Vast Sargasso Sea

THE political rhetoric of marginal fundamentalist groups who pose as dominant groups holding the country and its people to ransom appears most sharply when it attacks individuals for being aliens.

The question of time and history are central metaphors which push back the question of the past, the recognizable past, to a point of no return. Oddly the contestation of how this past is constructed is the central question of modernity. When a landscape is destroyed by natural or social means a new metaphor is forged in concrete terms. The landscapes of modernism arising out of war and technological revolution have all communicated their idiom of rationality which may be contested by others. Today, I am concerned with how political ideologies can leave their imprint upon the mind, upon forms of writing and literature. As Kevin Lynch would say ‘What time is this Place?’

Many years ago, perhaps in 1990, Ananthamurthy the Kannada litterateur spoke at the NMML, Delhi of the coexistence of time. He argued that every individual lives many different kinds of social lives which overlap and conflict with one another – some modern and rational, some feudal and caste based. Today, the domination of caste based behaviour in national life organizes the presence of an orthodoxy of tradition in its oppressiveness. And citizenship and writing become two indexes by which this oppressiveness is to be analyzed.

If the idiom of political hegemony centres the substance of its attack through the method of alienation, then it can only be a short lived, violent and ugly mode – as all fascist programmes are. State rule, even in the forms of patrimony and kingship, has always depended on the consensus of the people to be ruled. If lathi and cannon represent the mode of legitimating coercion in a democracy, the ability to protest will emerge and forge new modes of dissent. The politics of domination, however pervasive the cogs that operationalise the hegemonic core, cannot govern; it can only annihilate, and its rule is entrenched only for the private profit of its mercenaries – money, status and power. The landscapes of memory will continue to express the varieties of ways in which human beings have solved the problems of discord – of lust for coercion and the destruction of the humane. Without a belief in the future, the present can have no meaning.

‘Disaster, preservation, renewal, growth, revolution’ are different modes of this transformation of the landscape (Lynch 1995; 28) and they ‘connect our hopes and memories and sense of time flow.’ In a similar vein, the human consciousness of time and of events of peace and prosperity is not stable. By idealizing the past we cannot serve the present or the future, nor deny that the substantial presence of poverty has been the lot of the people. The wealth of India has lain in the faith of the poor, an optimism which Gandhi understood only too well, surviving the avarice of the ruling classes.

The theme of my paper is thus to analyse what it means ‘to be a foreigner in one’s own country’ – significant at a time when journalists can refer to an Indian of Indian origin as alien (Hindustan Times, 10 September 2002). The term alien can be located in terms of familiar concepts of Sociology – to be a stranger, to be excluded, to be alienated, to be a non-citizen though one my have a Pan card or a ration card. It could equally apply to beggars, the poor, people like me who have suddenly been marked out as alien for political purposes, or those foreigners who accept citizenship and request that they be seen as such in order to marry, bear children, be buried here or to stand for elections.

Before 11 September 2001, an estimated 38,000 Indians, according to media reports, migrated to America every year on one or another kind of visa. In the land of chewing gum and rock, belonging depends upon the acceptance of language as both monosyllabic and homogenizing. In such a context it is interesting to note that a variety of separatist movements had their origin in America. Joyce Pettigrew’s book on Punjab describes the growth of separatism around fundamentalist forms of Sikhism and journalists have recorded the agonizing years of the complexities of the state and its people in relation to terrorism. Whether it is Hinduism, Islam or Christianity, the substance of this financial support from fundamentalist expatriates to drive the separatist wedge into India needs to be analysed.

Much of the political rhetoric of Hindutva comes from asking the questions, ‘When did you come’ and ‘What makes an alien.’ Obviously this could apply to an idea, a community, a party – any fact of identity that blurs questions of belonging as codified by the Constitution. It seems apparent too that if this question was really posed by the dasyus of India who have been colonized now for millennia, the political imperative of throwing half the population out would be apparent and frightening. There is of course the recently propagated American laboratory and Indian media myth that upper caste men are Aryans (whatever that means) and lower caste men and all women are dasyus. The speculation around invaders, travellers, settlers is the stuff of archaeology and ancient history – all that we can do is analyse the mass of information that is put across and try to understand the contexts of its interpretation in objective or political terms. It’s been made amply clear to sociologists that to be objective, rational and analytical is also now a self-conscious political act.

Now the central task of Sociology remains singularly clear – that is to ask why people do the things they do. If the rhetoric of homogenization has never worked except amongst political lobbyists, then the risks of diversity are interesting in themselves. The rights that human beings have are well defined in various charters, and embodied in the welfare state. But Michael Ignatieff has clearly pointed out that:

‘It is because money cannot buy the human gestures which confer respect, nor rights guarantee them as entitlements, that any decent society requires a public discourse about the needs of the human person. It is because fraternity, longing, belonging, dignity and respect cannot be specified as rights that we ought to specify them as needs and seek, with the blunt institutional procedures at our disposal, to make their satisfaction a routine human practice’ (Ignatieff 1994:14).

If we are to understand what human needs are, then the production of literary fiction is one of the key spaces where desires and possibilities are fully suggested or left tantalizingly unresolved. The writing of expatriates becomes significant because each creates an imaginary world through words, but yet communicates the immediacy of events. The Then of myth and legend, of the past as tradition or as history becomes substantially offered as Here and Now. It is the here and now of literary fiction that makes each work survive long periods of time – decades or centuries, rather than the combustible conflagration of the time of the bestseller. Works written in 1930 or 1980 might appear in the year 2000 as fresh and open to interpretation.

Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Amitava Ghosh’s The Glass Palace are three memorable moments in the development of Indian writing in English which have been analysed by many literary critics. Why they interest me is because all three authors have made their home outside the subcontinent. But they visit often and see themselves as expatriates. If each of these three styles of writing are so far removed from one another, then it is interesting for me to locate within the sociological imagination how being a diaspora Indian can contribute to the writing of literary fiction. Ghosh’s command over historical data and the ability to bring it closer to the reader, Rushdie’s playful rebellious jibes at politics and hypocrisy, Seth’s sensuous and intuitive control over the emotional worlds of human beings – these have been celebrated over and over again in the literary world, as well as in the greatest index for authors, the sale of books.

