Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Nuclear weapons

Tested to the limit

Anti nuclear protester Praful Bidwai spoke to Sam Ashman about the peace campaign in India
Demonstrators take to the streets with a clear message to their government

'The Indian peace movement started as a young and weak entity but has gained strength over the past two years,' says Praful. 'There have been some serious mobilisations for peace and against nuclear weapons. We have various groups, regionally based, plus other groups like Doctors Against Nuclear Weapons, journalists, scientists and so on. But this is such a big issue we feel we cannot really change anything unless we have a national presence. We have not had the resources until recently to dare plan a big, national convention. But now we hope to have more than 100 different groups represented at a conference at the end of the year. Amongst them will be groups campaigning for people's rights and NGOs working on a range of issues like the environment and women's rights, and against caste discrimination and for social justice. Many of them have not discussed issues like war and peace for a long time. We hope to have strong contingents from other parts of Asia, particularly Pakistan. We hope the minimum agreement between the different groups is that we all stand for universal global nuclear disarmament and we oppose the manufacture or deployment of nuclear weapons unconditionally and without qualification.'

Indian nuclear tests were ordered by the right wing Hindu chauvinist government of the BJP after it came to office in 1998. The press across the world presented the nuclear tests as wholeheartedly embraced by the population. But this is far from an accurate picture. Praful says, 'The majority of people did not welcome the tests. Less than six months after they took place there were elections in four important north Indian states including Delhi, Rajasthan and the area where the tests actually took place. The BJP presented the electors a referendum on the nuclear tests and it lost very badly. It was probably the party's worst ever performance in Rajasthan. Support for the tests does not extend beyond the urban upper class and upper caste elite. Recent surveys found that some 45 percent of the population were not even aware that the tests had taken place! But amongst those who are aware polls show that three quarters are opposed to both manufacture and use of nuclear weapons.

'There is a small layer in Indian society who are in favour of nuclear weapons, however. The top 10 percent of the population have been moving right in the 1990s. Globalisation, neo-liberalism and the structural adjustment programmes of the IMF have cemented this elite layer. They see the poor as a burden on themselves and want a place at the high table of world capitalism.'

The two major left parties in India--the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM)--are both opposed to the tests. 'That is good, and also very important,' says Praful. 'But there are also problems with what they say. Their positions are tainted in a number of ways. Firstly, they were supporters of the nuclear weapons of the USSR and Chinese regimes in the past. They supported the idea of a "workers'" or a "red" bomb. They bought into the idea that the Cold War arms race provided some kind of balance across the world in the interests of workers. Secondly, both parties supported the official state policy of Indian nuclear ambiguity between 1974 and 1998. This again lent credence to notions of nuclear nationalism. Because of this view, when it came to the debate about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) they refused to criticise the official Indian government position. When the signing of the new CTBT was imminent in 1996 the Indian government started opposing it. On the surface this was for good reasons. They said the treaty should talk about disarmament and not just non-proliferation. They demanded that states with nuclear weapons agree to a fixed timetable for their complete elimination. These arguments were downright dishonest. They wanted nuclear tests. It was as simple as that.

'We pleaded with the two CPs to at least oppose the blocking of the treaty. That would at least distinguish them from those who opposed the treaty because they want the bomb. We wrote an open letter to them in 1996 which was published in the Economic and Political Weekly. We said that if they did not change their position they would have no arguments left if the BJP was to come to power and conduct nuclear tests. To give the CPs credit, on Hiroshima Day in 1998 they organised a huge rally of 350,000 people in Calcutta. They have mobilised more people on the nuclear issue than on, say, communalism. We need those kinds of mobilisations to be sustained. But that means they must take a clearer position and stand against nuclear nationalism.'

The situation between India and Pakistan is highly dangerous. Missile flight time between the two countries is just two to eight minutes. Praful says, 'Nuclear weapons are supposed to be so destructive that nuclear states do not go to war with each other. However, just the opposite happened within a year of the tests. India and Pakistan were fighting a bitter war across the Kashmir border which involved 40,000 troops and deployed top-line weaponry. More than 2,000 people died. Some $2 billion was spent on this bloody war, and India and Pakistan exchanged nuclear threats 13 times. It could easily happen again. The abuse between the two states is growing. People in India accuse Pakistan of being a "bastard state" which has "no business to exist" and people in Pakistan declare jihad against India. There are now people saying, in the press and on the television, that "we made a big mistake by not destroying Pakistan in 1971" and calling for the destruction of the state.

'This part of the world has seen a continuous hot-cold war for half a century which shows no sign of abating. India and Pakistan have already fought four wars. All of this just means it is more important than ever that we build a movement of resistance.'

Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik are the authors of New Nukes published by Signal Books, £12.99


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