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Opinion

May 20, 2018

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The price we paid

This May marks the 20th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests. Although many people believe that becoming an atomic power has been a cause for celebration, there are more sagacious voices that have been raising concerns about nuclear proliferation across the world – especially in South Asia.

Earlier this month, a few anti-war organisations gathered at the Islamabad National Press Club to discuss the extent to which atomic bombs have contributed to a decreased or heightened sense of security in both India and Pakistan.

These organisations included the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP); Progressive Writers Association (PWA); the Awami Workers Party (AWP); the National Party (NP); and the Citizens Peace Committee. It is heartening to note that despite the widespread reverence for the atomic bomb in Pakistan, there are some people who are willing to call a spade a spade. The speakers at the event included human rights and political activists such as Nasreen Azhar, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr A H Nayyar, and journalists such as Muhammad Ziauddin and Marvi Sirmed. The speakers highlighted the pros and cons of possessing atomic bombs, and enlightened the audience about their side-effects.

The purpose of this column is not to discuss the seminar, but to introduce the readers to some important writings on the subject compiled by Dr A H Nayyar and Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy. The two books that have been edited by Nayyar and Hoodbhoy should be declared mandatory reading in our educational institutions. They clarify the many myths woven around atomic weapons and enlighten readers about the potential of destruction caused by atomic warheads. They also debunk the commonly-held delusion about nuclear deterrence and prove that the more atomic weapons a country has, the more vulnerable it becomes.

The first book, ‘Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out’, has been published by Oxford University Press (OUP) Karachi. It has a stimulating preface by John Polanyi, the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry. The second book is a slightly modified version that has been translated version into Urdu. It is titled ‘Taqat Ka Saraab: Junubi Asia mein atom bomb’ (The delusion of power: Atomic Bomb in South Asia). The second book has been published by Mashal Books, Lahore and contains an introduction by I A Rahman. Both books are collections of articles and essays penned by renowned scientists who mostly belong to South Asia.

‘Confronting the Bomb’ contains 17 chapters. Nine of these chapters have been written or co-authored by Dr Hoodbhoy and eight have been penned by Zia Mian and other co-writers. But perhaps the best section is the introduction, which has been written by Hoodbhoy. As we all know, Pervez Hoodbhoy has been an ardent advocate of nuclear disarmament since his university days. He is a scientist, teacher, columnist, writer, rights activist, and a proponent of rational thinking. Owing to these qualities, Hoodbhoy has been admired and hated alike. Although he is regularly invited to international forums to speak about disarmament, he remains an anathema to most bomb-lovers in India and Pakistan.

Through his introduction, Hoodbhoy discloses lesser-known historical facts and narrates a few interesting anecdotes about his encounters with some big names who have contributed to the arms race in this region. Hoodbhoy highlights how some of the creators of the atomic bomb never regretted what they had done. For example, Edward Teller (1908-2003), a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist who is billed as the father of the hydrogen bomb, never had any qualms about his role in the development of one of deadliest weapons that humankind has ever known. These scientists are avidly loved by generals and national leaders.

Some other scientists – such as Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project –showed remorse and disgust at what they had done. Hoodbhoy quotes Oppenheimer as saying: ‘I [have] become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. When Oppenheimer turned against the bomb, he fell under suspicion of being disloyal to America – as is the case in India and Pakistan. A P J Abdul Kalam was rewarded in India and made the head of the republic. In Pakistan, A Q Khan has been dubbed as ‘Mohsin-e- Pakistan’ (the benefactor of Pakistan). Meanwhile, those who consider the atomic bomb to be a form of ‘nuclear madness’ often don’t feature much in any honours list issued by the state.

We saw Bertrand Russell and Einstein team up to form a post-World War II movement to eliminate nuclear weapons. Such scholars have served as the conscience of the world and have encouraged reflective thinking among scientists. Social responsibility is not only about opening schools and establishing hospitals. It is also about preventing wars, particularly nuclear ones. We need to understand that loving our own country should not be equivalent to hurting another country.

The most disturbing detail that comes from these books is that developing nuclear weapons is no longer about high-brow theoretical physics as it was 70 years ago. Now, a graduate student with a solid basis in physics and access to internet literature can “design a crude but workable nuclear explosive” as a PhD thesis. Even computer codes allow accurate simulations of nuclear explosions. As a result, the highly intricate numerical procedures that were used by the early atomic scientists are no more required. Both Hoodbhoy and Nayyar have stressed that the cultivation of scientific habits is an asset that allows us to think through various “issues of war and peace plainly and logically”.

An ability to develop modern weapons does not necessarily mean that scientific habits have been cultivated and logical thinking is prevalent. As both books suggest, the decision to incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki was taken by “grey suits and military uniforms” – both of which were apparently donned by those who neither had a scientific habit nor any semblance of logical thought. The Second World War could have ended without atomic bombs – as was evident from the last stages of the war in Europe. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union had turned its forces towards Japan, and the end to war was in sight.

It appears that the bomb-lovers want to make a psychological impression rather than make an attempt to avert war. If the past is any guide, thousands of nuclear weapons could not prevent America’s defeat in Vietnam or the Soviet Union’s failure in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons could have destroyed the world a hundred times over. But they could not save it from collapsing in 1991 when the people turned against their own state.

Remorse is something that is lacking in both the defeated and the victors. You will not find any remorse in Hitler, Mussolini or Tojo. Yahya Khan, A A K Niazi and Tikka Khan never regretted what they did. And this is not a military prerogative – even in the 21st century. Blair and Bush were civilians and so are Modi and Trump.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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