenging
that nebulous thing called the `systemÇ and the `establishmentÇ - it was
focussed entirely on one person who symbolised that power and authority.
And I am referring to none other than my partner and husband of 37 years
- the newly turned anti-nuclear activist (some choose to use the term
`peacenikÇ in a somewhat derisive sense) the former Chief of the Navy.
It is a tribute to his innate openness and integrity that our marriage,
and our family, survived, even thrived, on the furious debates and
arguments about Education versus Defence, Bread versus Guns, Feminism
versus Military Machismo, and most critically, the true meaning of
Nationalism and Patriotism that raged in our home.

6. Bringing Women Centre Stage in the Peace Movement

A linked issue about which I have been thinking a great deal - and
which is again directly linked to the nature of our education and social
systems - is questioning the relative, (deafening?) silence of women and
the womens groups on this issue on the one hand, or the mindless
expression of self-righteous support on the other.
Here again, I believe it is because of two typical kinds of confusion
which must be addressed.

· For most of us women and wives brought up in typical middle class
homes - especially in the post Independence government service milieu,
there was absolutely no way that we dared to doubt or question the
`sacred patriotic and nationalisticÇ motivations of all those who wore
uniform or worked for the government. This was forbidden territory
filled with a carefully cultivated mystique.
· Even for those of us who came from a history of academia or activism,
when Indo-Pakistan or Indo-Chinese issues came up for debate, the most
militant among us would opt for a `NationalistÇ line. This was marked
during each one of our conflicts with Pakistan, and particularly evident
in the pre-conference meetings before Beijing.
· The bulk of the poor - on whom the burden of violence is greatest, are
hardly encouraged to make these linkages - but fed with propagandist
messages of nationalism and patriotism against which it is hard to put
up a fight.

In her recent article in Manushi,provocatively titled `War-gasmÇ, Madhu
Kishwar has addressed some of these dilemmas and contradictions. And I
argue here that this issue in particular needs to be explored if we are
able at all to mobilise women to raise their voices against nuclear
weapons in particular and militarisation in general.The impact of
nuclearisation as indeed of all forms of militarisation is hardest on
women, and in an increasingly hierarchical and patriarchal set-up -
womens will be ever more marginalised.We have only to look at the recent
debacle in the Indian parliament on the Womens Representation Bill .

7. Defining a Vision for India, for South Asia

The reason I have chosen to elaborate on some of these concerns is in
order to make an important point - namely that there is need for each
one of us to re-examine our own positions on several questions relating
to the issue of how we understand development and the future of the
people of India and her neighbours - the people with whom geography and
history has determined that we relate, live and work.

For too long we have allowed ourselves to be led by the nose - to follow
a pre-set agenda on who decides and what constitutes national priorities
- which in turn leads to a kind of collective paralysis when called upon
to take positions and clearly articulate a point of view on questions
ranging from the Nuclear Issue to Reservations or making Elementary
Education a Fundamental Right. Preceding the issue of whether we want to
see India as a nuclear power is a set of other basic questions regarding
the kind of India we want to build?

· What is our vision for the next century and what really constitutes
National Security?
· Is it more important that we gate-crash into the Nuclear Club and
desperately seek a place in the Security Council, or that we target
taking India to the top fifty in the UNDP Human Development Index from
our present position of 138 out of 175?
· Critically in the present context - what can and should be the role
for Science and Technology - our huge resource bank of scientists, and
our institutions of higher learning which have, tragically, remained
elitist,even militarist, and removed from the needs of that eighty
percent of people in this country who continue to struggle against the
elements, and for whom applied science and technology could transform
their present realities.

I was amused to read recently that one of our most respected nuclear
scientists spoke of how "peaceful nuclear explosions" can be used to
divert river beds and for oil explorations. True? False? How do we deal
with radiation? Will the experts tell us please? But even if true,did we
really have to wait to test in the name of security in order to explore
these possibilities? The KL Rao and Dastur plan on linking IndiaÇs
rivers has been gathering dust in governmental archives - surely
scientists and planners could have got together three decades ago to see
how our already existing nuclear capability could be harnessed for
national development. Instead, millions of our people continue to suffer
year after year from the ravages of floods or drought which no
scientific policy has seriously sought to solve.

None of the esteemed gentlemen (and a few women too), who are writing
reams about how "we can now talk to the US (Mr Talbott - a third rung
official) as equals", and that "we are now willy-nilly members of the
charmed nuclear Club" (that we have abhorred) ,and how we can now look
people in the eye" , have touched upon what to my mind constitutes one
of the major features of the nuclear option, namely the environmental
cost and the deadly kiss of radiation. The secrecy and inefficiency
surrounding many of our own nuclear energy establishments in this
region, has been kept under wraps by scientist, bureaucrat and
politician alike.

