Is the Buddha still Smiling? Lalita Ramdas’ compelling reflections on India’s 1998 nuclear tests

Buddha is Smiling? Reflections on India’s Nuclear Tests | SACW

Letter to my Daughters, my grandchildren – Indian, Pakistani, American from an anguished woman, wife, mother, grandmother, educator!

Lalita Ramdas
May 12, 1998

It was an incredibly magnificent full moon night – Buddha Purnima, May 11 1998 – and little Nirvan, our grandson, pointed excitedly to the luminous golden orb as it rose majestically above the eastern hills surrounding this coastal town of Alibag on the west coast as we drove back homewards from our daily trip to the beach. As he and his little sister aged 18 months kept trying to grab as much as they could of the moon as it played hide and seek behind the hills each time the road curved and wound its way into the mini ghats before our home, as usual Nirvan was full/ of questions. Why is this full moon was called Buddha Purnima? Who was Buddha? When did he live? When did he die? Why was he a good man? What do you mean when you say that my name Nirvan came from him? What does Nirvana mean?

How do you explain all this to a little boy who is not quite five years old?

So grandpa and I tried – and for over an hour – we lay on the khatiya on the verandah – just watching the moon rising higher, imagining its shapes, re-telling Buddha for a small boy , enjoying the coolth, the occasional hoot of the owls and the shrieking of the lapwing which goes crazy every night. But tonight the owls were screeching more restlessly than usual and the lapwing’s dervish – like flight was more hysterical than usual as she shreiked “didudoit -didudoit?”… maybe they picked up the vibrations travelling under the surface of mother earth from a place called Pokhran, in the state of Rajasthan some 500 kms to the north and west of us.

With our 25 year old TV finally having called it a day – the usual pressure of rushing to switch on the news at 9pm was absent – and we continued to enjoy the cool and peace of the night when the rest of the towns and cities sweltered … until the telephone jangled – a friend from Mumbai to ask us to switch on the news – India had carried out three underground nuclear tests – yes – this day – Buddha Purnima, deep under the ground in the Rajasthan desert.

It was a phone call which shattered and changed many things – both the stillness and the peace of that night, and more permanently perhaps, the illusion of peace and harmony.

The lapwing was more perceptive than us mere mortals – but even she stopped her hysterical wheeling around – and left us to take on where she had left off. Phone calls, conversations and arguments late into the night – Nirvan could not sleep because his grandparents kept talking, sometimes softly, most of the time loudly and angrily – when he asked why we were fighting, we had to defend ourselves by saying this was called “arguing”. “What are you arguing about” was the inevitable next question.

And so I tried to explain the story of what had happened today – somewhere deep in the desert – many many  important people – scientists, politicians, servicemen – had ‘burst a bomb’ – this was a special kind of bomb which could not only kill people, but burn and destroy the earth, the trees, and millions for miles around – Nirvan – “Where did this happen Thatha? In Rajasthan. Is it in India? Yes darling. But then will it kill me and my sister? No darling – it is far away from here? Why do they make bombs Thatha – are they bad men? Err, not really, but this is part of their work – they do experiments and it is important to show that what they learn on the computer – they can check on the ground? But why Thatha? You tell me that it is bad to shoot or kill people and you only let me `shoot with my camera? Yes Baba, you are right – but don’t you think you should go to sleep now?

My mind has not stopped churning – the thoughts come tormentingly and endlessly.

The desert is dry, arid and hot – what must these explosions – or implosions have added to the chemistry of the desert sands and the desert air – more heat – white blinding heat that mindlessly and blindly destroys all that comes in its path – children, buildings, fields and forests…creeping silently under the desert – who knows in what direction –  silent, insidious, destructive.

…”but all the instruments showed there was no radiation” they said in the newspapers.

The politicians, analysts and the media announce with pride – this is proof of our scientific and technological prowess – now we can speak from a position of strength and power – “India now joins the club of five N-weapon states”.

…speak about what? what exactly are we proving and to whom? Will our security needs be guaranteed once and for all? what constitutes security?

The chairman of the task force set up to prepare a blueprint for the national security force believes that `these tests will add to the strength of the country not only militarily, but also psychologically… The official spokesman solemnly intones that this was the promise made to the people of India by the incoming government – namely to take all necessary steps to guarantee their security …. What about all the other promises we also made and continue to make? Were we foolish to believe that we had promised our people the right to work, education, health, shelter, food, dignity of life? That we had solemnly resolved to eradicate poverty and to give our women and children the security of a decent environment, drinking water and a school in every village?