The expatriate has house, friends, occupation, income in a country, but he dreams of home. He lives in a comfortable metropolis or university town – London or New York, has access to libraries, concert halls, museums accessible to him in the sense that friends and critics are always around. Yet there is a searing loneliness about their lives which appear in the things they sometimes say, or the unguarded melancholy of their faces on camera. The problem of course lies in the oscillation between the loneliness and solitude of writing. All crafts people understand the chiselling of an object as a singularly lonely task and the moment of sunburst when camera’s flash and the stage is set for what is euphemistically called the ‘book release’. The fact that a book may bomb or that critics hate it rarely deters the author – each of these authors has written what are thought to be good books as well as a few over-rated ones. Clearly, the survival of the author depends on his or her ability to withstand criticism and to write again.

Whether writing is biographical or not depends upon the author’s ability to acknowledge the reservoir of memory he/she draws from. Researched, the novel becomes the key word by which the success of its intellectual frame is acknowledged. Many writers spend a lot of time reading and the sources of that reading might or might not be acknowledged. The self-conscious author today documents his journeys, proving Barthes essay ‘The Death of the Author’ to be a lie. The author seems continually available to defend his or her story.

There has never been a time when the pressure to conform has not been imposed upon the author. How he or she deals with it is defined by the accidents of temperament and circumstance. How much of the love and death in the novel is autobiographical is left to the coterie of friends who gleefully or with melancholy recognize themselves. But then, does not every reader find resemblances in whichever book they read to people they have known or glimpsed? In 1928, Gorky wrote, ‘God has been created in the same manner as literary "types" have, in accordance with the laws of abstraction and concretization. Characteristic exploits performed by a variety of heroes are condensed or "abstracted" and then given concrete shape in the person of a single hero. Traits peculiar to any merchant, nobleman or peasant are similarly "abstracted" and then typified in the person of some one merchant, nobleman or peasant – in other words, now a literary type is created’ (Gorky n.d.: 31, 32).

Earlier he had argued that it is not enough to create a person, for this would have neither social or educative features. ‘If however the writer proves able to summarise the most characteristic class features, habits, tastes, gestures, beliefs and manner of speech peculiar to twenty, fifty or even a hundred shopkeepers, civil servants or workers, proves able to epitomize and condense them in the person of a single shopkeeper, civil servant or worker, he thereby creates a type, and that is art’ (ibid., p. 30).

Yet Gorky was always clear about the functions of literature – to inform, to educate, to entertain not in malice but through humane and generous anecdotes. This moral pressure was best conveyed in his critique of the ‘sponge like existence of younger modernist writers.’ In an essay called Talks on Craftsmanship, he wrote:

‘Indeed I met quite a number of young people of the merchant class, and I envied them their knowledge of foreign languages and their ability to read European literature in the original. There was nothing else in them to envy. They spoke in polished language, but in a way that was obscure; their words were unimpeachable, but below the surface there seemed to be nothing but cotton wool or sawdust… though they did not drink in excess and grew drunk more on fearful words than on liquor. They spoke of the "horrors" in the work of Poe, Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky, but they thought they were speaking of the horrible things within themselves. I could see that there was nothing horrifying about them; some of the ruffians I knew were more awe-inspiring.’

He goes on to say that public duties were integral to a writer’s life. ‘If you sweep a courtyard you will prevent harmful dust getting into children’s lungs. If you bind a book in good time, you will extend its term of service, helping to make it of greater benefit to people, and saving paper for the state. Rough treatment of books causes tremendous losses to the state, because so many books are being printed, and after all,we are the State’ (ibid 153).

Why I quote at length from Gorky is because of the biographical experience of having been given Gorky’s Mother to read when I was in Class III and all of Shaw’s plays when in Class V (I rebelled against reading Shaw’s Prefaces in Class VI). Certainly I had no idea that my father who did not like Anna Karenina was setting out the agenda of what kind of literature I should be reading.

Thirty five years later the contempt that my father had for elitist emotions – philosophizing about pain – is still hard to bear. Like Gorky, Marxist intellectuals like my father could not bear the rift between the intelligentsia and the people – and it is exactly in this rift that Indian writing in English is located. The strikingly banal but brutal critique of elitist writing by M. Prabha in The Waffle of the Toffs is easily available – funny, crude, authoritarian – it sets a norm more clumsy than Gorky’s well-crafted idealism. But every writer unlike every critic, knows that writing has its will to power, and existentialist writers, who are primarily record keepers rather than transformers of the world, understand the impetus of their quill. Take away their implements and they will invent another, but the work will get written.

It is here that I wish to analyse the work of a woman, Jean Rhys, whose book, The Wide Sargasso Sea remained alive inspite of her efforts to destroy it, forget it, evade it. The book appeared in 1962, though its first draft had been typed in 1938.

Sargasso Sea is an unnerving study of race and caste relationship in Creole society, of colonialism and accidents of history which one day would surely be the subject of detailed symbolic analyses. My problem is more specific. How does Jean Rhys understand her existence as a foreigner in England? Her father was a Welsh doctor and her mother ‘white’ Creole. She was born in Dominica in 1890 and came to England when she was sixteen, spending what was a conventionally bohemian life moving between various frivolous positions. Suzanne Rouvier (in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge), the artist’s model, not quite a whore but a practical companion to various aspirants in the Paris art scene, would be an approximate analogy. But Rhys, encouraged by Ford Maddox Ford who had also discovered D.H. Lawrence, was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant women writers of the ’30s. Then she fell out of sight. For decades she lived in obscurity, and even had an unwitting obituary notice written for her. She died in 1979, having received acknowledgement when, as she said, ‘it was too late.’ She received the W.H. Smith Award in 1966, was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in1966 and made a CBE in 1970.

