“‘We, the people’ who, according to the preamble of our constitution are entrusted with sovereign power, have not been expected to participate in the decision making process on a matter as serious as this. We have been relieved of the responsibility of citizenship, spared the trouble of debating and deciding about the developmental priorities of our poor nation and the desired budgetary allocations across sectors. We have been told and, in turn, accepted that power is defined as domination and war capability and not as empowerment and human capability.”
A year after Pokharan II nuclear explosions and a few weeks after the publication of India’s draft nuclear doctrine, this note is addressed not to the politicians and policy makers who are directly responsible for conducting those tests or drafting the `nuclear doctrine’, nor to the group of scientists whose active interests and efforts, sadly misdirected, have made such tests possible, nor to the military-industrial complex, national and international, whose vested interests relentlessly fuel the engine of weaponization worldwide. Understandably, a variety of comments and criticisms have been leveled against them and their activities during the course of the year by persons of diverse analytical and political proclivities. Here I intend to divert our attention away from “them” to “us” – to the generic public, to ordinary people, to relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors who are my fellow citizens on a daily basis.
Jingoism, Mass-Mesmerization, Powerlessness
Most of us are not directly involved in the act of weaponization, nuclear or otherwise, but we have an opinion about the nation’s nuclear policies and more particularly about the recent nuclear tests. Very disturbingly, for many of us, this opinion is quite positive, occasionally veering towards a vulgar and alarming tone of jingoism (though the initial euphoria amongst some of us has died down over time). However distressed, one cannot dismiss this hard reality as mere trivia, since it involves a large number of people around us whose views, or more appropriately, blissful indifference, inaction and passificism do create a congenial yet inert public opinion – an ideal atmosphere from which elite-dominated, citizen-irreverent public policies originate.
While one may retain a basic faith in the old maxim that “all the people cannot be fooled all of the time”, one cannot but acknowledge the dangerous possibility that a sizable number of people can be effectively persuaded within quite a short period of time to suspend their refined common sense and judgments about things that really matter in their day-to-day living and believe instead in the illusion that “military security” will enhance human security, that flexing our nuclear muscles will literally energize the muscles of our teeming millions who are poor, famished and malnourished and help them cope with the perpetual vulnerabilities which adorn their daily existence. Many of us have descended into this disillusionment in recent times. How has a country with a legacy of passive resistance, non-aligned movements and democratic socialism stooped to this level?
Postponing the examination of this momentous issue for now, here I would like to underline the supreme need to acknowledge the reality of such a mass-mesmerization. As a fellow citizen I find it important to comprehend this not-so-insignificant support for pro-nuclear policies. Such an act of comprehension and serious recognition of the ground reality alone can enable us to launch a strategy of counter-persuasion. The plentiful nuclear-philists amidst us compel a nuclear-phobist, like myself, to take them seriously. However, it is the responsibility of the nuclear-phobist to convince them to think otherwise and help them break free of their brain-washed, pro-nuclear mind set.
More concretely, I base my appeal to the unconverted audience on three arguments: 1) Weaponization, especially nuclear, is the poorest method of ensuring human security. 2) In uncritically endorsing the “logic” behind nuclear tests then and the nuclear doctrine now, we are playing the role of powerless subjects in the euphemistic guise of citizenship. 3) Unlike many crises that are “more or less” in nature, damages that can be potentially caused by nuclear conflicts are of the kind of “either or”; they contain the germs of total annihilation, leading to points of no return.
Is there any military answer to the social and economic malaise that plagues the majority of the country? Does the bomb guarantee our security when it is understood in the sense of providing a safety net for all? A pragmatic look at the fragile existence of the mass of the Indian population would suggest the exact opposite.
Excessive preoccupation with military security in fact undermines human security. Rather, it appallingly detracts our attention from issues related to development, environment and human rights. When the daily existence of a large number of people in the country is subject to calamitous conditions caused by economic, social and political constraints, to speak of bomb-bred security indeed seems to be a bombastic claim! Furthermore, the risks and costs of weaponization are bound to be socialized, though in a very regressive way.
An oversized military budget, which is a likely fallout of the ongoing trend in armament, and an attendant decline in social sector spending are bound to create new social and economic risks and vulnerabilities for workers, agricultural laborers, slum dwellers, in short, the mass of the people who had nothing to do with the decision to go nuclear. They are the ones who will end up bearing a disproportionate amount of the costs and grievously suffering from the effects, i.e. social expenditure cuts, sanctions and so on, of acquiring the “exotic nuclear endowment”.
