ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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In the Shadow of the Bomb

Romesh Thapar was the founder-editor of the journal Seminar, published from New Delhi. 

The year 1964 saw China's first nuclear bomb test being conducted at Lop Nor. This article, published in the 31 October 1964 issue of the Economic Weekly, discusses the changing political alignments that India would witness as a result of China's nuclear device testing. 

While it is true that all thinking in India is being, or is likely to be, conditioned by the nuclear device China has exploded at Lop Nor, and also the changes in the Soviet Union, the uncomfortable feeling persists that we are unable to adjust speedily enough to the changed situation. Partly, this is due to the demands which a fast deteriorating economic situation is making upon our time and energy. And, partly, it is the result of our inability to correlate the answers to the several problems which have suddenly made nonsense of the cosy platitudes we have been relying on.
 
Shastris Heavy Burden
 
Prime Minister Shastri, despite his inclination to rely on the home-work of bureaucrats, has been under heavy strain during the last week. He had to decide how far he would go in backing Food Minister Subramaniam against the States' Chief Ministers who were fearful of introducing a rationing system in the main cities. He was, in the meantime, discussing with a Cey-lonese delegation headed by Mrs Ban-daranaike how many stateless Indians he was prepared to take back from that island. He was also trying to find time for talks on India's nuclear plans, talks dependent on our assessment of Chinese and Soviet intentions.
 
To top it off, Mboya in East Africa was threatening the Indians - and an illmannered Ambassador from the Lebanon, encouraged by the politeness of the External Affairs Ministry, was busy trying to give Indo-Arab relations a painful twist. A heavy week. Nobody could envy Shastri his plateful of troubles.
 
If only we had an objective towards which we could move, these crises could be handled in perspective, with confidence. But we progress by hunches, and hunches based upon very limited research and study. The bureaucrats, who seem to be doing the leading these days, are the worst offenders. They are cynical, old fashioned in thought and method, unable to stir beyond the sphere of their own self-interest. A very difficult business, trying to rule India today!
 
Take the bomb which was triggered in Sinkiang. There is logic in China's quest for nuclear status. Does the same logic apply to India? Is the threat military, and do we have to respond by detonating our own device? Will such an effort have an impact on our defence potential, or is the demand for an Indian bomb dictated by political calculations? How far will China go to provide her new-found nuclear expertise to the underdeveloped, like the UAR and Indonesia? In such a situation, with China offering her nuclear know-how, should we surmise that the already existing nuclear powers would do likewise. Does India need a bomb, or has she to lead a campaign to create an international pool of nuclear weapons and materials under an UN agency which guarantees the security of the non-nuclear nations? Should India work at both levels, control and manufacture of nuclear power? Is this realistic? The answers have to be found.
 
Over-Simplified Equation
 
The dialogue on the bomb very often boils down to an over-simplified equation: Is India to be the core of a power system or an appendage of such a system? This is an old theme with a new decorative facade. We are asked to do what the Soviet Union and China have done in a short span of years. No mention is made of the political and economic techniques or that the advance was a forced march under the whip lash of a dedicated communist cadre. To indulge in this peripheral talk is to bring democracy and dissent into serious trouble. So we are asked to forget the consequences and to get moving. Think big. Think powerfully. There's nothing to lose, but the peace of the grave, And even Gandhi preferred anarchy to that.
 
The business of mobilising a nation becomes rather simple at this level. Rapidly, nuclear-inspired, we create an image of ourselves which inevitably must have heavy Hindu overtones. A tremendous force of public opinion is built to permit the existing elite to mobilise and commandeer the people, chaining them to the wheels of production. The country is opened up to foreign freebooters who appreciate the new image, the new dynamism. Bomb or no bomb, India could in this manner become the core of a power system. But an unhealthy, festering, fascist core.
 
