Countdown by Amitav Gosh

During 1974 India conducted its first Nuclear explosions under the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi – Pokhran blasts, code name: Laughing Buddha. The country that pioneered the philosophy of Non-violence, found itself in the dilemma of justifying this destructive muse, with reasons and asseverations such as ‘for peaceful purposes’. In 1998, political coalition led by Hindu right wing under the leadership of BJP, tested five nuclear bombs within the third month of their coming into power- Pokhran II, codename : Operation Shakti. The nuclear tests were popular among middle class, who accepted the weapons of mass destruction into their mass popular culture, with respect; though there were people who refused to celebrate and raised their displeasure over time. The exaltations were rather short lived, for the very following month, Pakistan blasted six nuclear weapons at Chagai Hills, turning ‘the whole mountain white’. Within a year of these developments, India and Pakistan went to war over Kargil, leaving the whole subcontinent and the world under the fear of a possible nuclear holocaust.countdown

Amitav Gosh’s Countdown is more of a long essay than a short book, on the various reactions of nuclear tests at both India and Pakistan, among politicians, soldiers and activists. The book was published before Kargil War and therefore doesn’t account for the confrontations happened.

India’s nuclear programme had really little to do with defending the country, though already nuclear and occasionally hostile China was the cabinet’s excuse for Pokharan II. Paraphrasing one of the interview transcripts of the book, India had this inferiority complex, of being patronized by the colonial imperialism, and to prove herself internationally, she had to shout louder than anyone else. In simpler terms, Nuclear programme was more of a ‘global currency of self esteem’.

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After Pokhran II, AB Vajpayee, George Fernandez, APJ Abdul Kalam, K Subrahmanyam (from left to right)

Gosh had the opportunity to closely follow George Fernandez, who was the Defence Minister during Nuclear Tests on 1998 and Kargil war of 1999. Before going into the political view points, Gosh provides a small account of the farmers and nearby occupants of Pokhran after the 1974 tests. The grievances, ecological and biological impacts might seem minimum in comparison with the population, still the under address-ment and under coverage of same, is seriously disturbing. The strategic mastermind of Nuclear policies was K. Subrahmanyam, a civilian defence expert, and the advocate of nuclear power as the currency of global power logic. His logic was clear, global nuclear order is dictated by a hegemonic council of five nuclear nations(The recent Iran nuclear deal and North Korea confrontations are on similar lines), and India had to be a player than an object in that. Though regional threats from Pakistan and Chinese missile programs were immediate excuses, he visioned the Pokhran tests as a card for permanent seat in UN security councils and universal recognition. Looking back to it now from 2017, India has well achieved universal recognition, but not via the means Mr.Subrahmanyan envisioned(I must admit my personal views lining with his reluctant nuclear-ism and super power, though they are rendered useless in terms of war), and UN Security council is still an obsessive dream.

The reactions to the tests, though venerated outside, sparked antagonistic arguments in Parliament, even within the ruling coalition. Indian villages were being washed away in floods, one-third of population didn’t have proper access to drinking water, fifty percent lived under poverty, and Pakistan has been offering friendship in recent years under Nawaz Sherif; arguments went on.

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AB Vajpayee  and Nawaz Sherif during Lahore bilateral declaration

George Fernandez who himself belong to the right wing majority party by coalition, later admitted the lack of a political party of India, every party is either explicitly or in-explicitly propelled politically by the burning vote bank of sectarianism. Gosh speaks of him in reverence, as journeyman in the political wilderness, with no regional or caste based support. Neither bunker or fall out shelters were planned along side the nuclear tests, nor a long term policy. This existing adhoc-ism in Indian politics, where the leaders work around agendas for upcoming elections than long term objectives was visible in then economic policies as well; both of them failed later in elections. Gosh then takes readers to Siachin dispute between India and Pakistan and use it along with Nuclear policy to substantiates the lack of vision he been accusing above.