Our current pseudo-nucleonic discourse conveniently chooses to ignore
the fact that eminent scientists from Einstein to Rothblat, and
political and military leaders like Gen Eisenhower, Admiral Leahy, and
General Lee Butler, have also turned their backs on this lethal and
immoral source of potential destruction for reasons they have eloquently
articulated. But in an area of such widespread lack of information, it
is easy to manipulate and use facts and statistics selectively.

8. India and our Neighbours - Big Brother Syndrome - Bully or Friend?

IndiaÇs decision to test in May shattered the carefully built up
strategy to work for peace in the region. I find it hard to forgive this
peace of chauvinism and, yes, "anti-national" behaviour. The post
Pokhran months have been full of all manner of academic, strategic,
political and other discourse carried by the mainstream(particularly
English speaking) media with regard to "geo-political compulsions in our
region". Many of us have reached a point of total saturation. In such
situations, I often find myself turning to my conversations with cab
drivers in many parts of the world as a source of infinite wisdom and
down to earth commonsense.

One of the clearest expositions on the entire question of Indo -Pak (and
for that matter relations with any of our neighbours) came from a
Pakistani cab driver in Copenhagen last month. When South Asian
encounters South Asian abroad there are some interesting, unspoken
dynamics that takes place in the first few minutes! I have now learned
to use to maximum benefit the fact that I have a Pakistani son-in-law,
and how he and my daughter are forced to live in the US so that I rarely
get to see my little grand-daughter. This disarms the most hostile of
Amin Bhai was clear that there was racism, arrogance and hypocrisy among
the developed nations, especially the Nuclear Big Five which must be
challenged. But he also pointed a finger at India who, as the bigger
brother, should play a much more responsible role. `BehanjiÇ he said -
suppose in a family, the big brother who is 6 feet tall and physically
more powerful, is always beating and pushing and bullying a weaker
`chhota bhaiÇÇ (younger brother), will not the younger brother start
hating the big brother? We have always looked up to our big brother for
a different kind of role. Why should India be frightened of Pakistan? Do
you seriously think that Pakistan can walk in and capture India? Why can
we not trade together, come together and only then we can teach these
`b......sÇ (ie the west, the whites) a lesson. "Magar jab thak hum aapas
mein ladthe rahenge, hamaara hi nuksaan hogaa, aur yeh log aur bhi
bandook aur bum bechenge!"(Till such time as we keep fighting among
ourselves, it is only we who will suffer, and they will continue to self
us guns and bombs....)

9. Building Democracy - the role for Education,Information,Analysis

Clearly these and many more questions must become the subject of a
really widespread debate at the level of Panchayats and Mahila Mandals
and Village Education Samitis. Until such time as this can happen,
successive governments - the powerful politico-administrative ,military,
and largely elitist nexus, - will continue to interpret national goals,
national security and nationalism itself according to their world view,
their inherited and inflated ambitions to put India on some world map
where power and position are determined by very different and
questionable criteria.

As an education and development activist, I cannot but conclude by
touching on my favourite subject - namely that of setting out our
priorities and understanding better the link between National Security
and Education and Development. Many years ago, in my capacity as head of
the Womens Welfare Association of the Navy, I invited a senior expert
from on of our premier institutions of defence and strategic analysis,
to give us a talk on National Security and Development. I still recall
his clear and powerful statement which essentially said that the
ultimate yardstick of national security can only be an internal
situation where there is food in every stomach, where every child is in
school, where there is indeed Health and Employment and Shelter and
Drinking Water for every Indian . Where did those words of wisdom go?
How did we lose our way in the jungle of nuclear muscle flexing and
nationalistic jingoism of the narrowest most sectarian kind?

