New Meanings for Old Words

by M. V. Ramana

India's now famous linkage between nuclear testing and the birthday of

the great apostle of peace, Gautama Buddha, reflects not only

political crassness but also a propensity to find hypocritical

interpretations for noble sentiments. Indulging in such double-speak

is just another affirmation of India having internalized the forms of

thinking and expression prevalent in the gang of nations that lead the

way in terrorizing the world with their military arsenals - i.e. the

nuclear weapon states.

When speaking of nuclear matters, if there is one phrase Indian

officials use more often than nuclear weapons, it must be nuclear

disarmament. India had a time-bound plan for nuclear disarmament, the

CTBT did not lead to nuclear disarmament, and everything we were doing

was to promote nuclear disarmament. Logically, therefore, in the full

official press statement following the tests, a statement like "India

remains committed to a speedy process of nuclear disarmament" had to

be included. It was. Two days later two more tests were

conducted. Evidently the Indian government thinks that commitment to

nuclear disarmament means conducting nuclear explosions at a speedy


Soon after these tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee announced that India

had declared itself a Nuclear Weapon State (with a big bomb). This was

a rare moment of truth, though for many of us an unpleasant one. Now,

thankfully, analysts in the United States can stop coming up with new

adjectives to describe India's status: threshold nuclear state,

de-facto nuclear weapon state, nuclear-capable state, and so on. At

the rate at which things are going, the day may not be far away when

these terms are not applied to Pakistan either.

However, Vajpayee followed this statement with a new interpretation of

the role of Nuclear Weapons in international affairs. He said, "ours

will never be weapons of aggression." This is a complete perversion of

history. Nuclear Weapons are quintessentially weapons of genocide. The

"big bomb" that India now has can kill, in a matter of instants,

hundreds of thousands of people, and many more in the years that

follow. No State invests huge amounts of resources to produce them if

it never plans to use them. The question is not whether they are used

first or in response to some one else's use. In either case, an act of

aggression - killing innocent civilians - will be conducted. And, the

Prime Minister's statement the following day - that India will not

hesitate to use nuclear weapons if its defences were threatened -

makes it amply clear that these bombs are intended for use.

By going on from one momentous decision to the next at breathtaking

speed, the BJP government has also given us a new definition of

democracy. The history of a nation of nearly a billion people, and in

all likelihood the histories of the neighbouring nations as well, has

been changed by decisions made literally by a handful of people. Plans

for the test are believed to have been known only to the Prime

Minister, the defence minister George Fernandes, principal secretary

to Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, political adviser Pramod Mahajan,

scientific adviser to Prime Minister A P J Abdul Kalam, and Atomic

Energy Commission chief R Chidambaram. This follows well in the

tradition of the 1974 test. Then the decision to test was believed to

be known only to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, her principal secretary P N

Haksar, secretary P N Dhar, B D Nag Choudhury, Atomic Energy

Commission chief H N Sethna, and Raja Ramanna, leader of the team of

scientists that carried out the test at Pokhran.

The BJP is, of course, a past master in the art of redefining

words. No one could have forgotten how the party, by forcefully

demolishing the Babri Masjid, found new interpretations for secularism

and communal harmony. Not to be outdone in this pursuit are the

various other political parties that have had an equal hand in

determining India's nuclear posture. As is now amply clear, the

assertions by the Congress Government in 1995 that they were not

planning any nuclear test were simply false. Now we also know the real

meaning of the Gujral doctrine. The former Prime Minister himself

admitted slyly that test preparations had been going on during his

tenure with the statement, "You can make out whatever you want to know

from the fact that a nuclear test cannot be done overnight."

By and large, opposition parties have stuck to mealy-mouthed responses

and trying to protect their own patriotic credentials by

congratulating our scientists profusely. At best they have questioned

the timing of the tests and the right of a minority government to take

this decision. These are valid questions indeed. But, they stop way

short of any comment, critical or otherwise, about the tests

themselves. This is not surprising. During the CTBT debate, they were

falling over one another in defending India's nuclear option against

"western treaties". Having done that they have boxed themselves into a

corner, where they could not really question the tests in any

meaningful manner.

The scientific establishment, particularly the Department of Atomic

Energy, by testing a range of sophisticated weaponry has shown that

our "peaceful nuclear program" has been busy reinventing the meaning

of the adjective peaceful. Once again, we have to be thankful that

they did not further denigrate that term by calling these tests

peaceful nuclear explosions.

There is another sense in which declaring India a nuclear weapon state

may reflect an uncomfortable truth. The current five nuclear weapon

states have been the biggest bullies around. They have used their

nuclear weapons on numerous occasions, not by dropping it but by

threatening to drop them on those opposing their will. The US, of

course, leads the pack both in terms of the number of threats it has

issued, and by its heinous attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By its

repeated demands to be recognized as a great power, and making it

clear that by power it meant the kind of power that the five nuclear

weapon states have (and not for example, the kind of monetary power

that Japan and Germany have), India has also shown its own desire for

this role.

The nuclear weapon states, of course, do not want to have India join

their club. They argue, quite hypocritically, that they, and they

alone, have a need for (and a right to) these genocidal weapons. It is

sad that when faced with this hypocrisy, India has decided to join

them rather than fight them. By taking the high moral road of

abstinence, or now, renunciation, it could lead the way to a nuclear

weapon free world. The chances of that, unfortunately, are low.