On 20 years of Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Countdown’: A Nuclear Derangement Plagues South Asia

Kumar Sundaram

A number of occasions coalesced together this month to inspire discussion around Amitav Ghosh’s scintillating career as a leading literary figure from South Asia. He received the Jnanapith Award, India’s highest official literary order; his new novel Gun Island has released and is already receiving accolades, and has been labeled a ‘cli-fi’, coming after the thought-provoking questions he raised about modern literature’s amnesia about the climate crisis in his earlier publication, The Great Derangement. His concerns about authors feeling ‘embattled, beleaguered and marginalised’ in the current atmosphere of threats on linguistic and cultural plurality in India, has resonated with the country’s liberal sections.

Incidentally, it is also 20 years since he published ‘Countdown’ in 1999 – a petite, but deeply insightful book, written soon after India’s nuclear tests. Yet the book finds infrequent mention in the several praises that have been penned in honour of Ghosh, following the award. The Indian Express recently published a full article reminding its readers of Ghosh’s prominent publications, but his powerful commentary on India becoming the world’s 6th nuclear weapons power, fell through the cracks.

Countdown, based on Ghosh’s travels across Pokhran following the 1998 nuclear test explosions, first appeared as an article in The New Yorker. However, the warm reception it received, and its translation into several languages in India and even globally, led Ghosh to expand it into a slim, but compelling book, which was published by Ravi Dayal in mid-1999.

Besides Arundhati Roy’s riveting ‘The End of Imagination’, Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Countdown’ is among the exceptionally few contributions from literary minds in India that offers a grip on what nuclearization entails for the sub-continent. At least one is not aware of any such work in Hindi, the dominant language of North India. The absence of any substantive literature on the nuclear threat in particular, and on militarism in general, even as India possesses a huge nuclear arsenal, and, even as the region has been home to four major wars over the past century, continues to intrigue me.

In Countdown, Ghosh recounts listening to the Prime Minister’s celebratory announcement as he is on his way to the test site in the Rajasthan desert, his meeting with the-then Defense Minister, George Fernandes in New Delhi, his travel to Pakistan where he met political leaders and human rights activists like, Asma Jahangir, and his musings on these developments back in New Delhi, while roaming the city with Prof. Kanti Bajpai, a leading expert on nuclear weapons and disarmament.

Although the occasion demands a detailed analysis of the imaginations and concerns that Countdown evokes, some more mundane and random thoughts occupy my mind as I re-visit the book:

– Amitav Ghosh may well have been the first nuclear critic to have arrived in Pokhran – ground-zero of the nuclear tests. His interviews with local villagers are telling – contrary to official denials, the inhabitants of Khetolai village have witnessed a rise in radiation-borne diseases and deformities among people and animals since the first nuclear tests in 1974. As Prof. Robert Jacobs of Hiroshima Peace Research Institute stated in his recent interview to DiaNuke.org, it is a myth that underground nuclear tests leave no health or environmental impacts; only, the distribution of radionuclides takes time and indirect routes. It is astounding that till date, no academic/research institution or NGO has conducted a proper study on the radiation impacts at the Indian nuclear test site in the world’s largest democracy. Ghosh notes the palpable anger among the people who prevented the leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from holding celebrations in their village following the 1998 tests, and refused to accept the trifling compensation that local officials had come to distribute in lieu of the damage to their houses and underground water tanks.

– The book, lush with interviews and anecdotes, underscores the fact that India’s nuclear tests were driven by an ambition of acquiring greater status and visibility on the world stage, rather than a response to any specific security threat from its neighbours, given that towards the end of the 1990s, relations with both Pakistan and China had actually become better than they ever had been in the previous decades.

– Ghosh also notes that the India’s nuclear proponents regard atomic weapons as a currency of international power, prestige and self-esteem, and believe that this arsenal will never actually be used. Ghosh cautions against the misplaced assumption that “the blandness of their motivations will be sufficient to transform their nuclear weaponry into harmless symbols of status.” In hindsight, especially after India’s nuclear arsenal and delivery systems have grown exponentially over the past 20 years, such narratives seem either naïve or carefully crafted to make nuclear weapons acceptable domestically as well as to outside observers.

– After returning from Pokhran, Ghosh interviews George Fernandes, his long-time friend, a former socialist stalwart who later allied with the right-wing BJP, and the Defence Minister in the Vajpayee government when the Pokhran-II tests were carried out. Fernandes comes across as a reluctant and detached politician, even as he presided over developments that were contrary to the ideological positions he had earlier held close. What Countdown misses is the fact that Fernandes was made aware of the nuclear tests only after they were conducted, despite being an alliance partner of the BJP and the-then Defence Minister. This was first revealed by Admiral Vishnu Bhagawat and later confirmed by George Perkovich, an authority on Indian nuclear policy.

– It is instructive to note here that even as the Indian public was kept in the dark about the nuclear tests, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hydra-headed Hindu right-wing organization whose political arm the BJP is, was consulted in advance. Ghosh argues that the weapons development programme in India had acquired a life of its own; even the previous governments of I K Gujaral and Narasimha Rao had toyed with the idea of nuclear tests which would have eventually happened, especially since the CTBT was perceived as discriminatory and as closing off the n-option for India forever. However, Countdown stops short of elucidating the active role played by the RSS in steering India’s nuclearization and establishing the Hindu right-wing as the unquestioned repository of Indian nationalism.

