The events of Japan have had a catalyzing effect elsewhere. The PM has already ordered a nuclear safety recheck. Those opposed to nuclear power expansion in India, such as the CNDP (Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace) have used the opportunity to drive home their arguments against such expansion. The Disaster Management Authority is no doubt studying the aftermath, even as it keeps relief teams on standby for deployment. Nuclear lobbies interested in the nuclear renaissance have been at work dispelling any aspersions on their stewardship of the nuclear program.
Missing in action is the peace lobby. Currently, they are double-hatted, also busy with fending of nuclear power expansion, particularly the Jaitapur plant. The unfortunate happenings in Japan can have a useful purpose in case the fledgling peace movement can acquire momentum. This is the time to move from an activist-centered program to a mass-based one.
The back-to-back nuclear tests were the spark but there was no tinder. As a result there was little societal opposition. Instead the nationalist narrative took over, fanned later by the Kargil War. The nuclearists were sensible in bolstering their doctrinal releases with due genuflection to disarmament, even as they shifted the goal posts from ‘minimum deterrence’ to ‘credible minimum deterrence’. Their dominance of the discourse since, relying on official power, has kept the peace movement in the realm of possibility and not quite a ‘happening’ field.
This is despite South Asia having undergone a near war and a crisis after Kargil. The nuclear race, if not an arms race, is one being run neck in neck, with a news report having it that Pakistan has ‘edged’ past India in numbers. In a variegated program, India remains ahead, having a nuclear powered submarine under trial and ballistic missile defence system retested recently.
The somnolence in the peace counter-offensive owes to the movement lacking in escape velocity. The current juncture of the third blast in Japan’s atomic power station and Tokyo being downwind is an opportunity that must be suitably leveraged. Directly confronted with the sad images, people can imagine what they are in for in case the false god, deterrence, were to fail.
Japan has evacuated a 20km radius around the plant. Since it was on the sea the displacement has been up to tens of thousands, others having left due to the tsunami. The Japanese being traditionally disciplined the images are of oriental calm in face of tragedy and challenge. Transferring the disaster template onto the Indo-Gangetic plain would surely focus minds; given South Asian densities of population, levels of preparedness and suspect social cohesion.
While rightly the current focus of activists is on nuclear plants’ safety and the shortcomings in the Indian system, such as absence of an independent over-watch and safety audit body, there is a need to go beyond. The counter-attack must move into terrain hitherto-fore considered settled due to the hegemony of nuclearists.
Anticipating their arguments would be instructive. Foremost would be that India and Pakistan have always waged limited, virtually ‘gentlemanly’ wars that were at best, ‘communal riots with tanks’. Both states have an agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear assets, an agreement that has withstood the test of all the crises over the past two decades. Limited War entails avoiding nuclear infrastructure targets, lest it trigger a ‘use them lose them’ paranoia. In case of inadvertent conventional strikes on nuclear weapons, the weapons are unlikely to go off in sympathetic detonations due to safety features. What would result would at best be akin to a dirty bomb, limited to the danger zone of the chemical explosive. Besides, India has the NDMA in place.
The shortcomings of this position need to be brought out. Firstly, the wars were in an era when the shared heritage and memories were still fresh in memory. Ever since, respective religion-based nationalisms have made an advent in mainstream political imagination and the consequences are yet unfolding in both societies. Secondly, while the treaty exists, its robustness in war is not known. The level of credence given to the treaty, particularly in the classified air force doctrine, is not known. Thirdly, the emphasis on firepower is evident from the number of FICCI and CII seminars on the theme and developments in the missile field, particularly cruise missiles. Nuclear hideouts can figure either explicitly or inadvertently in such fire assaults. This could trigger nuclearized responses.
The leisurely pace of the peace process that could dispel such concerns stands explained in the WikiLeaks releases made accessible by The Hindu. The lobby against normalization, in which, incidentally, also figures an erstwhile NSA, is capable of stymieing the PM’s best intentions. That many sections gain from such a status quo, including the nuclear lobby, accounts for its strength.
In light of this asymmetry, positional war needs to be launched by getting not only masses but the middle classes, who stand to lose the most, on board to move from an anti-nuclear coalition to a ‘movement’. The Japanese experience is the second, and possibly last, for learning.