I am unable to engage with a biographical sketch of Rhys in order to answer my question and will instead try to approach it through textual analyses. Why the problem seems to me evanescent is because so many of us who have never doubted that we are Indians are now being continually pounded with the question ‘Who are you?’ Asked often enough it can push a person beyond the edge. If asked as anthropologists do, in a mode of dialogicity, I see no problem with the question. Asked in psychoanalytical therapy or in the quest for mystical resolution, this space can be one of the most profound arenas of creative encounter. Yet the political negotiations of identity are a fact of history, an emblem of social change, and fictional narratives sometimes capture this with a power of representation.

Wide Sargasso Sea lies between the West Indies and the Azores, in the North Atlantic ocean. Ships could become entangled in its weeds. It is the metaphor for calm and danger, for the ability of encroaching weeds which strangulate the beleagured ship. The West Indies become a complex battling ground where indigenous, black, tribal, native, colonized, white, colonizing all become fraught with multiple meanings as do the relationship between those who have mixed or pure French or English ancestory.

Rhys was in England and writing about Dominica or Jamaica which she blurred with artistic license. So let us use West Indies or the Carribbean as an artificially organizing term, though the specificities of history and topography for the islands and its cultural landscapes may infact differ substantially. After all terms such as Bharat, Hindustan or India have served as variable terms for a diverse and polyglot land, and ‘subcontinental’ identity is even more problematic.

So in Rhys’ text which begins with the assertion by the heroine Antoinette that ‘the Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother not just because of her beauty but because she was a "Martinique" girl.’ Black people jeered at the mother and daughter but as servants in the house they had tremendous power over their half caste masters. It was the house and the garden that communicated a tremendous sense of power – the power of land, the power of the past, the power of memory.

‘Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered – then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.’

Sitting in England, such a para was written – the intensity of the past surfaces and much of diaspora writing actually captures what are seemingly visible details of topography to actually communicate how haunting the past and its dreamtime seems to the writer. But what is diaspora, and who is diasporic? As a Malayali who was born in Delhi and who often writes about Kerala, this chatter about diaspora as alien is empty for me. The diasporite makes himself or herself at home, is at home; she or he sends out deep roots in less than a month of his arrival and is here to stay. People are pushed out, have their heads bludgeoned in, but they fight to stay or they fight to return.

Antoinette’s mother is driven mad by a holocaust of hate – slave owner attacked by night, her retarded son by her first husband killed, her house burnt down, her second husband helpless as the house burnt down. Antoinette remembers:

‘But now I turned too. The house was burning, the yellow red sky was like sunset and I knew that I would never see Coulibri again. Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses, the rocking-chairs and the blue sofa, the jasmine and the honeysuckle and the picture of the Miller’s daughter. When they had finished, there would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone. That was always left’ (p. 24).

If ruin and the memory of a foundation is all that the survivor has, and the memory of things that once had a pattern of normality, then the tragedy of the present lies in that continuing absence which like the ghost of an amputated limb thrashes in the victim’s memory. As Rhys writes in the second paragraph of the first page, ‘My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed – all belonged to the past.’ The tragedy of the colonizer is the moment of seduction – when the native, the Creole, or the woman has been lulled into a state of secure concupiscience. Rhys uses the imagery of sexual love as represented by the white male in relation to the Creole woman to understand this peculiar form of submission. The violence of seduction lies in its mutual pleasure and the shattering quality of boredom annihilates both. Significantly the colonizer and the colonized blame one another, seeing their autonomy either in the past or in the future as an obliterated dream.

‘Why do you hate me?’ she said.

‘I do not hate you, I am most distressed about you, I am distraught.’ I said. But this was untrue, I was not distraught, I was calm, it was the first time I had felt calm or self possessed for many a long day… I watched her holding her left wrist with her right hand, an annoying habit.

‘Then why do you never come near me?’ she said, ‘Or kiss me or talk to me. Have you any reason?’

‘Yes,’ I said ‘I have a reason’ and added very softly, ‘My God.’

‘You’re always calling on God’ she said, ‘Do you believe in God?’

‘Of course, of course I believe in the power and wisdom of my creator’ ( Rhys 2000: 81).

Having driven his wife to insanity the colonialist Rochester leaves her in England.

‘When I first came I thought it would be a day, two days a week perhaps. I thought that when I saw him and spoke to him, I would be wise as serpents, harmless as doves. I give you all I have freely I would say, and I will not trouble you again if you will let me go. But he never came’ (p. 116).

All the people in the house become ghosts for the mad woman in the attic, voices and memories without substance.

‘All the people who had been staying in the house for the bedrooms doors were shut, but it seemed to me that someone was following me, someone was chasing me, laughing’(p. 112).

In the end there is a conflagration, ‘On the second floor I threw away the candle… I knew how to get away from the heat and the shouting, for there was shouting now… I don’t know how long I sat. Then I turned around and saw the sky red and all my life was in it. I saw the grandfather clock and Aunt Cora’s patchwork, all colours. I saw the orchids and the stephanotis and the jasmine and the tree of life in flames. I saw the chandelier and the red carpet downstairs and the bamboos and the tree ferns, the gold ferns and the silver and the soft green velvet of the moss on the garden wall.’

Homesickness so terrible that nothing is real, only the past beckons. Amitava Ghosh’s consummate obituary on the Indian born American Shahid Aga, captures it in almost Sontagian detail. The corollary to such homesickness is madness and death. Yet many of us live in this strange, beckoning world of the past or another land – it is not merely the stuff of expats longing. The Macaulayised Indian fictionwriter knows the bylanes of Bloomsbury as well as the galis of Chandni Chowk – meaning not very well, but the map is real and haunting. Sitting in Delhi or Brooklyn, Calcutta calls forth. No human being can be devoid of this intense longing that has always been the stuff of literary fiction. Claiming citizenship, identity, home, nation is always a tenuous and self-conscious task.

Susan Visvanathan


* Paper presented at the seminar held in honour of Professor T.K. Oomen, 21-23 October 2002 at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.



Kevin Lynch, What Time is This Place, MIT, Cambridge, 1995.

Peter Mathiessen, Far Tortuga, Collins Harvill, London, 1989.

Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers, Vintage, London, 1984.

