Buddha is Smiling?
Reflections on India's Nuclear Tests

[ Letter to my Daughters, my grandchildren - Indian, Pakistani, American from an anguished woman, wife, mother, grandmother, educator! ]

by Lalita Ramdas

It was an incredibly magnificent full moon night - Buddha Purnima,May 11
1998 - and little Nirvan, our grandson, pointed excitedly to the
luminous golden orb as it rose majestically above the eastern hills
surrounding this coastal town of Alibag on the west coast as we drove
back homewards from our daily trip to the beach. As he and his little
sister aged 18 months kept trying to grab as much as they could of the
moon as it played hide and seek behind the hills each time the road
curved and wound its way into the mini ghats before our home, as usual
Nirvan was full/ of questions. Why is this full moon was called Buddha
Purnima? Who was Buddha? When did he live? When did he die? Why was he a
good man? What do you mean when you say that my name Nirvan came from
him? What does Nirvana mean? How do you explain all this to a little boy
who is not quite five years old ......

So grandpa and I tried - and for over an hour - we lay on the khatiya on
the verandah - just watching the moon rising higher, imagining its
shapes, re-telling Buddha for a small boy , enjoying the coolth, the
occasional hoot of the owls and the shrieking of the lapwing which goes
crazy every night. But tonight the owls were screeching more restlessly
than usual and the lapwing's dervish - like flight was more hysterical
than usual as she shreiked "didudoit -didudoit?"...... maybe they picked
up the vibrations travelling under the surface of mother earth from a
place called Pokhran, in the state of Rajasthan some 500 kms to the
north and west of us.

With our 25 year old TV finally having called it a day - the usual
pressure of rushing to switch on the news at 9pm was absent - and we
continued to enjoy the cool and peace of the night when the rest of the
towns and cities sweltered .....until the telephone jangled - a friend
from Mumbai to ask us to switch on the news - India had carried out
three underground nuclear tests - yes - this day - Buddha Purnima, deep
under the ground in the Rajasthan desert. It was a phone call which
shattered and changed many things - both the stillness and the peace of
that night, and more permanently perhaps, the illusion of peace and

The lapwing was more perceptive than us mere mortals - but even she
stopped her hysterical wheeling around - and left us to take on where
she had left off. Phone calls, conversations and arguments late into the
night - Nirvan could not sleep because his grandparents kept talking,
sometimes softly, most of the time loudly and angrily - when he asked
why we were fighting, we had to defend ourselves by saying this was
called "arguing". "What are you arguing about " was the inevitable next

And so I tried to explain the story of what had happened today -
somewhere deep in the desert - many many important people - scientists,
politicians, servicemen - had `burst a bomb« - this was a special kind
of bomb which could not only kill people, but burn and destroy the
earth, the trees, and millions for miles around - Nirvan - "Where did
this happen Thatha? In Rajasthan. Is it in India? yes darling. But then
will it kill me

and my sister? No darling - it is far away from here? Why do they make
bombs Thatha - are they bad men? Er, not really, but this is part of
their work - they do experiments and it is important to show that what
they learn on the computer - they can check on the ground? But why
Thatha? You tell me that it is bad to shoot or kill people and you only
let me `shoot with my camera? Yes Baba, you are right - but dont you
think you should go to sleep now?...........

My mind has not stopped churning - the thoughts come tormentingly and
The desert is dry, arid and hot - what must these explosions - or
implosions have added to the chemistry of the desert sands and the
desert air - more heat - white blinding heat that mindlessly and blindly
destroys all that comes in its path - children, buildings,fields and
forests......creeping silently under the desert - who knows in what
direction - silent, insidious, destructive -

....."but all the instruments showed there was no radiation" they said
in the newspapers

the politicians, analysts and the media announce with pride - this is
proof of our scientific and technological prowess - now we can speak
from a position of strength and power - "India now joins the club of
five N-weapon states"

....speak about what? what exactly are we proving and to whom? will our
security needs be guaranteed once and for all? what constitutes

The chairman of the task force set up to prepare a blueprint for the
national security force believes that `these tests will add to the
strength of the country not only militarily, but also
psychologically...« The official spokesman solemnly intones that this
was the promise made to the people of India by the incoming government
- namely to take all necessary steps to guarantee their security ....

.....What about all the other promises we also made and continue to
were we foolish to believe that we had promised our people the right to
work, education, health, shelter, food, dignity of life?That we had
solemnly resolved to eradicate poverty and to give our women and
children the security of a decent environment, drinking water and a
school in every village?