10. An Agenda for the Future - the Way Ahead

Ironically, the one good thing that the tests have done, is to bring
some of these issues and debates to the surface. The past two months
since Pokhran II, have been very revealing in terms of attitudes and
perceptions of different people in different places.
This might provide some insights into what needs to be done in the
coming times.
There is really no one formula - except a fundamental commitment in your
hearts to waging peace, a determination to bring a better quality of
life to our own people, and by extension to all those with whom our
lives are inextricably tangled. We are a society and a region beset by
every possible kind of complexity and diversity. A beginning can only be
made by recognising and saluting this richness which provides us with
our real characteristics and strength. This is the kind of philosophy of
inclusion and plurality that must infuse the very fabric of our society
and its institutions - especially educational. (And I am not speaking
here only of the exclusive private /public schools - but of the
mainstream education system where the bulk of our children are

I could provide a long list of actions possible and actions already
underway for those who are interested. It has been heartwarming to see
the kind of communications and exchanges over the internet - by
literally thousands of students, activists, trade unionists,
journalists, writers and academics - especially Indians and Pakistanis -
all determined that this madness must stop.The challenge is to transform
this into a much more broadbased, democratic, educational movement of
the people - beyond just the English speaking elite. Provide us
resources - human and material - who will translate and adapt till they
drop! Then only can we bombard the vernacular press, educational
institutions and mass and community based organisations with the
information and knowledge they too deserve to access.

In our villages, frankly most people do not understand the difference
between an Anu-bam and any other kind of bomb. And yet,because of a
forced insularity, their vote goes by default to whoever offers some
kind of hope. At the same time, perhaps this is the moment to build some
kind of truly grassroots based alternate political front which people
might be inspired to see as a real, viable alternative.In the ultimate
analysis, change will have to be fought on the political battlefield and
there can and should be no place in this land of the Buddha, for any
political philosophy or formation which is exclusivist, fascist and
fundamentalist in its outlook.

The Reality of Village India

Living as we do in village India, without the familiar organisational
structures of the NGO and other groups that were my support group in
Delhi or Mumbai - we are now devising completely unorthodox
methodologies for opening up the subject, drawing links between local
issues and nuclear weapons of destruction. In the past few weeks we
have located sympathetic individuals even in this stronghold of
fundamentalist politics who have translated articles, done interviews,
are willing to give publicity to Hiroshima Day and the Peace Initiatives
all over - especially in India and Pakistan. I carry leaflets and white
ribbons to the local bank, the fax and xerox shops, the village and
taluka and district meetings of school teachers, principals of colleges,
the village sarpanches and sabhapathis (headmen and women) and grab a
few moments to explain, to distribute and to mobilise.

People in villages are also essentially tradition bound and god-fearing.
A recent article pointed out that the face of Brahmanical Hinduism was
essentially militant - with most of our Gods carrying some form of
`asthraÇ(or weapon). As we went over the pantheon we realised that
Saraswati,Lakshmi, Krishna and Ganesha were among the few who carried
instruments of music, and were dedicated to both fun and learning! It is
time to discuss how we can and must re-appropriate these cultural spaces
for a progressive, democratic and peace agenda. So we are trying to make
a beginning by re-orienting the upcoming single most popular festival of
this region , dedicated to Ganesha - the Lord of Wisdom, of Knowledge
and auspicious beginnings - and propagating a message of peace and
learning, of tolerance and harmony - of Shanti and Vidya.

The struggle is long - the issues are deeprooted in our histories and
our sociologies, as much as in our economics and politics. I have just
picked up the newspaper with a headline that `INDIA,PAKISTAN FAIL TO
MAKE HEADWAY AT SAARCÇ. The ultimate way ahead will be to strengthen the
voices of the millions of our people through a patient process of
education to really stake their claim in the decisions that affect our
common futures. Two poems have evoked powerful responses in my thoughts
and emotions and which point clearly to the road that we must follow in
the time to come.
I would like to share them with you today.
The first is a wonderful poem by Sahir - an urdu poet .........

"Dear Civilised People
Be this blood ours or theirs
Humanity is bloodied
Be this war in East or West
A peaceful earth is bloodied

Whether the bombs fall on homes or borders
The spirit of construction is wounded
Whether it is our fields that burn or theirs
Life is wracked by starvation
It matters not that tanks advance or retreat
The womb of the earth becomes barren
The living must mourn the corpses

That is why, O civilised people
it is better that war remains postponed
in your homes, and in ours
It is better that lamps continue to flicker

and finally, a lament by the Japanese girl who died in Hiroshima, which
my children and hundreds of their friends who studied at Springdales
school - delhi, sang, together with other songs against apartheid,
against war, against violence and for peace, over a decade ago:

IÇm only seven , although I died, in Hiroshima, long ago
IÇm seven now, as I was then
When children die, they do not grow.

My Hair was scorched by burning flames
My eyes grew dim, my eyes grew blind
Death came and turned my bones to Dust
And that was scattered by the wind

I need no fruit, I need no rice, I need no sweets, not even Bread
I ask for nothing for myself - For I am Dead, For I am Dead

All that I ask is that for Peace - You Fight Today, You Fight Today
So that the Children of this World -

May Live and Grow and Laugh and Play

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