M. Prabha, The Waffle of the Toffs, Oxford and IBH, New Delhi, 2000.

Edward Said, The Politics of Dispossession, Vintage, 1995.

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, Penguin, 2000.


The India-Pakistan conflict: towards the failure of nuclear deterrence

THESE are dismal times for peace in South Asia. Since the tests of May 1998 and their overt nuclearization, Pakistan-India relations have visibly deteriorated. Crisis has followed crisis and nuclear weapons have played an increasingly prominent role. The massive military mobilisation and threat of war in spring of 2002 exposed several important features of the dynamics shaping nuclear South Asia, especially the repeated use of nuclear threats and the apparent fearlessness of policy-makers and the public when faced with the prospect of nuclear war.

The context for these developments is a growing unwillingness among political and military leaders in South Asia to confront changed realties (but as Einstein famously remarked, the bomb has changed everything except our way of thinking). An arms race is growing, in fits and starts, as best as the two states can manage. Military doctrines are interlinked in ways that lead inexorably to nuclear war. The poor are uneducated, uninformed and powerless. The well-to-do are uninformed or possessed by the religious fundamentalism – Islamic and Hindu – that is rapidly changing both countries. These forces are now being wedded to nationalism in ways that suggest restraints that were at work in previous India-Pakistan wars and crises may increasingly be over-ridden or suppressed. We are moving down a steep slippery slope whose bottom we have yet to see.

The efficacy of nuclear deterrence is predicated on the ability of these weapons to induce terror. It presupposes a rational calculus, as well as actors who, at the height of tension, will put logic before emotion. Recent events in South Asia have put all these into question. We therefore fear that perhaps a new chapter may someday have to be written in textbooks dealing with the theory of nuclear deterrence.

Time is short for South Asia. The role of the United States is key. It has begun to worry more about the spectre of nuclear armed Islamic terrorism than the prospect of a South Asian nuclear war. But the Bush administration’s unconstrained, unilateral, imperial vision has little space for restraint, treaties, and undermines the possibility of peace and disarmament for all.

There are a few steps that may possibly begin to take us a small distance down the path to safety. These are outlined briefly by way of a conclusion.


Crisis After Crisis

There is a fundamental link between crises and nuclear weapons in South Asia. Soon after the defeat of Pakistan by India in the 1971 war, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto called a meeting of Pakistani nuclear scientists in the city of Multan to map out a nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan was pushed further into the nuclear arena by the Indian test of May 1974, seen as a means to further consolidate Indian power in South Asia.

Challenged again in May 1998 by a series of five Indian nuclear tests, Pakistan was initially reluctant to test its own weapons out of fear of international sanctions. Belligerent statements by Indian leaders after the tests succeeded in forcing it over the hill. But success brought change. Pakistan saw nuclear weapons as a talisman, able to ward off all dangers. Countering India’s nuclear weapons became secondary. Instead, Pakistani nuclear weapons became the means for neutralizing India’s far larger conventional land, air, and sea forces.

In the minds of Pakistani generals, nuclear weapons now became tools for achieving foreign policy objectives. The notion of a nuclear shield led them to breathtaking adventurism in Kashmir. Led by Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan sent troops out of uniform along with Islamist militant fighters across the Line of Control to seize strategic positions in the high mountains of the Kargil area. The subsequent Kargil war of 1999 may be recorded by historians as the first actually caused by nuclear weapons.

As India counter-attacked and Pakistan stood diplomatically isolated, a deeply worried Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington on 4 July 1999, where he was bluntly told to withdraw Pakistani forces or be prepared for full-scale war with India. Bruce Reidel, Special Assistant to President Clinton, writes that he was present in person when Clinton informed Nawaz Sharif that the Pakistan Army had mobilized its nuclear-tipped missile fleet.1 (If this is true, then the preparations for nuclear deployment and possible use could only have been ordered by General Pervez Musharraf at either his own initiative or in consultation with the army leadership.) Unnerved by this revelation and the closeness to disaster, Nawaz Sharif agreed to immediate withdrawal, shedding all earlier pretensions that Pakistan’s army had no control over the attackers.

Despite the defeat in the Kargil War, Pakistan political and military leaders insisted that Pakistan had prevailed in the conflict and that its nuclear weapons had deterred India from crossing the Line of Control or the international border. This belief may be especially strong in the military, who would otherwise have to accept that their prized weapons were of no military utility.


Back to the Brink

On 13 December 2001, Islamic militants struck at the Indian Parliament in Delhi sparking off a crisis that has yet to end. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee exhorted his troops in Kashmir to prepare for sacrifices and ‘decisive victory’, setting off widespread alarm. It seemed plausible that India was preparing for a ‘limited war’ to flush out Islamic militant camps in Pakistan administered Kashmir.

Sensing a global climate now deeply hostile to Islamic militancy, India’s ruling BJP have sought to echo the US ‘war on terror’ slogan as a way to garner international support for their military campaign in Kashmir. Although an embattled Musharraf probably had little to do with the attack on the Indian Parliament, India cut off communications with Pakistan. The Indian ambassador in Islamabad was recalled to Delhi, road and rail links were broken off, and flights by Pakistani airlines over Indian territory were disallowed.

Such Indian reactions have played into the hands of jihadists in Kashmir who now operate as a third force almost autonomous of the Pakistani state (this operational autonomy is typical of such large-scale covert operations, where there is a political need for the state patron to be able to plausibly deny responsibility for any particular action taken by such forces – the US support for the Contras in Nicaragua and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s were classic examples of this relationship). There is a real possibility that jihadists will commit some huge atrocity – such as a mass murder of Indian civilians. Indeed, their goal is to provoke full-scale war between India and Pakistan, destabilize Musharraf, and settle scores with America.

Nuclear threats started flying in all directions. In May 2002, as fighter aircraft circled Islamabad, in a public debate with one of us (PH), General Mirza Aslam Beg, the former chief of Pakistan’s army, declared: ‘We can make a first strike, and a second strike, or even a third.’ The lethality of nuclear war left him unmoved. ‘You can die crossing the street,’ he observed, ‘or you could die in a nuclear war. You’ve got to die some day anyway.’ Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Munir Akram, reiterated Pakistan’s refusal of a no-first-use policy.

