"Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. Rivers will turn to poison. The air will become fire. The wind will spread the flames. When everything there is to burn has burned and the fires die, smoke will rise and shun out the sun". These are the words in which Arundhati Roy describes a likely scenario (scary, eh?) in case a country (rather the few people in power) decides to press the “nuclear button”. Forgive me for diverting from context when the article has hardly begun, but the term “nuclear button” always made me imagine a red button covered by a cap which you can flip and open, something like they showed in erstwhile Hindi movies like Mr India and Karma (funny how Anil Kapoor was a part of both these movies!).
Coming back to the topic, it is ghastly to imagine a use of nuclear weapons today. Nuclear or Hydrogen bomb being actually used for a destructive purpose is analogous to man landing on the moon. We have read about it in textbooks, the sheer agony and annihilation of one and the sublime glory of the other. The fact that nuclear or hydrogen bomb has not been used since is something we can all rejoice in. But do we remember how close we, and the world, came to a nuclear catastrophe when India openly tested its nuclear weapons (the event which came to be known as Pokharan-II) in 1998 within three months of an extremely nationalistic government coming to power? Dr Abdul Kalam described the event as: 'I heard the earth thundering below our feet and rising ahead of us in terror. It was a beautiful sight'. I guess his excitement also stemmed from a sense of nationalism and pride, though he must be well aware (who else could be, if not him) of the destructive effects such a weapon can have if someone takes one step ahead of “nuclear deterrence” and indulges in actual use.
Between 1964 and 1974, China conducted fifteen nuclear tests. It is easy not to doubt that this behaviour of China had a role to play in India’s first nuclear test (Pokharan-I) in 1974 under Indira Gandhi’s leadership. I wonder what, apart from the sense of pseudo-nationalism as I would like to call it, were the reasons behind Pokharan-II in 1998. What’s clear is, though, that Pokharan-II led to Pakistan carrying out six nuclear blasts (one more than India’s five) in the Chagai hills in the following month. 'The whole mountain turned white' was how Pakistani government described the scene. No wonder this sudden nuclear proliferation in the subcontinent was followed, a year later, by something that came extremely close to a nuclear holocaust in the form of Kargil “incursion”, as we like to call it, underplaying the extremity of the situation.
Winston Churchill in his last speech to the House of Commons in 1955 uttered the popular words: ‘safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation’. But of nuclear deterrence, he also said that it ‘does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dug-out’. Many feel this might be applicable to the subcontinent, where the uncomfortable closeness of the Pakistani military to the terrorists is common knowledge. Even ignoring this possibility, another logical question arises which Amartya Sen explores in his book The Argumentative Indian. He states that one meaning of nuclear deterrence is that two countries shall refrain from going to war because of the very knowledge that they own nuclear weapons and an aggression on one’s part may lead to mass destruction. In fact, if there is any straightforward benefit of owning nuclear weapons, it should be this. But, he states, the very fact that the year next to the one when India and Pakistan carried out nuclear tests, they went to war in 1999, pokes a million holes in that argument.
Sometimes I like to believe that much has been changed in the last decade. Nations have realized that diplomacy through war and the threat of it cannot ensure lasting peace. The threat of a nuclear weapon being used has decreased drastically as the world economy has teetered on the brink of a catastrophe of its own kind. This has made nations realize that cleaning up your economic backyard is more important and less transitory than any sense of acquired power a nuclear proliferation might provide. Although I do believe that the holier-than-thou attitude carried by the big five nuclear powers is condescending if not deprecating. But giving the argument of “why not total nuclear demilitarization” to move towards a situation which has been proven not to give India any obvious advantages (in fact giving India a plethora of disadvantages), appears as illogical as it is inane.