Many in India hail its nukes

Pankaj Mishra is an Indian writer and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. His most recent books are “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World” (2004) and “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond” (2006).

In India, have lessons been learned from the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945?

I wish I could say yes, but that is not the case.

Let’s go back to the 1945 war-crimes tribunal in Tokyo (the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 1946-48). There, (Indian) Justice Radhabinod Pal, who was once well known in India but is now all but forgotten, argued that the Allied powers were also guilty of war crimes, citing the atomic bombings. This alienated his fellow judges at the tribunal, but as a result he became famous and respected in Japan.

In the late 1940s, Indian opinion severely judged the atomic bombings, but since then public opinion has shifted dramatically — especially since India’s first nuclear-weapon test in 1974. At that time there was not much domestic public reaction, but in 1998 when India tested nuclear warheads there were massive celebrations across the country and the Indian middle class was ecstatic. The capacity to blow up the world was seen as a great advance and marked India’s arrival, at least in the minds of the people, as a great superpower.

It is depressing that the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not been learned. The atomic bomb is just seen as a bigger, more powerful and more destructive bomb, and there is no appreciation for the devastating consequences and radioactive fallout. This is why officials and pundits can speak blithely about nuclear exchanges.

Pal’s views about atomic bombings as war crimes are completely forgotten.

The media has not been helpful, and rather is part of the problem because it has been jingoistic and nationalistic regarding nuclear weapons. India is in the grip of a “nation rising” euphoria and sees nuclear weapons contributing to the glory and international prominence of India, putting it on an imaginary par with the United States, Russia and China as a great superpower. Nuclear weapons are emblematic of national pride and widely supported by the public out of their ignorance about what they can do and what would happen if India launched one.

Were the atomic bombings war crimes?

In the early post-World War II era, yes, they were overwhelmingly seen as war crimes. Today, among those who know about the atomic bombings, virtually everyone would condemn them as war crimes. But most Indians are simply not aware of this history.

Is there support in India for nuclear disarmament?

There is a consensus that using nuclear weapons is a bad idea because the neighbor can retaliate. However, there is also a consensus that having nuclear weapons is a good idea. Back in 1998, the ruling Congress party opposed the tests, but it has since changed its stance, and all parties now support having nuclear weapons.

Antinuclear activists were discouraged under the Bush administration (U.S. President George W. Bush (2001-09) and by the deal made with India on nuclear programs. This deal reflected the influence of the India-American lobby that has a similar clout on India-related issues as the Jewish lobby has on Israeli matters. The Bush administration deal symbolized India’s rise as the central ally of the U.S. in Asia as a counterweight to China. This fantasy of India as a great superpower appeals to them because a deal with the U.S. means “Big Daddy” endorses India.

(U.S. President Barack) Obama has abandoned this Cold War thinking, and that is raising anxieties in the Indian government. But antinuclear activists are heartened by Obama’s comments about disarmament and the revival of the antinuclear movement in the U.S.