Across the border, India’s Defence Minister George Fernandes told the International Herald Tribune, ‘India can survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan cannot.’2 Indian Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain took things a step further in an interview with Outlook magazine: ‘A surgical strike is the answer,’ adding that if this failed to resolve things, ‘We must be prepared for total mutual destruction.’3 Indian security analyst, Brahma Chellaney claimed, ‘India can hit any nook and corner of Pakistan and is fully prepared to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.’4


Nuclear Denial

As India began to seriously consider cross-border strikes on militant camps on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, it became convenient for those urging action to deny Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by challenging its willingness and ability to use them. This is not the first time this notion has been exercised, but it has now gained astonishingly wide currency in Indian ruling circles and carries increasingly grave risks of a misjudgment that could lead to nuclear war.

Two months before the May 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, a delegation from Pugwash met in Delhi with Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral. As a member of the delegation, one of us (PH) expressed worries about a nuclear catastrophe on the subcontinent. Gujral repeatedly assured PH – both in public and in private – that Pakistan was not capable of making atomic bombs. The prime minister was not alone.

Senior Indian nuclear scientists and defence analysts before May 1998 had argued this point: in 1994 P.K. Iyengar, former head of India’s Department of Atomic Energy, doubted whether ‘there is any proof that Pakistan has this capability’ to make nuclear weapons; another former head Raja Ramana suggested that ‘In the past, Pakistan got plenty of mileage by making tall claims. But that is now turning into paper mileage’; at the same time, P.R. Chari, a former senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defence argued that the Indian military did not ‘believe that Pakistan has a viable deterrent’; in 1993 a Chief of Army Staff, V.N. Sharma, said ‘I don’t see any threat of nuclear capacity or capability in Pakistan.’5 

Although Pakistan’s nuclear tests had dispelled this scepticism, senior Indian military and political leaders continue to express doubts on the operational capability and usability of the Pakistani arsenal. Still more seriously, many Indians believe that, as a client state of the US, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are under the control of the US. The assumption is that, in case of extreme crisis, the US would either restrain their use by Pakistan or, if need be, destroy them. At a meeting in Dubai this year in January, senior Indian analysts said they were ‘bored’ with Pakistan’s nuclear threats and no longer believed them. K. Subrahmanyam, an influential Indian hawk who has advocated overt Indian nuclearization for more than a decade, believes that India can ‘sleep in peace’.

To fearlessly challenge a nuclear Pakistan requires a denial of reality, which some Indians seem prepared to make. It is an enormous leap of faith to presume that the United States would have either the intention – or the capability – to destroy Pakistani nukes. Tracking and destroying even a handful of mobile nuclear-armed missiles would be no easy feat. During the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. Air Force had aerial photos of the Soviet missile locations and its planes were only minutes away, yet it would not assure that a surprise attack would be more than 90% effective. More recently, in Iraq, US efforts to destroy Iraqi Scuds had limited success. No country has ever tried to take out another’s nuclear bombs. It would be fantastically dangerous because one needs 100% success. Nonetheless, there are signs that India is boosting its military capability to where it might feel able to overwhelm Pakistan.


Pushing the Arms Race

Since the 1998 nuclear tests, there have been very large increases in Indian military spending. The Indian defence budget for 2001-2002 was set at 630 billion rupees ($13 billion) – Pakistan’s military spending was roughly four times less, about 150 billion rupees. India has announced a further increase of 4.8% for the current year, intended for purchases of fighter planes, submarines, advanced surveillance systems (including Phalcon airborne early warning systems from Israel), and a second aircraft carrier. This increase follows an earlier increase of 28%, which was larger than Pakistan’s entire military budget for that year.

In a paper entitled ‘Vision 2020’, the Indian Air Force has laid out its requirements – it proposes increasing the number of squadrons from 39 to 60 by 2020 and replacing the aged MiG-21 planes with more modern fighters, such as the Russian Sukhoi-30s, or the Mirage-2000 or Rafael fighters from France.6 This Indian air force internal document is reported also to advocate the creation of a nuclear first-strike capability.

A missile regiment to handle the nuclear-capable Agni missile is being raised.7 Military officers are being trained to handle nuclear weapons and there have been statements by senior officials about Agni being mated with nuclear warheads.8 All of this is consistent with eventual deployment.

Pakistan’s generals would like to keep up with India in this effort but the economy is faltering and cannot stand the strain. A recent World Bank report is worth quoting at length:9 ‘The 1990s were a decade of lost opportunities for Pakistan. From independence to the late 1980s, Pakistan outperformed the rest of South Asia. Then in the 1990s progress ground to a halt. Poverty remained stuck at high levels, economic growth slowed, institutions functioned badly, and a serious macroeconomic crisis erupted.’

As and when the economy begins to revive, Pakistan’s military leaders will no doubt resume the race.


Towards War

Pakistani generals know why they want nuclear weapons. They anticipate that in the event of hostilities, India is likely to take losses in a terrain unsuitable for heavy armor or strike aircraft. So it could shift the theatre of war – escalating horizontally but without attacking nuclear facilities. Thereafter India would have several options available to it:

* Push into lower Punjab or upper Sindh to sever Pakistan’s vital road and rail links.

* Destroy the infrastructure of the Pakistan military (communication networks, oil supplies, army bases, railway yards, air bases through the use of runway busting bombs).

* Blockade Karachi, and perhaps also Gwadur, Pakistan’s other port, currently under construction.

Pakistan’s generals have sought to make it impossible for India to achieve these goals. They have articulated a set of conditions under which they will use their nuclear weapons. Pakistani nuclear weapons will be used, according to General Kidwai of Pakistan’s Strategic Planning Division, only ‘if the very existence of Pakistan as a state is at stake’ and this, he specified, meant:10

1. India attacks Pakistan and takes a large part of its territory.

2. India destroys a large part of Pakistan armed forces.

3. India imposes an economic blockade on Pakistan (this may include both a naval blockade and a denial of access to Indus River waters).