It is indeed ironic that, in the current national and international climate of cost-consciousness, we often hear a clamor for rolling back or even dismantling the state in various sectors of activities. Yet, the same state is expected to be hyperactive in the task of expanding nuclear and other weapons! Let the state take the lead in proliferating the “public bad” of huge military arsenals, its absolute inertia and sloth in providing fundamental “public goods” to citizens notwithstanding! The military budget indeed appears to be a sacred cow, supplying much-needed subsidies to the military-industrial complex, while vociferous advocates of fiscal adjustment selectively target their guns at helpless victims like education and health care spending. The message is clear and simple : austerity in public spending and the “free market” are for the poor, whereas the welfare state is for the rich who will take shelter under the wings of a generous defense expenditure.
Have the weaponization proponents amongst us noticed this role reversal of the state, while celebrating the nation’s newly acquired nuclear prowess or endorsing the recently published nuclear doctrine which appears to call for a robust nuclear force? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The reason for this is easily found. Recall that the decision to conduct nuclear tests was made in the most undemocratic fashion under tight security and control, without even full cabinet knowledge, let alone public discussions.
“We, the people” who, according to the preamble of our constitution are entrusted with sovereign power, have not been expected to participate in the decision making process on a matter as serious as this. We have been relieved of the responsibility of citizenship, spared the trouble of debating and deciding about the developmental priorities of our poor nation and the desired budgetary allocations across sectors. We have been told and, in turn, accepted that power is defined as domination and war capability and not as empowerment and human capability.
Simply put, we have embraced a model of citizenship in the form of subjects who remain at the margin of agenda-setting and decision-making, yet we are happy, docile and proud of the national military prowess. What is more, we are strongly discouraged, penalized, or disregarded when we try to assert our rights of citizenship.
The ongoing political and electoral drama of coalition-breaking and coalition-making at the center is an utter disregard for popular mandates. We are encouraged to ungrudgingly consume, not to question or debate, the official “logic” of empowerment through armament. This consumer orientation to citizenship is a step towards the marginalization of people, towards denying them some influence over their rights and affairs as citizens. Noam Chomsky’s observed in a different but related context, “The Public are to be observers, not participants, to be consumers of ideology as well as products.” We are the uninformed, subject “citizenry”, the riffraff, flaunting an unexamined faith in the special interests and ambitions of the political, scientific and bureaucratic elite, cleverly camouflaged as the national interest. So much for our well thought-out and informed endorsement of nuclear and arms proliferation!
One may argue that on an issue as vital and serious as national security, decisions should be left to “experts” alone and kept away from the public. In a deliberative democracy, voters are expected to participate and contemplate serious issues and not simply vote. Norms such as participation and accountability are indeed the bedrock of democracy. The examination of pros and cons of security issues may be conducted by experts, but they are then required to present their views and results for citizens and elected leaders to consider in the context of country’s overall social, economic and political objectives.
To be sure, people do not speak in a single voice; neither can we assert that deliberation is always the only or the best way to arrive at a political decision. It is precisely because the weaponization issue at hand has wide-ranging ramifications for the public that citizens should have the opportunity for debating the question of its merits. Each accountable representative should justify their views and decisions by giving persuadable reasons. Such collective engagement in the underlying reasoning of divergent views is a vital source of the legitimacy of collective decisions. In the case of the nuclear question, it is precisely the denial of such a scope for public debate and dialogue that has rendered the country’s citizens as subjects and consumers rather than producers of ideas.
Draft Nuclear Doctrine
Admittedly, the recently published nuclear doctrine, prepared by the National Security Advisory Board, is a draft document aimed at generating wider public discussions. In principle there is some scope for citizens to deliberate on the country’ s future nuclear policy, practice and posture. Keeping in mind how rhetoric translates into reality, two important issues merit attention here. First, if there were “security” reasons that compelled the concerned authorities to be secretive about the nuclear tests, now there are political and electoral reasons to make the document public, that is to say, to tap into our “Kargil euphoria” for the vindication of a pro-nuclear posture. Second, moving beyond the logic of the timing of the publication and coming to the specifics of the doctrine, the document focuses on “effective credible minimum deterrence”.
We have tolerated such abject human conditions for a full fifty years of our independent existence, despite pious policy rhetoric to do otherwise. More distressingly, no corrupt practices on the part of the elite, no pilferage of public funds, no flagrant violations of public duties (e.g., the Gaisal rail accident) have been “deterred” on account of their unacceptably deleterious consequences for the well-being of the poor and the unfavored.