How come those promises are still awaiting fulfilment - fifty years down
the line - but this one has been devastatingly adhered to barely a month
after coming to power? Impressive ? or Sinister?

The press, the media, and carefully selected voices parrot in unison -
"This is a step which will be welcomed by our people - this was very
important - now the world will be forced to listen to the Voice of
India we will not allow ourselves to be bullied any longer."......The
power of the media to influence the mass of people - educated or not -
is as devastating as the explosion. Those who reacted with shock, horror
and condemnation yesterday - have been brainwashed to re-think and come
round to the `nationalist« `patriotic« line within twenty four hours.

All our efforts to build alternative points of view - to educate for
peace, for justice , for education for all, and for a sustainable
development - were they mere drops in the ocean - without substance,
without meaning?

Two weeks ago some of us formed a National Alliance on making Elementary
Education a Fundamental Right - a week later, the HRD Ministry announced
it was setting up yet another review committee, and was re-thinking the
Constitutional Amendment making Elementary Education a fundamental right
- where would we find the Rs 40,000 crores to put every child in school
even at the current abysmal levels of quality? But today there is
potentially enough money to sustain nuclear weaponry!

It is all too easy to be beset by doubts and questions - and it is true
that only those who have thought this through over time would be able to
withstand the onslaught of self righteous back patting, justification
and rationalising - with the official propaganda and other machinery in
full swing ...."maybe they are right after all - why should the Yanks
dictate to us and the world - nothing speaks like power - and that flows
from the barrel of the gun (or the mushrooming of the nuclear cloud)
........this is part of the resistance of ex-colonial countries to neo-
colonisation and imperialism ............"

Questions - Urgent Questions : What should the future agenda be for this
small minority - because that is indeed who we are - small voices
shouting in the wilderness - . Do we in fact know what our own positions
and thoughts are about this - we the NGOs, the educators and social
workers, the representatives of civil society? Are we just unrealistic
dreamers and `do-gooders« - with no understanding of "real politik"? Why
is it that we were unable to bring this issue of nuclearisation,
militarisation on to the agenda in any meaningful way - and now it seems
it is almost too late. Who will raise a voice of sanity and counsel
wisdom and caution that might stem the flood of rhetoric which so easily
sweeps all before it - resulting in a kind of mass exultation about
possessing nuclear capability without even beginning to understand the
deadly implications. Is this the nuclear equivalent of the Babri Masjid
Is there really a chance that we can persuade people in our own land
that the world may indeed respect us the more if we were in fact able to
fulfil those other, more difficult promises - of providing our own
humanity a decent place in the sun? Namely - to do what the Constitution
of India promised :

- work to create an India where children no longer have to grovel in
rubbish bins, or work in near slavery conditions, or sleep on the

- where our women and girls will no longer be bought and sold into all
forms of violence and prostitution - within the home or the workplace;

- and where the meaning of self reliance and `swadeshi« will be truly
radicalised but neither communalised or hindu-ised, nor brutalised.

- In my definition this would mean that our brightest and best -
including those undoubtedly brlliant scientists and technicians who
created and tested these bombs, will devote the rest of their lives and
efforts to applying science and

- technology to overcoming poverty and hunger, solving the water
management systems,in short- a truly humanistic application of science
and technology.

- being able to build a solid foundation of a new generation of young
scientifically trained and thinking young people who will raise their
collective voices against future examples of this sadly immature
demonstration of what national pride and power should be.

And in order to do this - it is not enough to produce a few geniuses out
of a few elite institutions across India. A strong, proud and
independent country can only be based upon a foundation of free, healthy
and educated citizens - And the base has to be strengthened urgently and
systematically across the board.

This means that we the people - (and lets forget governments who
continue to say there is no money for basics) - have to find the will,
the resources, the commitment to send our kids into schools, provide
quality education, make them think critically. Equally importantly, we
have to use all our pedagogical and communication skills to persuade
their parents in communities and villages across this land that bombs
and blasts and atoms and fission will neither fill bellies or guarantee
peace or security, not now, not ever. But conserving water, building
schools and primary health care centers, WILL!

And that is when, maybe - sometime in the future - the Buddha will smile
and continue to smile - when many full moons later - on another Buddha
Purnima - our Nirvana will tell his grandchildren about the true meaning
of Buddha«s message - on a farm called `Ramu Farm.« in a small village
named Bhaimala,

May 12 1998