4. India creates political destabilization or large scale internal subversion in Pakistan.

India, in turn, has started to prepare its military to be attacked by nuclear weapons on the battlefield and to continue the war. The major Indian war game Poorna Vijay (Complete Victory) in May 2001, the biggest in over a decade, was reported to centre on training the army and air force to fight in a nuclear conflict.11 Taken together, Indian military options and Pakistani planning would seem to ensure that that any major India-Pakistan conflict would lead inexorably to the use of nuclear weapons.


Fearless Nuclear Gambling

In early 2002, with a million troops mobilized and leaders in both India and Pakistan threatening nuclear war, world opinion responded fearfully, seeing a fierce and possibly suicidal struggle up ahead. Foreign nationals streamed out of both countries, and many are yet to return. But even at the peak of the crisis, few Indians or Pakistanis lost much sleep. Stock markets flickered, but there was no run on the banks or panic buying. Schools and colleges, which generally close at the first hint of crisis, functioned normally. What explains the astonishing indifference to nuclear annihilation?

In part, the answer has to do with the fact that India and Pakistan are still largely traditional, rural societies, albeit going through a great economic and social transformation at a furious pace. The fundamental belief structures of such societies (which may well be the last things to change), reflecting the realities of agriculture dependent on rains and good weather, encourage a surrender to larger forces. Conversations and discussions often end with the remark that ‘what will be, will be,’ after which people shrug their shoulders and move on to something else. Because they feel they are at the mercy of unseen forces, the level of risk-taking is extraordinary. But other reasons may be more important.

In India and Pakistan, most people lack basic information about nuclear dangers. A 1996 poll of elite opinion showed that about 80% of those wanting to support Pakistan acquiring ready-to-use nuclear weapons found it ‘difficult’ or ‘almost impossible’ to get information, while about 25% of those opposed to nuclear weapons had the same concern.12 In India, a November 1999 post-election national opinion poll survey found just over half of the population had not even heard of the May 1998 nuclear tests.13 In the middle of the spring 2002 crisis, the BBC reported the level of awareness of the nuclear risk among the Pakistani public was ‘abysmally low’.14 In India, it found ‘for many, the terror of a nuclear conflict is hard to imagine.’15 

First hand evidence bears out these judgments. Even educated people seem unable to grasp basic nuclear realities. Some students at the university in Islamabad where one of us teaches (PH), when asked, believed that a nuclear war would be the end of the world. Others thought of nuclear weapons as just bigger bombs. Many said it was not their concern, but the army’s. Almost none knew about the possibility of a nuclear firestorm, about residual radioactivity, or damage to the gene pool.

In Pakistan’s public squares and at crossroads stand missiles and fiberglass replicas of the nuclear test site. For the masses, they are symbols of national glory and achievement, not of death and destruction. The realities of nuclear war would be beyond their imagination.16 It is painfully clear that too few in South Asia appreciate the quintessential feature of nuclear war, which was best captured by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when he said that, ‘In the event of a nuclear war, the living will envy the dead.’

Previous crises have also seen such lack of fear about the threat and use of nuclear weapons. With each crisis, there seems to be a lessening of political restraints and greater nuclear brinksmanship. A key factor is the absence of an informed and organized public opinion able to keep political and military leaders in check and restrain them from brandishing nuclear weapons. Close government control over national television, especially in Pakistan, has ensured that critical discussion of nuclear weapons and nuclear war is not aired. It is harder to understand the absence of such critical debate in India.

Because nuclear war is considered a distant abstraction, national civil defense in both countries is non-existent. When asked how India would protect people in case of nuclear attack, the senior-most Indian civil servant charged with civil defence replied ‘utter nonsense’.17 Islamabad’s civil defense budget is a laughable $40,000 and the current year’s allocation has yet to be disbursed.

No serious contingency plans have been devised – in 1999 New Delhi’s municipal authority made a plan for dealing with nuclear attack involving 200 protective suits for emergency workers and 740 decontamination and first aid kits (greater Delhi has 12-14 million residents).18 It is reported that even this plan was not implemented. As India’s Admiral Ramu Ramdas, now retired and a leading peace activist, caustically remarked, ‘In this country people are considered expendable.’

It is unimaginable to think of providing adequate protection against nuclear attack to the many millions in South Asia’s mega-cities. We have not been able to provide homes, food, water and health care to so many even in peace time. There is, nonetheless, something to be said for having credible plans to save as many as possible from the folly of their leaders. There might be other benefits also. The experience of the United States and Western Europe shows that the development of such plans and the facts that are introduced into public view showing the impossibility of providing adequate protection for people against nuclear war serves to convince many people of the horrors of what may be in store for them and motivate them to protest to survive.


The US and South Asian Nuclear Weapons

During the Cold War, to all intents and purposes, the super powers were able to ignore the rest of the world. The fears and entreaties of other countries counted for little in super power strategic planning and policy. In South Asia, the United States and to a lesser extent the international community loom large. This is an important difference and as the Kargil war and the 2001-2002 crisis showed, it can be crucial.

Following India’s 1974 nuclear test, perceiving the threat of proliferation and the consequences of India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry, the United States tried unsuccessfully to block the development of a Pakistani nuclear weapons capability through the use of sanctions of various kinds. By the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton was fruitlessly engaged in a campaign to persuade both countries to cap, and then ultimately roll-back their programmes.

After the 1998 nuclear tests, the hope was that the two states could be made to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In early 2000, this was on the verge of being signed by Pakistan and India. However, Clinton’s efforts were undermined by the refusal of the Republican controlled Senate to ratify the treaty. The treaty died, leaving open the possibility of a resumption of nuclear testing by the US and inevitably by the other nuclear weapons states, including in South Asia. This possibility has grown because of the policies of the Bush administration.

Under President George W. Bush, the US seems set to undo any and all arms control treaties, except those that clearly favour the US. The CTBT was the first victim. The Biological Weapons Convention followed. The US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is the first withdrawal from any arms control treaty by a state, creating a possibly terrible precedent. These steps have cleared the way for a more aggressive set of nuclear policies.

