Baniya and the bomb


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009

Nuclear outrage on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was carried out by a people whose hands were covered with the blood of countless black slaves, indigenous American tribes and with the internecine carnage of their own in what they called a civil war. Do Indians and Pakistanis have the stomach for a galling nuclear war?

Given the bloodletting of Nadir Shah in Delhi and of Emperor Asoka in Kalinga (before he became Buddhist), not to speak of an almost daily outrage inflicted by rightwing Hindus and Muslim extremists on each other and on their own there is a tradition of violence in the region which, though it may not be of the same shall we say calibre, resembles the American streak for gory inhumanity.

Z.A. Bhutto’s exhortation to his people to eat grass but make the bomb and screaming headlines, in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests, quoting Indian leaders about how their country could wipe out Pakistan in a nuclear duel indicated a penchant for violent and destructive nationalism whose roots are more than skin-deep. Pacifists like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan have really no place in their own countries, such are the compulsions of the new nation-state to be battle-ready with bloodcurdling doctrines of mass annihilation.

It comes as a surprise then that there is a debate raging in India about a bill the government wants to introduce in parliament to grant virtual immunity to foreign suppliers of civil nuclear power units. The debate centres on a few key issues but the primary objection raised by the opposition, including the left and the right of the spectrum, is that the monetary compensation in the event of a nuclear disaster caused by an act of terrorism, by a natural calamity or by an accident was 100 times less than the $10bn liability fixed in the US for a similar contingency. Opposition groups have another bone to pick: foreign suppliers have been assigned no liability even in doling out the meagre compensation.

This is the baniya approach to disaster management. Financial accounting for an unaccounted number of lives at risk from a manmade disaster with loose or serious change on offer is heartless. In any case, I am not sure that there is as much as a penny kept as compensation for similar or worse consequence accruing (a balance-sheet term!) from an actual nuclear war that both countries have threatened each other with.

In the eventuality of a war would there be any accountant or claimant left to follow up on the dole were it on offer? The irony is that the ghoulish debate about compensation is carried out by those who have never spared a thought for a nuclear calamity should a war occur. Parliaments on both sides are stacked with unrelenting nuclear hawks.

It is not that nuclear accidents have not occurred in India but sometimes dealing with a non-nuclear accident has been a handful. Twenty-five years have passed since that night of terror and death in Bhopal, which saw a cloud of deadly gases explode out of a faulty tank in a pesticide factory and silently spread into the homes of sleeping people. Although no official count of casualties has ever been done, estimates based on hospital and rehabilitation records show that about 20,000 people died and about half a million suffered bodily damage, making it by far the world’s worst industrial disaster ever.

Many who breathed the highly toxic cocktail that night suffered a horrible death with multiple organ failure. Those who survived have suffered multiple diseases for 25 years. There too the focus has been on the quantity and spread of monetary compensation. But successive comprador governments have found little time to pursue the interests of Indians. Their leaders have been busy proclaiming the positive effects on India of colonial rule. Can any leader in India put in a side request for the extradition of Warren Anderson of the US? He was the chairman of Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal gas leak.

It is hypocritical is it not that India’s opposition and its so many wise NGOs are talking about compensation for a nuclear accident! But when did anyone take out a joint opposition or a civil society rally against nuclear weapons in the land of Gandhi? Far from it; there is not even the remotest effort by anyone barring perhaps one or two small NGOs to educate the masses about what lies in store for them.

Let’s pare down the issue to this: which is a likelier risk as a source of mass annihilation — a deliberate or accidental nuclear war or a Bhopal-like eventuality at a civil nuclear site?

India flaunts itself as a nuclear power that purports to defend the interests of a billion plus citizens. Has it tried to do a fraction of the diligence that a country like the United States had to do to protect itself from a nuclear attack? Americans spent $45bn during the Cold War in preparing to absorb, though not thwart, a nuclear strike. And even here it was meant to protect its leaders and military capability, not the citizens.

I remember reading a laughable emulation by the Indian authorities a few years ago, when they advised through newspaper ads that citizens should pack their windows and doors with impermeable sheets of plastic and tune in to the radio during a nuclear calamity. The advisory was unwittingly aimed at those Indians who owned a house in any of the cities, not for the millions who sleep under the sky come rain, winter or high summer.

The 9/11 attack spurred the US government to partially carry out its mothballed nuclear contingency plan. However, the evacuations of federal government buildings and many private offices in New York, Washington DC, Chicago and elsewhere created massive traffic jams, bringing traffic in some areas to a standstill for hours.

Wrote Stephen Schwartz author, and publisher of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: “This demonstrated once and for all the utter unreality and futility of all civil defence plans devised by government officials, who from the 1950s through the 1980s promoted orderly citywide evacuations to the countryside as the best means against nuclear attack.”

Moreover, observed Schwartz: “With so much attention, and money, devoted to safeguarding government leaders and so little to protecting the public, would there be anyone or anything left to govern in the event of a truly catastrophic large-scale attack upon the United States?” That is the point to ponder in India’s parliament.

Book-keeping for the dead and survivors can be left to the myopic accountant, the heartless baniya.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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