How come those promises are still awaiting fulfilment – fifty years down the line – but this one has been devastatingly adhered to barely a month after coming to power? Impressive ? or Sinister?

The press, the media, and carefully selected voices parrot in unison – “This is a step which will be welcomed by our people – this was very important – now the world will be forced to listen to the Voice of India we will not allow ourselves to be bullied any longer.” The power of the media to influence the mass of people – educated or not – is as devastating as the explosion. Those who reacted with shock, horror and condemnation yesterday – have been brainwashed to re-think and come round to the ‘nationalist’ ‘patriotic’ line within twenty four hours.

All our efforts to build alternative points of view – to educate for peace, for justice , for education for all, and for a sustainable development – were they mere drops in the ocean – without substance, without meaning?

Two weeks ago some of us formed a National Alliance on making Elementary Education a Fundamental Right – a week later, the HRD Ministry announced it was setting up yet another review committee, and was re-thinking the
Constitutional Amendment making Elementary Education a fundamental right – where would we find the Rs 40,000 crores to put every child in school even at the current abysmal levels of quality? But today there is potentially enough money to sustain nuclear weaponry!

It is all too easy to be beset by doubts and questions – and it is true that only those who have thought this through over time would be able to withstand the onslaught of self righteous back patting, justification and rationalising – with the official propaganda and other machinery in full swing ….”maybe they are right after all – why should the Yanks dictate to us and the world – nothing speaks like power – and that flows from the barrel of the gun (or the mushrooming of the nuclear cloud) … this is part of the resistance of ex-colonial countries to neo-colonisation and imperialism”

Questions – Urgent Questions : What should the future agenda be for this small minority – because that is indeed who we are – small voices shouting in the wilderness. Do we in fact know what our own positions and thoughts are about this – we the NGOs, the educators and social workers, the representatives of civil society? Are we just unrealistic dreamers and ‘do-gooders’ – with no understanding of “real politik”? Why is it that we were unable to bring this issue of nuclearisation, militarisation on to the agenda in any meaningful way – and now it seems it is almost too late. Who will raise a voice of sanity and counsel wisdom and caution that might stem the flood of rhetoric which so easily sweeps all before it – resulting in a kind of mass exultation about possessing nuclear capability without even beginning to understand the deadly implications. Is this the nuclear equivalent of the Babri Masjid syndrome?

Is there really a chance that we can persuade people in our own land that the world may indeed respect us the more if we were in fact able to fulfil those other, more difficult promises – of providing our own humanity a decent place in the sun? Namely – to do what the Constitution of India promised:

– work to create an India where children no longer have to grovel in rubbish bins, or work in near slavery conditions, or sleep on the pavements,

– where our women and girls will no longer be bought and sold into all forms of violence and prostitution – within the home or the workplace;

– and where the meaning of self reliance and `swadeshiÇ will be truly radicalised but neither communalised or hindu-ised, nor brutalised.

– In my definition this would mean that our brightest and best – including those undoubtedly brlliant scientists and technicians who created and tested these bombs, will devote the rest of their lives and efforts to applying science and

– technology to overcoming poverty and hunger, solving the water management systems,in short- a truly humanistic application of science and technology.

– being able to build a solid foundation of a new generation of young scientifically trained and thinking young people who will raise their collective voices against future examples of this sadly immature demonstration of what national pride and power should be.

And in order to do this – it is not enough to produce a few geniuses out of a few elite institutions across India. A strong, proud and independent country can only be based upon a foundation of free, healthy and educated citizens – And the base has to be strengthened urgently and systematically across the board.

This means that we the people – (and lets forget governments who continue to say there is no money for basics) – have to find the will, the resources, the commitment to send our kids into schools, provide quality education, make them think critically. Equally importantly, we have to use all our pedagogical and communication skills to persuade their parents in communities and villages across this land that bombs and blasts and atoms and fission will neither fill bellies or guarantee peace or security, not now, not ever. But conserving water, building schools and primary health care centers, WILL!

And that is when, maybe – sometime in the future – the Buddha will smile and continue to smile – when many full moons later – on another Buddha Purnima – our Nirvana will tell his grandchildren about the true meaning
of Buddha’s message – on a farm called ‘Ramu Farm’ in a small village named Bhaimala.


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