The Bush administration’s January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) calls for development of operational strategies that would allow use of nuclear weapons by the US even against those states that do not possess nuclear, chemical, biological or other weapons of mass destruction; it proposes that US military forces, including nuclear forces, will be used to ‘dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programmes or operations that could threaten US interests or those of allies and friends’ (emphasis added).19 New special-purpose nuclear weapons such as deep penetration weapons (bunker busters) are already being developed.

As the US has focused on further developing its military capacity to achieve its goals it the post-Cold War world, it has worried less about what India and Pakistan may do to each other. With both India and Pakistan seeking to woo the United States over to their side, the US has little to fear from either. Although it seems to have taken out insurance. The Nuclear Posture Review recommends ‘requirements for nuclear strike capabilities’ might include ‘a sudden regime change by which an existing nuclear arsenal comes into the hands of a new, hostile leadership group.’20 Events since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11 suggest Pakistan may be a particular concern for the US in this regard.


Pakistan’s Loose Nukes

Immediately after the September 11 attack, although Pakistan’s military government insisted that there was no danger of any of its 25-40 nuclear weapons being taking for a ride, it wasn’t taking any chances. Several weapons were reportedly airlifted to various safer, isolated, locations within the country.21 This nervousness was not unjustified – two strongly Islamist generals of the Pakistan Army (the head of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, Lt. General Mehmood Ahmed, and Deputy Chief of Army Staff, General Muzaffar Hussain Usmani), close associates of General Musharraf, had just been removed.22 Dissatisfaction within the army on Pakistan’s betrayal of the Taliban was (and is) deep – almost overnight, under intense American pressure, the Pakistan government had disowned its progeny.

Fears about Pakistan’s nukes were subsequently compounded by revelations that two highly placed members of the nuclear establishment, Syed Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Majid, had journeyed several times into Afghanistan during the last year.23 Both scientists are well known to espouse radical Islamic views.

It is not impossible that the two Pakistanis could have provided significant nuclear information or materials potentially useful to Al-Qaeda’s allies and subsidiaries in other parts of the world. If it so turns out, this will scarcely be the first instance of nuclear leakage. In 1966, sympathizers of Israel working in the US Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation were instrumental in diverting more than 100 kilograms of highly enriched uranium for the Israeli nuclear weapons programme, material which was reported by the CIA to most likely have ‘been used by the Israelis in fabricating weapons.’24 

Pakistan’s loose nuke problem underscores a global danger that may already be out of control. The fissile materials present in the thousands of ex-Soviet bombs marked for disassembly, the vast amounts of radioactive materials present in nuclear reactors and storage sites the world over, and the abundance of nuclear knowledge, make it only a matter of time before some catastrophic use is made of them.


The Way Ahead – Necessary Shifts

Those who profit from war are in the driving seat in Washington, Delhi and Islamabad. If South Asia is to hope for better times, then fundamental shifts in all three countries will be absolutely necessary:

Pakistan: For five decades school children have been taught that Kashmir is the ‘jugular vein’ of Pakistan, the unfinished business of Partition without which the country will remain incomplete. This national obsession must be dropped; it has supported three wars and is an invitation to unending conflict and ultimate disaster. As a first step, Pakistan must visibly demonstrate that it has severed all links with the militant groups it formerly supported and shut down all the militant camps it set up for them. Pakistan must find more positive ways to show its solidarity with the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.

India: New Delhi’s sustained subversion of the democratic process and iron fist policy in Kashmir has produced a moral isolation of India from the Kashmiri people that may be total and irreversible.25 The brutality of Indian forces, typical of state counter insurgency efforts to deal with separatists and independence movements, is well-documented by human rights groups. India’s rigid refusal to deal with Kashmir’s reality must go. A first step would be to withdraw Indian troops and allow democracy and normal economic life to resume and for Kashmiri civil society to begin to repair the profound damage done to that community. This could be done by restoring to Kashmir the autonomy granted it under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution pending a permanent solution.26 

United States: Indian and Pakistani leaders seem to have abdicated their own responsibility and have entrusted disaster prevention to US diplomats and officials, as well occasionally to those from Britain. There is no doubt that the US is interested in preventing a South Asian nuclear disaster. But this is only a peripheral interest, the United States main interest in South Asian nuclear issues is now driven largely by fear of Al-Qaida, or affiliated groups, and a possible nuclear connection.

This is a valid concern, and as a first step tight policing and monitoring of nuclear materials and knowledge is essential. But this is far from sufficient. If nuclear weapons continue to be accepted by nuclear weapon states as legitimate, for either deterrence or war, their global proliferation – whether by other states or non-state actors – can only be slowed down at best. By what moral argument can others be persuaded not to follow suit? Humanity’s best chance of survival lies in moving rapidly toward the global elimination of nuclear weapons. The US, as the world’s only superpower, must take the lead.


Reducing Nuclear Risks in South Asia

The gravity of the situation in South Asia is such that commonsense dictates the need for urgent transitional measures to reduce the nuclear risks while seeking a path to nuclear disarmament. An important set of proposals for nuclear risk reduction measures between India and Pakistan was released by the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament (MIND) in Delhi on 18 June 2002.27

There are many technical steps that can quickly be taken in South Asia, including ensuring that nuclear weapons are not kept assembled or mated with their delivery systems, ending production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, and closing down nuclear tests sites.28 Again, none of these is a substitute for nuclear disarmament.

There are also steps that might be helpful at the level of nuclear diplomacy, education, policy and doctrine, for example:

Establish India-Pakistan nuclear risk reduction dialogues. Such dialogues need to be completely separated from the Kashmir issue, a point of view that Pakistan must be brought around to. Shared understandings are vital to underpin nuclear crisis management by adversaries. There are interdependent expectations – I act in a manner that depends on what I expect you to do, which in turn depends on what you think I plan to do.

Commission nuclear weapons use and consequences studies. There is a need to increase understanding among policy makers and the public of nuclear weapons effects through commissioning public and private studies that will assess impacts of nuclear attacks made by the other on city centres, military bases, nuclear reactors, dams, targets of economic value etc.29 This will help in making clear the catastrophe that would be caused by a nuclear war and create stronger restraints against the use of nuclear weapons, as well as removing the commonly held, but false, belief that nuclear war is as an apocalypse after which neither country will exist.