When persistent damages to the lives of “sovereign” people have been routinely and infinitely tolerated by the governing classes of our country as well as those of our neighboring nuclear “adversary”, is it reasonable to expect that jingoistic nuclear behavior of vested interests on either side of the LOC will be deterred by the human costs it entails? Do “We, the people” matter in the calculus of unacceptable damage? Our heritage of deprivation, our social policy failures and our citizenship records reveal quite the opposite.
Recent debates on the notion of unacceptable damage concentrate mainly on strategic and geo-political considerations, which relatively neglect and threaten, both in times of war and peace, the lives of large segments of the population. In the face of such chronic insensitivity on the part of the political leadership to human security issues, we need to be wary as to whether “We, the people” and our day-to-day vulnerabilities will be factored into the damage assessment of the powers that exist.
Informed Public and Responsive Governments
Reclaiming our sovereignty as the people of a democratic nation is, however, not an impossible task. Indeed, when policy making is embedded in consultative and transparent processes, democracy offers a way of rescuing governments that have fallen under t he sway of vested interests. As Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” Therefore, the real challenge is to encourage the initiatives of the citizens, to harness the power of public opinion and action so that governments become responsive and accountable to the will of the majority and make a real difference in the quality of people’s lives.
Fortunately, informed public debates have been taking place during the last year in different corners of the country, critically reviewing the `merits’ of the decision to go nuclear. Out of the nuances and well-documented evidence that are being presented in these discourses, what echoes in resounding notes is the unmistakable and plain understanding that we have only one earth to live in and save. The destructive capacity of a nuclear conflict is so catastrophic, so complete and final that it cannot be measured on a scale of “more or less”. It is a judgment call of “either, or”, “preserve or perish”. There are no two ways about it. To take liberty with Gandhi, an eye for an eye, the so-called “mutually assured destruction” will indeed make the whole world blind and a radiated ruin. It is, therefore, futile to endorse a position of the limited use of low-yield nuclear weapons. There is no alternative to developing an absolute nuclear phobia, to admitting that it is an utter prejudice to take pride in nuclear possessions, low-yield or high-yield.
Why is this prejudice still so prominent in our minds? I take a shorthand to address this profound issue by quoting economist Paul Krugman, “Bad ideas flourish because they are in the interest of powerful groups.” We, the people” are responsible to see through the deceit.
I would like to conclude this note on a self-policing tone. While making a strong case for nuclear disarmament and abolition, I am willing to concede that many concerns vis-à-vis the de-weaponization path still endure. More concretely, the cautionary views and nagging doubts about the viability of the de-weaponization path now being expressed in light of the recent NATO bombings in Yugoslavia, cannot be left unacknowledged. To do so would be unconvincing to those with whom we disagree on the issue of weaponization. A realist would argue that in a uni-polar world with an overly militarized rogue superpower, it is a compulsion to arm and to even go nuclear in order to protect people’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Conversely, a proponent of disarmament and peace will have to address this issue squarely. She has to relentlessly search for an alternative to armament which at once engenders peace and protects sovereignty and the right to self-determination of the people in the developing world against the military aggrandizement of the nuclear-rich countries. This is not an easy task; but neither is it impenetrable.
Sane voices for global peace must converge and raise a clamor for wholesale disarmament and abolition of nuclear weapons, both locally and globally, both in developed and in developing countries. The challenge that lays before us is to find a feasible way of resolving the alleged tension between ensuring global peace on the one hand and local freedom on the other in a highly militarized, geo-political situation. There is surely no magical solution.
One may also point out that in this age of MNC-dominated globalization, countries — especially the resource poor countries — are vulnerable not just to military threats but more frequently to economic insecurities and predicaments. These political-economic arguments, highlighting the iniquitous nature of the present world economic order, must be factored to ensure a just treatment of the question of global peace.
An Appeal for International Law
To be sure, these concerns are not new. They have indeed continued to grip the imagination of nation-states since the Second World War. One thing, however, that has become transparent to peace proponents over time, is that the solution to these entrenched problems must be sought in political and not in military terms. A rule of International Law administered by a supra-national global government is the only viable tool to ensure peace on earth and to tame the extant military and economic hegemonies. To that end, debates, discussions and public action must occur in order to empower the currently atrophied United Nations, revive the moribund non-aligned movement and educate people worldwide about the misleading nature of the deterrence argument. This is an appeal to enact all of the standard democratic practices, debates, deliberations, organizations and protests in order to promote the emergence of a sane and collective wisdom.
*Manabi Majumdar is a social scientist who works at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai, India, specializing in political economy. Her research interests include social exclusion, democratic decentralization, and child labor from the human security perspective. Manabi has studied at Presidency College, Calcutta University and University of Maryland. Manabi currently lives in Chennai with her husband.