A Skewed Sense of Security

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"You bastards. You finally did it. You blew it up. Damn you all to hell." — Colonel George Taylor, in Planet of the Apes

Most adult Indians will never forget where they were, what they were doing and how they reacted to the news, on May 11, of the nuclear tests in the Rajasthan desert. I was 4,700 km from ground zero, watching the Reuters wires in an office in Hong Kong. And my first reactions were shock and dismay.

Indians of my generation were taught that the Bomb was an instrument of evil; in school, our history books carried cautionary pictures of the charred ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. India's own nuclear test in 1974, our teachers said, was strictly a one-off: we showed the world we could do it, but then we took the high road by choosing not to make the weapons. In the 1970s and '80s, tests by the Americans, Soviets, French, British and Chinese invariably evoked cluck-clucking from our parents, angry denunciations from our politicians and finger-wagging editorials in our newspapers.

In other words, nothing and nobody had prepared us for May 11.

As I digested the news, colleagues — Americans, Canadians, Malaysians, Hong Kong Chinese — were coming by my cubicle, all looking simultaneously grave and sympathetic, the way you approach a neighbor whose teenage son has just been expelled from school. Oh you poor thing, they seemed to say, look what your country's done. But, as they would for that neighbor, expressions of pity (even if unintended) only made matters worse: I took these as a challenge. My best response, I reasoned, was patriotic bravado. I would stand by my country and defend its actions to the last.

Of course we needed the Bomb, I explained to anybody who would listen. After all, we weren't exactly living in a peaceful neighborhood. To our north was China, a giant (nuclear) state that had made no secret of its designs on some of our territory — and had attacked us once, in 1962, without provocation. To our west was Pakistan, a (nuclear-ready) nation that had fought three wars against us and continued to support violent separatist movements on our soil. Meanwhile, our ally from the cold war era, the Soviet Union, had collapsed; and the United States, the sole surviving superpower, while loudly demanding that we halt our missile and nuclear programs, was not offering to guarantee our security in exchange. Sure, the tests had set India's international relations back 15 years and cost us our moral standing in the community of nations. I would even overlook every available indication that the tests were an internal power play, designed to buy a fragile coalition government some political brownie points. But if it meant we would all sleep safer at night, then of course we needed the Bomb. I grew even more shrill after the second round of explosions on May 13; Pakistan's retaliatory tests at the end of May simply reinforced my new conviction.

With rationalization came rage. I was furious at the international condemnation of our justifiable, logical pursuit of security. How hypocritical that nations already in possession of the Bomb should tell us we shouldn't have it. How condescending their suggestion that our country — a peaceful, responsible member of the United Nations — couldn't be trusted with nuclear weapons. And how shameless their threats of economic sanctions against democratic, pluralistic India even as they cravenly kowtowed to totalitarian China.

As the summer wore on and international attention moved to other things, my colleagues and friends stopped bringing up the tests in conversation. This meant I could drop my aggressive, advocate-for-the-defense stance. It also meant I had more time to think about May 11. And the more I thought, the more uncomfortable I got. The anti-nuclear sermons of my schooldays flooded back in my mind. Suddenly, it didn't matter what the world thought of the tests, or of India: the fact remained that we, on our own and without urgent provocation, had abandoned the high road. The economic sanctions haven't hurt much, but the damage to India's international image may be irreparable. Once we were a poor country that, unlike some richer ones, had the good sense to steer clear of the Bomb. Now, we're just a poor country.

And who gained what in return? The government frittered away the political capital it had drawn from the tests in just a few weeks. More importantly, six months after the tests, I don't feel any enhanced sense of security — quite the contrary. Pakistan's tests may have leveled the playing field, but the game is now played at a more dangerous level than ever before. In their worst-case scenarios, military strategists on both sides envision a nuclear holocaust. In mine, I see the marble dome of the Taj Mahal, sticking out from a sand dune in a vast desert where once there was my country.