Arrive at a mutual understanding that it is not in either state’s interest to target and destroy the leadership of the other and to keep nuclear weapons command centres from urban centres. Attacking political and military leadership with a view to destroying nuclear command and control is likely to be a strong incentive in early use of nuclear weapons. Given the likelihood of pre-delegation of authority to retaliate, it is most probable that such an attack will not succeed in preventing a return strike. Attacks on leadership also make it very difficult to negotiate and institute an early end to nuclear war after it has started (it might end only when all functional weapons have been used by both sides). Therefore, nuclear command centres should not only be far from civilian populations but also from nuclear weapons storage or deployment sites.

Declare a policy of not targeting cities. Nothing can ever justify the deliberate targeting of a civilian population, especially with a nuclear weapon. The population densities of the mega-cities of India and Pakistan ensure that any nuclear attack would lead to hundreds of thousands of immediate fatalities. It should be avoided at all costs.

Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian



1. Bruce Riedel, American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House, Centre for the Advance Study of India Policy Paper, University of Pennsylvania, 2002. Available on the internet at

2. Michael Richardson, ‘India and Pakistan are not "imprudent" on nuclear option; Q&A/George Fernandes’, The International Herald Tribune, 3 June 2002.

3. ‘A Surgical Strike is the Answer: interview with defence secretary Yogendra Narain’, Outlook, 10 June 2002.

4. ‘India Tests Nuclear-Capable Missile, Angers Pakistan’, Agence France Presse, 25 January 2002.

5. All quotes from Eric Arnett, ‘Nuclear Testing and Stability in Asia’, Sixth ISODARCO Beijing Seminar on Arms Control, 29 October-1 Novermber 1998, Shanghai, China. On the web at ISODARCO.PDF.

6. Mohammed Ahmedullah, ‘Indian Air Force Advocates First Strike Capability’, Defense Week, 2 January 2001.

7. ‘Agni Missile Group for Army Cleared’, The Hindu, 16 May 2002.

8. Vishal Thapar, ‘Navy, IAF Train in Handling Nukes’, The Hindustan Times, 15 February 2002.

9. Pakistan Country Assistance Strategy, World Bank, July 2002, on the web at

10. Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Stability and Nuclear Strategy in Pakistan: a concise report of a visit by Landau Network – Centro Volta,

11. ‘Bracing for a Nuclear Attack, India Plans Operation Desert Storm in May’, Indian Express, 30 April 2001.

12. Zia Mian, ‘Renouncing the Nuclear Option’, in Samina Ahmad and David Cortight eds., Pakistan and the Bomb – Public Opinion and Nuclear Choices, University of Notre Dame, Indiana,1998, pp. 47-68.

13. Yogendra Yadav, Oliver Heath and Anindya Saha, ‘Issues and the Verdict’, Frontline, 13-26 November 1999.

14. Jyotsna Singh, ‘South Asia’s Beleaguered Doves’, BBC, 4 June 2002.

15. Ayanjit Sen, ‘Indians Vague on Nuclear Terrors’, BBC, 3 June 2002.

16. Matthew McKinzie, Zia Mian, A.H. Nayyar and M.V. Ramana, ‘The Risks and Consequences of Nuclear War in South Asia’, in Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian eds., Out of the Nuclear Shadow, Lokayan and Rainbow Publishers, New Delhi and Zed Books, London, 2001, pp. 185-96.

17. Paul Watson and Tyler Marshall, ‘There’s Nowhere to Hide in India, Pakistan’, Los Angeles Times, 6 June 2002. Recently the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization claims to have developed an integrated field shelter to protect personnel from nuclear, biological and chemical agents in a nuclear war scenario. The shelter is said to be capable of accommodating 30 people and of giving protection for 96 hours. It is not known whether there are plans for mass production. ‘DRDO Develops Foolproof Field Shelters’, Indian Express, 24 May 2002.

18. Paul Watson and Tyler Marshall, ‘There’s Nowhere to Hide in India, Pakistan’, Los Angeles Times, 6 June 2002.

19. Nuclear Posture Review,

20. Nuclear Posture Review,

21. Molly Moore and Kamran Khan, ‘Pakistan Moves Nuclear Weapons’, Washington Post, 11 November 2001.

22. Luke Harding, ‘Attack on Afghanistan’, The Guardian (London), 9 October 2001.

23. Kamran Khan and Molly Moore, ‘Two Nuclear Experts Briefed Bin Laden, Pakistanis Say’, Washington Post, 12 December 2001.

24. Leonard Spector, Nuclear Proliferation Today, Vintage Books, New York, 1984, p. 124.

25. While a detailed review of events related to Kashmir, and possible solutions, would be out of place here, the reader is urged to evaluate the situation based upon a recent review by an independent Indian scholar Akhila Raman, Understanding Kashmir – a chronology of the conflict,

26. Article 370, adopted in 1949, specifically refers to Kashmir and grants it special status and internal autonomy with New Delhi having authority only over defence, foreign affairs and communications.

27. Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament, ‘Nuclear risk reduction measures between India and Pakistan’, on the web at

28. Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana, ‘Beyond Lahore: From Transparency to Arms Control’, Economic and Political Weekly, 17-24 April 1999.

29. Studies by independent scientists inform public debates and build support for peace movements, see e.g. M.V. Ramana, ‘Bombing Bombay’,, and the earlier cited study by McKinzie, Mian, Nayyar and Ramana. Classic examples are Sidney Drell and Frank von Hippel, ‘Limited Nuclear War’, Scientific American, November 1976, pp.27-37; Kevin N. Lewis, ‘The Prompt and Delayed Effects of Nuclear War’, Scientific American, July 1979, pp. 35-47; Richard P. Turco, Owen B. Toon, Thomas P. Ackerman, James B. Pollack and Carl Sagan, ‘The Climatic Effects of Nuclear War’, Scientific American, August 1984, pp. 33-43.