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May 27, 2018



The reality and the rhetoric

My previous column on the 20th anniversary of nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan drew a mixed response. The emails that I received from readers in India agreed that there was no need for India to once again prove to the world in 1998 that it had become a nuclear power.

India had successfully conducted a nuclear experiment in 1974 under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. After almost a quarter of a century, A B Vajpayee, the then Indian prime minister, perhaps wanted to add a feather in the BJP’s cap too. Overall, any measure of foolhardiness from Vajpayee has actually diminished India’s prestige.

From Pakistani readers, the response to the column was more pugnacious. Most readers disagreed with the view that nuclear weapons don’t guarantee a country’s safety and security. The general perception is that after India’s boastful detonations, it was incumbent upon Pakistan to deprive India of its superiority. Some readers expressed their pride and confidence in the Pakistani establishment that repeatedly and successfully has kept pace with India in terms of military strength. But the most interesting comment came from Dr Fawad Shams, an educationist, who reminded this writer about the fate of non-nuclear countries such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Let’s discuss this and some other arguments in some detail. First, let’s consider the comments from Dr Shams: “[It’s a] little tricky though…wars [were] waged on Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and covert operations in Libya and many other countries – none of which are nuclear-capable. South Korea [has] heated politics and threats but no war or covert plans. Perhaps [nuclear capability carries] some deterrence… for imperialists…”.

This argument essentially relies on the assumption that if countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq had developed atomic bombs, no greater power would have invaded them. First, we need to remember that there are around 200 independent countries in the world. How many of them have been invaded just because they don’t possess atomic weapons? Second, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the Iran-Iraq war and the war between Ethiopia and Eretria did take place, even if neither of these countries had any nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, the US and the USSR were involved in a bitter cold war and numerous proxy wars around the world, even though they possessed atomic weapons.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Yemen don’t possess atomic weapons. And yet, they have been involved in a bitter war for many years now. If a greater power wants to attack another country, it is likely to do so irrespective of atomic weapons. When the US wants to use drones against Pakistan, it does. When it sends its troops into Pakistan to capture Osama bin Laden, the atomic bomb of Pakistan doesn’t deter it. When American and Soviet forces were fighting in Korea, they had atomic weapons but nobody could use them. So, simply possessing atomic warheads doesn’t guarantee anything.

India is facing insurgencies in over a dozen of its states, but its atomic weapons are of no use. Pakistan has been fighting the so-called war on terror for over 15 years now, but its atomic arsenal are useless in this war. Possessing nuclear capabilities doesn’t guarantee that covert or overt operations won’t be launched against a country. Most nuclear powers, including America, India, and Russia, have been targets of both covert and overt operations. So, this argument appears to be flawed.

If a country doesn’t want to end up like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria or Yemen, nuclear weapons are perhaps the last thing it needs. The first thing it needs is a functioning democracy, with a high Human Development Index. It is interesting to note that no two functioning democracies –whether they are nuclear powers or not – have ever fought against each other in human history. All wars have been fought between despotic or dictatorial regimes or between a democracy and a dictatorship. Just look around and find a functioning democracy that has fought against another democracy.

Similarly, it is also remarkable that no country with a functioning democracy has ever disintegrated. All countries that have been broken up into smaller parts have been empires, kingdoms or dictatorships. Yes, there have been movements for separation such as those witnessed in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland. But as of today, no independent country with a functioning democracy has disintegrated.

Another point to ponder is that all developed countries with high per capita incomes are functioning democracies. They are developed in the sense that they are able to produce new science and technology, even if they may not have skyscrapers such as in Doha and Dubai. Many Gulf countries have high per capita income. But they can hardly be called developed countries because their development is borrowed, not indigenously produced.

When we talk about a functioning democracy, we mean fair and free elections; freedom of expression and assembly; and, most of all, rule of law in which all minorities are treated equally and with equity. If we use this definition, many Muslim-majority countries – such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and even Turkey – will not be categorised as functioning democracies. Had nuclear weapons been a sign of development and democracy a symbol of safety and security, all nuclear powers would have been included in the list. But we can check how many nuclear powers fall within that list.

Let’s consider the example of China, which developed a nuclear device in 1964. Until 1980, it was a low-income country and the nuclear device didn’t help it much. This changed when it placed human development as its priority. India, before and after 1974 and 1998, offers another example. Nuclear weapons have contributed nothing in its human development or international prestige. Let’s take the example of America, Russia, Israel and Pakistan. To what extent are the people of these countries safe due to their nuclear weapons? If people are not safe in their homes, neighbourhoods, schools and streets, the nuclear lollypop merely exists to give them a false sense of security.

So, what should we do? Should we discard nuclear weapons? Well, at least we can stop stockpiling them. Both India and Pakistan have over a hundred atomic bombs each, Why do we need more? Loudmouths on both sides claim to have the capability to destroy each other’s major cities within minutes. Do we need to have the capacity to destroy each village too? This urge to have nuclear weapons is mind-boggling. It is even more depressing when it comes from educated people or even from educationists.

A serious reorientation is required on both sides. If recent disclosures are any guide, we can rest assured that our security hawks are on extremely good terms with each other to the extent that they go out of their way to help each other. It is ordinary people like you and me who have suffered and are likely to suffer in the years to come. What we need is not a justification for more arms, but more coolheaded intellectuals who can bring people on both sides together. We need to see the ruse behind the rumours and the reality behind the rhetoric. The discussion concludes here.

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

Email: [email protected]