– In his sojourns across Ladakh and Siachen as part of Fernandes’ airborne convoy, Ghosh notes the intractable conditions under which Indian armed forces fight battles in extremely high-altitude regions which some of them clearly see as futile, but beyond their control. While noting the simplicity with which Fernandes mingles and dines with the army men at the border, perhaps unlike any previous Defence Minister, Ghosh is prompt in reminding the reader that in his earlier avatar, Fernandes had termed Indian armed operations in Kashmir ‘a naked dance of a bunch of sadists and criminals in uniforms’. Following the defeat of the NDA government in 2004, Fernandes lived the rest of his life in relative ignominy and passed away in January this year, 20 years after the Coundown was published.

– Further in the book, Ghosh recounts his interactions with politicians and activists in Lahore. The conspicuous despondency and anxiety that Ghosh observes in his interviews with heads of the Pakistan Human Right Commission and the Jama’at-e-Islami, are remarkable. Across the board, there appears to be a sense that Pakistan is gripped by a deep crisis – all institutions stand discredited, direct manifestations of the influence of Taliban from across the border in Afghanistan seem only a matter of time, the country’s financial meltdown seems inevitable, and a more Islamist shift as well as the nuclear turn by the Nawaz Sharif government are seen as futile, last-ditch attempts that would only exacerbate the crisis.

– However, 20 years since Countdown, Pakistan has definitely proved to be far more resilient than it had appeared at the time. Can the series of historical coincidences in the following decades that rendered Pakistan a geo-strategic necessity for both the US and China, account for this? By painting any crisis along the border as a nuclear flashpoint, Pakistan has been able to draw international attention to the skirmishes/conflicts to its own advantage, while severely limiting India’s retaliatory options. In the years since the nuclear tests, Pakistan has mostly seen elected governments successfully finishing their terms, though not without sanctions from the Army. Can this be attributed to the perverse sense of existential security that nuclear weapons provided to the country’s rulers and masses, even as Pakistan continued to dangerously expand its nuclear arsenal, and has been among the world’s top importers of military hardware over the past 20 years?

– Ghosh’s interview with Asma Jahangir, the relentless human rights activist and lawyer who stood against repressive regimes and orthodox Islamists in her country, brings to the fore not only her moral integrity as she emphatically calls for a unilateral disavowal of nuclearization by Pakistan, but also her sharp understanding of things more fundamental – “If we knew what a nuclear weapon was, we wouldn’t have people on the road distributing sweetmeats. We wouldn’t have people celebrating and dancing. They think that it’s a kite-flying contest…”.

– The uniquely catastrophic humanitarian and environmental impacts unleashed by nuclear weapons, which sets them apart from all other arsenals, has since received enhanced international emphasis and led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017 by the United Nations, as well as conferring of the Nobel Peace Prize on International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). While de-coupling nuclear weapons from the larger peace agenda has led to some progress internationally, in South Asia, this relatively de-politicised approach of ICAN hasn’t met with much success , and nuclear weapons remain enmeshed in the larger context of historical conflicts for both their supporters and opponents. What are the lessons to be learnt here? Is adopting a purely humanitarian approach possible and feasible only in the context of the Scandinavian countries, and, does South Asia need to consider more seriously, expressly discrediting nuclear weapons even as the larger conflicts follow their own course?

Countdown takes a broader view of the impacts that a potential nuclear exchange will have on South Asia. Nepal, a country that has little say in the conflicts between India and Pakistan, will be severely affected no matter which of the two regional hegemons indulges in nuclear adventurism. “No matter what the direction of the winds or who the attacker, neither India nor Pakistan would escape the fallout. The mushroom cloud would shoot so high into the atmosphere that the effect of the earth’s rotation would carry the radioactive plumes eastwards, over the high Himalayas and into the Tibetan plateau.” ‘In Nepal you would have radioactive snow’, Ghosh quotes Nepali Times editor Kunda Dixit as saying. In 2012, the IPPNW published a detailed scientific study of such prospects in South Asia and concluded that around 2 billion people will be at the risk of famine and fallout if India and Pakistan were to use nuclear bombs.

– In the final section of Countdown, Amitav Ghosh explores how imminent the nuclear danger in South Asia appears to concerned citizens and experts. Zia Mian in Pakistan and Kanti Bajpayee in India tell him that the apprehensions are real. 20 years since the nuclear tests, there are no signs of the stability that nuclear weapons had promised to bestow upon the region. Kanti also debunks the myth that India’s security has been enhanced post nuclearization – ‘India has gambled away its single greatest military advantage – the overwhelming superiority of its conventional forces (vis-à-vis Pakistan)’.

– Driving through the streets of Delhi, Ghosh prods Kanti Bajpayee to make an estimate of the potential casualties in case Pakistan explodes a nuclear weapon over New Delhi. Kanti thinks that ground zero would probably lie at the exact centre of the roadway that separates North Block from South Block, and gives a conservative estimate of a toll of 60,000 to 180,000, imagining the use of Hiroshima-style bombs. Delhi at the time had a population of 9 million, while today, over 20 million inhabit the city which has grown far more dense than at any point in history. The only faint memory that Indians have of a city being bombed, Ghosh reminds us, is one from January 1942, when Japan dropped a cluster of bombs over Calcutta (now Kolkata) – a month prior, Japanese planes had decimated Rangoon, host to over a million people from India and their thriving businesses – Ghosh recollects Hugh Tinker’s ‘The Forgotten Long March’ which chronicles hundreds of thousands walking on foot from Burma into India to save their lives, leaving behind all their belongings.

At a time, when the war drums in South Asia have grown shriller than ever and politicians of the ruling party, beginning from the Prime Minister, speak of nuclear exchange in the most frivolous manner, it is time to re-visit the Countdown. The collective amnesia on nuclear weapons in South Asia might prove to be an unaffordable derangement.

The author is the Editor of DiaNuke.org



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