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Nuts in India and Pakistan claim nuclear weapons prevent war

by Tariq Rahman, 30 December 2008

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Dawn, 30 December 2008

The insanity of war

EUROPE has seen two major wars: the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945).

There has never been a nuclear war in any western country but the mind-boggling devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima has sunk into the western consciousness. That is probably why westerners do not talk glibly of nuclear war.

We in South Asia have never witnessed such lengthy mass killings in modern history. That is probably why Indian and Pakistani TV anchors and the ‘experts’ they invite talk so blithely of war — even nuclear war. Indeed, ours must be the only country where the birth of weapons of mass destruction was not a quiet, sobering affair. It was actually celebrated with sweetmeat. History was recruited to evoke bitter antagonisms of the past through such names as Ghauri and Prithvi.

Our public has never been educated to consider nuclear arsenals as dangerous for their progeny; in fact, they flaunt this possession. Nobody realises that if these weapons are used there will be devastation of an unimaginable kind. Our streams and rivers will no longer supply water but radioactive poison. Our vegetables and fruits will poison the animals we eat and we ourselves will succumb to cancer and other diseases. Our children will live in pain and die in agony.

They say nuclear weapons prevent war. Well, in the case of the Soviet Union and the United States they did prevent a direct war but the two countries came near it during the Cuban crisis. Besides, if Bertrand Russell is to be trusted, the accidental exchange of nuclear warheads was about to take place but good luck intervened. However, the two rivals did keep fighting proxy wars. Pakistan blundered into one such war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and we are paying for our follies even now. In the case of Pakistan and India the Kargil episode took place when both sides had nuclear weapons. Was Gen Musharraf deterred by the nuclear weapons on the other side?

The Indian adventure in Siachen glacier may have taken place when both sides had the bomb (by some accounts Pakistan had the weapon in the 1980s). Even if Pakistan did not, the nuclear weapons never brought it to an end. Similarly, the disastrous policy of Pakistan, or its security establishment, to fight a proxy war in Kashmir kept going on undeterred despite the nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear weapons neither prevented militant adventurism nor do they guarantee that a conventional war will not turn nuclear. They have not prevented Swat from passing into the hands of the Taliban nor have they prevented violence anywhere in South Asia. That is why when India sent troops to Pakistan’s borders after the attack by jihadi elements in Pakistan in 2001 there was reason to worry. And that is why, now that people in India talk of surgical strikes in Pakistan after a similar incident in Mumbai, and Pakistani troops are moving towards India’s borders, there is every reason to worry.

It is not a case of nuclear weapons preventing war but more a fear of their being used in case a limited war does break out which it can under such circumstances.

I have a question for those who talk of nuclear weapons. Suppose a part of Pakistan were to be cut off by Indian troops, would nuclear weapons be used? The same question can be addressed to India. Suppose a genuine Kashmiri uprising, or even Pakistan, cuts Kashmir off from India will this bomb be used? If so, we in South Asia would rather kill and die than let parts of territory go out of our hands. Let us remember that Paris was occupied during the Second World War by the Germans but there was no nuclear weapon and now Paris is free and happy.

Similarly, Bangladesh is a free country but had there been a nuclear weapon and had it been used our part of the world would have been in ruins. Armies withdraw and areas are returned but if this weapon is used all is lost and life becomes hell. This is not what we tell our people since the voices of the hawks drown out sane voices which are for peace and life, not for war and death.

The fact is that our mode of thinking is obsolete and nobody seems to have understood that modern war is not a rational alternative. Even our elite allows itself to be overpowered by anger, chauvinism and notions of vengeance. All this clouds judgment and does not allow rational decision-making. In India the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh calls for a nuclear war. In Pakistan extremists reciprocate. Neither side knows it is calling for death and the poisoning of earth.

This land has seen waves upon waves of conquerors but now its children are out to destroy it. Whose rational interest can this serve? Nobody’s. But this is just what those who talk glibly of war do not know or do not want to acknowledge in their hatred and prejudice.

Both governments must make immediate efforts to defuse tension. India must officially rule out the option of strikes in Pakistan or across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Pakistan must be proactive in the dismantling of terrorist outfits and ask UN observers to monitor the process. Soldiers need not be moved too near the border so that India does not respond in kind and, equally importantly, the pressure on the militants in Pakistan’s west and north must be increased, not decreased because of troop movements. Above all, the media on both sides must censor itself so that war is only mentioned to rule it out and to educate the public about its horrors. Later, when the crisis is over, both sides must educate their public about nuclear war, build shelters and give training about what to do if there is a nuclear exchange.

Let us learn from Wilfred Owen, a British poet. After describing a soldier’s death from gas poisoning he tells those who talk of the glory of war and nationalism:

‘My friend, you would not talk with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulche et decorum est Pro Patria mori.’

The last lines in Latin mean: it is sweet and befitting to die for one’s fatherland. The truth is that it is sweet to live and to let live; not to die and kill. This is what we should be crying from our rooftops on both sides of the border.