Smell of black rain
`India and Pakistan under a Nuclear Shadow' is a film which awakens one to the fact that just because the world has lived with the threat of nuclear war, it cannot live with it forever. VASANTHA SURYA takes a look.
The desert heaved. The mountains shook and turned white.
THIS was how two Pakistani scientists described the testing of the nuclear bombs in India and Pakistan in 1998. Physicists Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian's hard- hitting and candid documentary film, ``India and Pakistan under a Nuclear Shadow,'' was presented by the ISANW (Indian Scientists against Nuclear Weapons) at the Madras Institute of Development Studies on November 3 to a general audience. Scientists and academics from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka were present, and took part in the discussions that followed.
Apparently made on a shoestring budget, the film has no pretensions to artistry as it recounts the history of the spread and testing of nuclear weapons ever since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and culminating in the Indo-Pak tests.
In a dispassionate tone it describes what exactly happens in a nuclear explosion. It speaks of the possibility of accidents, because as Hoodbhoy says, there is no such thing as a safe command and control system. The simple fact is that any one of the six nations that now possesses the bomb the U.S., Russia, China, Israel (an untested bomb), India and Pakistan has the potential for unimaginable destruction of what is essentially everybody's world. Without polemics, the film manages to drive home a point: just because the world has lived with the threat of nuclear war and nuclear accidents for 55 years and somehow survived, it may not be that it can live with it forever.
Zeroing in on the subcontinent's contribution to the nuclear threat, the film shows how, despite the differences in the nationalist ideologies of India and Pakistan, both governments have been functioning almost identically when it comes to employing strategic and militaristic catchwords, such as nuclear deterrence. Hoodbhoy and Mian have exposed the dangerous fallacies inherent in this argument, which dates from the Cold War. Retelling the story of the selling of this notion (along with the far from new technology of the bomb) in Pakistan and India, Hoodbhoy observes: ``The Kargil war was the first war in history that was caused by nuclear weapons. Hostilities have never ceased since. The film suggests that the euphoria caused in Pakistan by the possession of the bomb played into the hands of the military, and led to the Kargil war.'' There are quotes from several Pakistanis. Some unsurprising ones from militants and jehadis who gloated over what they hailed as the Islamic bomb, at the same time that certain people were peddling little packets of sacred Pokhran sand here in India.
One prominent cleric in Pakistan declared at the time that it would be a matter of great joy if all Muslim countries got nuclear bombs. But there are others whose outspoken criticism is quite amazing in a country we usually think as worse off than ours in the matter of freedom of speech. In both countries there has been the deliberate glorification of the scientists involved, but in Pakistan, one of them, Abdul Qadeer Khan, actually admits that putting the bomb together was mostly a matter of spending money, not of scientific acumen. Professor A. H. Nayyaar has disputed the spontaneity of the celebrations in Pakistan after the 1998 bomb test. The erstwhile Lt. Gen. Talat Masud denounced the bombs as bestowing a false sense of confidence and equated it to suicide for both countries. The missiles that followed (the Shaheen and the Ghauri in Pakistan, like the Prithvi in India) were paraded as symbols of scientific and technological advancement.
Peace activists in Pakistan have been calling attention to the disastrous effects on the economy, warning that even the mighty Soviet Union finally crumbled under the weight of the $5500 billion weapons race with the U.S. In the film, Ziauddin of Dawn blames the Pakistan bomb for the mess the country is in today. A single fighter plane, say Hoodbhoy and Mian, costs more than what it would take to run all of Pakistan's universities for two years. According to them, out of every 100 Pakistani rupees, 38 are spent on defence and 48 on repaying military loans, which leaves only 14 for everything else. (In India's Union Budget this year, the defence allocation comes to 16.5 per cent an increase of Rs. 4,000 crores over last year. Debt servicing amounts to 63 per cent. This leaves 38 per cent for the social and economic expenses of development, but lest we conclude that India is way ahead in the race, it is worthwhile to remember that the NDA government has allotted a meagre 1.7 per cent for all social services including education which has never come even close to the six per cent that many acknowledge as the minimum needed in the Indian context. The two Pakistani scientists-cum-peace activists-cum film-makers are outspoken about the mindset created by certain madrasas and extremist outfits: They teach nothing at all about modern life, except the use of modern weapons.
However, they have either not attempted, or not succeeded, in getting ordinary people to speak about employment, housing, food health, etc. That would have given a graphic dimension to the weapons versus development argument. In India, media exposure has become commonplace, and poor people are more forthcoming with their experiences and views. The sole exception in the film is a taxi-driver who bemoans the loss of customers but does not offer any reasons. Not that we cannot guess how daily life must be for the people of Pakistan. It cannot be all that different from what it is for us. Much of our nation-building effort could well be grinding to a halt, with building and maintaining the edifice of nuclear deterrence being seen as a priority, beyond other felt needs.
Two visuals from the film achieve an artless eloquence. On a map of the shapely subcontinental region of South Asia a computer animated map familiar to us from weather forecasts appear two blood-red spots: the 1998 nuclear bomb tests, one after the other, followed by almost identical mushroom clouds. And then, on the same map which the diverse peoples of five sovereign countries know as their home, more balloon-like fire-balls bursting over cities and towns. More poisoned clouds carried by 800 kmph cyclonic winds over the countryside. A gigantic shadow over land and mountain, river and sea. Soot blacking out sunlight. And black rain falling. What must black rain smell, taste, and feel like?
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