On Nuclear Testing on the Subcontinent
by Mukul Pandya
Two months after my wife and I came to the U.S. in the fall of 1989, an incident occurred that I will always remember. Late one evening my uncle and I were on our way to a mall in Columbia, Maryland. Suddenly, we heard a sound like a firecracker exploding in the distance, the car swerved, and one of the front tires went flat. Having never driven before, I had no idea how to change a flat tire but I pitched in clumsily to help. To make matters worse, then the jack bent out of shape. We had just begun to wonder if we would be stranded on the highway that night, when a car stopped and a young man climbed out. Within minutes, he had whipped out his jack, propped up our lurching car and helped us replace the tire.
We thanked him, of course. The man looked so much like an old friend from Mumbai that I asked him if he had ever been there. "Never," he replied. "I'm from Islamabad."
That, as far as I remember, was my first meeting with a native of Pakistan, a country I had been conditioned to regard as the enemy, much as an American of my generation might have considered the Soviet Union. The friendly helpfulness of this encounter, however, demolished that myth. What remained was the knowledge that in this new geography, old fights were left behind, submerged in the stronger identity of being South Asian immigrants.
After India's nuclear explosions at Pokhran in May, though, I realize how hard it is for old fights to end. Ancient antagonisms run deep, and in past weeks they have spilled venomously across national borders. L.K. Advani, a leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP, growls darkly about war, as does, Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The nuclear mushroom looms larger over South Asia than it has ever done in memory. Even those who should know better succumb to the viciousness of the hour. On a discussion group of South Asian journalists in North America, professional writers describe one another as idiots and mad dogs.
If the rage is so virulent, one reason might be that it is born of vivid memories. I remember the current of danger that rippled through our school in 1971, when the class intercom crackled and the principal announced somberly, as if he were announcing the death of a rich trustee, that India and Pakistan were at war. Patriotism then, as today, was a frame of mind that simultaneously unified and divided. Us versus them. The curfews, the huddled listening to the radio during the blackouts, the air-raid drills all these combined to foster an unspoken esprit de corps. One classmate, a quiet, good-humored boy aged 12, drew savage caricatures of General Yahya Khan, Pakistan's president. General Sam Maneckshaw, who then led Indian forces, was his hero. Again, Us versus Them. It was a simple view of the world, as simple as hatred.
The trouble is that the world is not a simple place, and hatred is a dangerous solution, no matter what the problem. I saw that in another outpouring of violence. The year was 1968, or perhaps 1967. One afternoon a stream of petrified parents descended upon our school, desperate to take their sons home. The whisper went around: the Shiv Sena, a fascist Hindu party, was on a rampage, burning buses, stoning trains, destroying shops. Maharashtra for Maharashtrians! was the battle cry. As the city burned, my classmates and I waited for our parents with pounding hearts. I have never forgotten the terror on the face of a friend, a brilliant Tamilian, whose parents were among the last to arrive. Their cab had been stoned, and then stopped because of the curfew, and they had to walk for miles to reach the school.
That is one of the reasons I feel sad that after the Pokhran explosions, the Shiv Sena, an ally of the ruling Bhartiya Jananta Party, is being lionized as a national savior. It is nothing of the kind. That remains true no matter how vehemently people denounce the hypocrisy of the Western nations, which have themselves conducted nuclear tests but would impose sanctions on others who pursue the same course. But hatred is not the solution to hypocrisy. Ultimately, it always makes things worse, not better, for everyone involved.
Technology has now reached a stage where it threatens people far beyond national borders. When bombs explode, wounds bleed painfully on each side of a frontier. At times like these, what we need is new ways of thinking ideas that transcend the bounds of narrow patriotic prisons. More than ever before in history, the geography of the world has made it an interdependent place. The key to our survival lies in whether we can help one another read and heal and grow. And when the need arises, whether we can help one another change flat tires.