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Siachen : Worlds highest and most inhospitable battleground

Though a formal cease fire was established in 2003, Indian military still stations soldiers on Siachen Glacier, a no mans land where temperatures dip up to -50 or -50 degree centigrade. It is the highest and without any doubt the most hostile battleground on earth, as the territory is demarcated beyond the Line of Control(product of first Indo-Pak war,1948) at NJ9842, both India and Pakistan maintains military presence there. And to both parties, the biggest enemy is the weather, it is the biggest causality claimer as well. One of the motive behind Pakistan’s occupation of vacated Indian posts which triggering Kargil War, was a presumed Indian withdrawal of Siachen. It would be good for readers to remember the time of authors visit- after the nuclear test, well before Kargil. It was really heartfelt to read about those soldiers who were then stationed there, who Gosh claims to have never found to be using a denigratory epithet of any kind on their Pakistani counterparts. Coming from the age of youtube/facebook/quora comment section wars, where everyone is too eager to establish on their arrogance of nationalism, this gave me a refreshing perspective. I will list down the words of a soldier, from the book below, which does a better explanation.

‘Most of us here are from north India’, a bluntly spoken major said to me. ‘We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with South Indians or Bengalis.’

The point of mentioning Siachen are on two fronts, one a nuclear explosion there would melt everything and resulting flood would carry Pakistan away, the other is the immense amount of money that is being spend on Siachen stations. Like the nuclear programs, these too are solely matters of national prestige. The administrative structure that British left India with, is a structure that is designed to oppress, exploit and suppress people, Fernandez says. Nobody is interested in a disciplined growth, but adhoc-ism and temporary appeasements for their immediate future.

about one-tenth of the country’s entire defence budget. Pakistan’s costs are much lower but still substantial. The total cost of the Siachen conflict is probably of the same order of magnitude as that of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan combined. If the money spent on the glacier were to be divided up and handed out to the people of India and Pakistan, every household in both countries would be able to go out and buy a new cooking stove or a bicycle.

I have never been to Pakistan, but everyone who been to, were offered colouful cordial welcomes, except the personals at disputed territories and vice versa. Outside these conflicts, both sides got more in common than difference. We eat the same food, sing the same songs, watch the same movies, share the same history and the chance of an Indian and Pakistan being friends abroad is more likely than them with any other nationals. There are of course anomalies to this claim, mainly from the right extremists. Gosh’s experiences were more or less on the similar side, and the responses after Nuclear tensions weren’t any different, though it would be safe to keep in mind that this was the pre Kargil War times. His writing captures the economic anxiety at Pakistan, and the threat of Sharia law by a possible fifteenth amendment. And in general, Gosh argues and illustrates through his interviews that there was a greater realism in nuclear discussion there than in India. Being affected by the Cold War and Taliban, even ordinary Pakistani’s seemed well aware of the differences between weapons and icons. They saw nuclear weapons as instruments of mass destruction that pose a whole range of new threats, from political intimidation and blackmail to total annihilation.

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Kargil War 1999

“If you ask me, anything is a possibility between India and Pakistan. Because our policies are irrational. Our decision-making is ad hoc. We have been surrounded by disinformation about each other. We have a historical enmity. We have this whole emotionalism of jihad against each other — on our part it is jihad; on your part there is a lobby that will never accept the existence of Pakistan. We are fa tali s-tic nations who believe that whatever has happened — famine, accidents, drought — it is the will of God. We learn to accept every catastrophe. Our decision-making is done by a few opinion makers on both sides. It’s not the ordinary woman living in a village in Bihar whose voice is going to be heard, who is going to say, for God’s sake I don’t want this nuclear bomb, 1 want my cow and milk for my children. She is nowhere, she doesn’t figure anywhere. It worries me. It really worries me.” Asma Jahangir, Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist.

Gosh ends his book with a what-if nuclear holocaust scenario with scientific simulation. The geography of subcontinent will ensure the effects to entire region, in Nepal it would result in radioactive snow, the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan snow will become a radioactive reservoir, which will in turn affect all our Holy rivers, being the inception point of almost all of them. The immediate results would be far more catastrophic, which would wipe out almost everything that is required for even the reconstruction of a destroyed society. And neither side never answered the question of how to contain such a catastrophe. To give matters a perspective Gosh gives the example of Rangoon bombings, they never expected war at their doorstep and Calcutta located farther and safer from warzone, never any expected refugees at their doorstep.

I know, it is an overkill to write about a seemingly redundant old book, in the present era. But the strangest part is that, even after 18 years of publication, it is still somehow very relevant. Existing tensions between India and Pakistan, and the territorial and verbal annoyances from China shows the fallacies in the diplomacy of our subcontinent in general. And from election results and social media intellectuals, I would safely say that the ad hoc policies Gosh accuse in this book are working well, while real issues are easily sidelined without any coverage

 

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