May 5, 2003
The United States has been teaching India all the wrong lessons on nuclear weapons, but India should build on its recent peace overture to Pakistan and correct this.
Five years ago, on May 11, 1998, India conducted the first three of a series of nuclear tests that transformed South Asia, followed by two more tests two days later. Pakistan responded with six tests a few weeks afterward.
India's nuclear demonstration was an attempt to gain respectability on the global stage. The five long-standing nuclear powers, especially the United States, have used the possession of nuclear weapons as a way of asserting their great-power status. Soon after the tests, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said nuclear bombs are "India's due, the right of one-sixth of humankind."
A few months ago, India took a page out of the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review by stating that India will now consider retaliating with nuclear weapons even against a chemical or biological attack. Analysts say that this is possibly a precursor to India completely doing away with its "no-first-use" stance.
India's attempt to ape the nuclear powers could have horrendous consequences. The last five years have seen a number of instances where India and Pakistan have come close to full-fledged war, perhaps including nuclear use.
In December of 2001, after a suicide attack on the Indian Parliament that the Indian government blamed on Pakistan, there was a massive Indian troop buildup on the border. India threatened nuclear conflict. "If at all the war happens, the intensity will be so strong that there will be no need for a future war with Pakistan," said Indian Parliament Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan. "And the results will be there for everyone to see."
Last June, there was a sudden rise in tensions when armed militants attacked an Indian army camp, killing 30 people, mostly women and children. India again blamed this on Pakistan. Only frantic international diplomacy -- and perhaps realization of the incalculable cost of nuclear warfare -- kept hostilities from breaking out. Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf afterward said -- in a statement he later backtracked on -- that Pakistan would have responded with "unconventional warfare" if India had attacked.
The toll of a nuclear war in South Asia would be horrific. A nuclear exchange would kill at least 2.9 million people in the 10 largest cities in India and Pakistan, according to a study by Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana of Princeton University, A.H. Nayyar of Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan and Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council. These are only the short-term casualties.
"There is also the loss of key social and physical networks that make daily life possible: families and neighborhoods would be devastated, factories, shops, electricity and water systems demolished; hospitals, schools and other government offices destroyed," the authors write. "Nothing would ever be the same again."
India has a much better teacher to guide its thinking on nuclear weapons than the United States -- Mahatma Gandhi. Calling the atom bomb "the most diabolical use of science," Gandhi said, "I did not move a muscle when I first heard that the atom bomb had wiped out Hiroshima. On the contrary, I said to myself, 'Unless now the world adopts nonviolence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.'"
India and Pakistan must heed his sentiments and start negotiations to get rid of their nuclear arms. The possible consequences of the status quo are almost unimaginable.
Amitabh Pal is the managing editor of The Progressive magazine (www.progressive.org) in Madison, Wis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.