There is the other way, the way we have tried unsuccessfully to chart. Unsuccessfully, because we have reached a stage where several layers of vested interest have to be removed to make possible further advance and we are reluctant to perform the operation. Whether it is the antiquated structure of land relations which deny us food or the legalised concentration of industrial and financial power which prevents the flow of resources and talent into those fields which give a nation muscle or the inhibitions of caste and community which block free communication between the peoples and atomise their will to triumph in dignity, the fact remains that it is within our democratic power to wrest the initiative from those who would paralyse us and then seek to un-paralyse us with the slogans of the revivalists and chauvinists.
 
It may be that it is not possible in this era of emancipation to remove these blockages through the democratic process. True we have not tried hard enough. But, surely, the possession of a nuclear weapon does not give us the key to the future. The key lies elsewhere. Or as Shastri told the Chief Ministers, 'Our strength even in relation to externals lies in what our real strength is within.' Yet, it is the sordid matter of making the bomb that will dominate the debate during the next few months - even though only a handful really know the facts pertaining to the debate.
 
Cheap Bombs
 
Dr Bhabha tempts us with the idea that we can produce the bomb within eighteen months. He has even priced the bomb - just 17 lakhs of rupees, cheaper than one of those Boeings we take little notice of. Indeed, so cheap is our bomb that Commerce Minister Manubhai Shah could be forgiven for toying with the idea of a new export drive! However, we would like to know who is going to check these budgetings of the Atomic Energy Commission? Moreover, is it possible to prevent the escalation of costs once the programme is under way? A failure here, and a failure there, could put us in a situation where we have sacrificed a whole five-year plan, possibly two.
 
In other words, the sooner policy-makers in the Capital purge themselves of the thought that the bomb (atom or hydrogen!) could divert us like the proverbial circus, or that its detonation on the eve of the next elections would ensure a smashing victory for the ruling party at the polls, the better for all concerned. A bomb held by a beggar does not make him king when many others have more bombs than he and the capacity to deliver them where they hurt most.
 
For India to produce a bomb in three months or thirty would be of little consequence, militarily or politically. But if India were actively to organise and aid a world-wide campaign to compel a pooling of nuclear materials under the control of a properly constituted international authority which boycotts and outlaws those who do not submit to this control, she would be playing a more positive role for her own survival and advance. Such a campaign would find vast support, even in the developed nations of the world. The massive sanction for such a campaign lies in the new realisation that any nation can possess the bomb if it resolves to waste its resources to join a 'club' which will soon lose its exclu-siveness and its privileges.
 
What India Must Do
 
In short, it is not enough for Delhi only to stress the peaceful uses of atomic energy. This correct position must be reinforced by a passionate determination to find ways of controlling the destructive nuclear material which is now being manufactured all around the world. It is an aspect of our campain which has been much neglected. Internally, the Prime Minister should take immediate steps to call a conference of political leaders to educate them on the realities of the nuclear situation before they launch opportunist calls to make the bomb. Indian opinion needs a great deal of educating on the military implications of nuclear involvement.
 
In an odd sort of way, there is a certain appropriateness in the fact that the debate on the economic challenge facing India is taking place in the shadow of the bomb. The general situation at home and abroad has at last helped to sharpen Shastri's views. He is beginning to say the pertinent things he should have said two months ago. A system of effective procurement and rationing is to be worked out for major urban areas. Profiteers are to receive speedy punishment. So far, so good. But is Shastri prepared to punish lazy colleagues in the States? If he does, then the country's confidence will revive.
 
The meeting of the National Development Council, at which Shastri spelled out his approach - including the proposal for the State to enter essential consumer production - was remarkable for the apathetic performance of the Chief Ministers. They seemed to be oblivious of any major challenge and were more interested in pressing for greater financial allocation from the Centre. No policy initiated by the Centre can succeed unless the sleeping Congress battalions in the States are inspired about the need to implement directives. This is particularly relevant in the context of the present food shortage and the crisis of rising prices. Indeed, it is on this forgotten front that Kamaraj should prepare to intervene.
 
As we mature in the shadow of the bomb, we will witness many far-reaching changes in political alignments at home and abroad. We will have to shake ourselves out of old lethargies, out of the peace of the grave, and keep abreast of new developments. Hard days are ahead—but they can be exciting, creative.
 

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