Indian and Pakistani Nukespeak: Identity Assertion Against the ‘Other’  A Review of H.K.Nizamani’s The Roots of Rhetoric: Politics of Nuclear Weapons in India and Pakistan (Praeger Publishers, Connecticut, 2000)

 Unlike North America where division of intellectual labour and diffuse competence in external affairs management are norms, foreign policymaking in the South Asian subcontinent is the exclusive preserve of epistemic communities often referred to as “strategic elite” of India and Pakistan. They define and dominate discourse on security and national interest and act to preserve this monolithic conception by various buttressing actions and exclusion of dissent. Haider Nizamani’s survey of the politics of nuclearisation in India and Pakistan focuses on the words and works of these handful of individuals or entities within respective body-politics that have copyrighted the prerogative of deciding what threats and perils confront the state and what means are to be adopted to counter them.


By virtue of enjoying supremacy over the security episteme, the strategic elite proffer particular versions of Self and Other, so that “nuclear politics cannot be divorced from the issue of identity in both countries”. The author’s central premise is that there are peculiar local identity-based dynamics behind the May 1998 decisions taken in New Delhi and Islamabad rather than the generic neo-realist Waltzian paradigm of Atomic bombs being deterrents against the enemy. Security in South Asia is seen not merely as “protection of the homeland from military attack” as dominant Western literature on the subject deems, but also as security based on denying similarity with the Other that is external, dangerous or inferior, i.e. a threat perception transcending the purely military sphere and encompassing the historic, the rhetorical and the emotional (Indian Home Minister L.K.Advani was spotted “wiping away his tears” when Pokhran II’s success was confirmed).


Nuclear discourse remained tabula rasa in Nehruvian India largely because of the helmsman’s personal beliefs. Atomic bombs were “evil” and contemptible on moral grounds besides posing a threat to the preservation of world peace. India’s position in the comity of nations was that of a great power, but this status was achievable by “representing the spiritual rather than the atomic side of humanity”, i.e. by leading the banner of universal disarmament rather than adopting a military buildup. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, architect of India’s atomic energy programme, shared Nehru’s vision of harnessing atomic energy for India’s development (industrialisation) needs and maintained that military use of the technology was inimical to an “under-developed and under-powered country”.


While India stuck to “nuclear celibacy” from 1947 to 1964, the post-Nehru discourse climbed one step onto “nuclear ambiguity”. Bhabha and Lal Bahadur Shastri declared that “if need arose”, India could go in for a ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion’ (PNE). Advocates on the political margins like the Jana Sangh, armed with “nukespeak based upon a Hindu ideal of the Indian identity”, had been crying hoarse since the Chinese invasion of 1962 for an indigenous nuclear weapons programme as a deterrent against a conventionally superior neighbour and on grounds that the Indian voice in global affairs could only be heard from a position of strength that the bomb would bestow. But neither the Chinese explosion (October 1964) nor an indecisive war with Pakistan (September 1965) could prompt a fundamental shift from the Nehruvian discourse towards overt nuclearisation in government policy.


From 1964 to 1974, the case for acquisition of weapons acquired hesitant legitimacy among academia, scientific community and mainstream parties, nucleus of an embryonic strategic elite. Expansionist China and theocratic Pakistan were pitted not only individually against peaceful and secular India but also as colluding together (for instance, that the Karakoram highway was built through exchange of Chinese and Pakistani parts of Kashmir; or that sensitive dual use technology transfer was being made from Beijing to Islamabad), a twin danger that could be deterred only by going nuclear. According to Sampooran Singh’s incipient nukespeak (India and the Nuclear Bomb, 1971), China was threatening internal stability of Indian democracy through “hostile Nagas and Naxalites” and Pakistan through the communal majority principle in Jammu and Kashmir. Nuclear weapons had to be developed inter alia “to further internal unity”. Then came the doyen of India’s security discourse, Krishnaswami Subrahmanyam (Our National Security, 1972), arguing that the nuclear programme would be a symbol of national power and pride. The PNE in Pokhran (May 1974-timed possibly to bolster Mrs.Gandhi’s falling political stock as JP’s movement picked momentum and in response to mounting Western pressure to accede to the NPT) came as a bolt from the blue to the emergent elite due to its secrecy and surprise, but they quickly built ex post facto justifications. Interestingly, PNE fell short of Subrahmanyam’s Nuclear Weapons State prescription but was still justified (perhaps as the foundation to future proliferation).


Nizamani traces present-day Indian nuclear discourse to nukespeak from the late ‘70s, centred on the concept of Pakistan’s ‘Islamic Bomb’. The writings of Subrahmanyam, Jasjit Singh, R.R.Subramanian, General Sundarji et al in this period are suffused with demonising portraits of the Pakistani nuclear programme (which many Indian thinkers believed to predate Pokhran I), commonly characterised as thievery (Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani atomic project, is represented as stealing know-how from the Dutch, the Germans and the Americans) made even more dangerous by irresponsible and “crazy decision-makers” as opposed to the indigenously built Indian atomic programme controlled by mature civilian hands. Making clear the Pakistan-centric nuclear discourse, Subrahmanyam held that “Pakistan had committed aggressions against India because it does not have adequate respect for India’s power” (a notion belied when aggression was committed in the Kargil quasi-war last year despite India going nuclear).


The rise of the BJP also helped tether the threat perception strongly to Pakistan and ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ which was India’s “clear and present danger”. China, which kick-started the nuclear debate, got relegated in the discourse, thanks to improving Sino-Indian ties through the ‘90s so much so that even the BJP conceded that “it was possible to reach an accommodation with China”. That Pakistan was the ‘Enemy’ on the eve of Pokhran II was confirmed by the ‘Draft Nuclear Doctrine’ (August 1999) which reiterated ‘no first use’ (which China has adhered to since the late ‘60s) and warned “nuclear warriors who believe in the first use of nuclear weapons” (read Pakistan). The other aspect to BJP’s nuclear vision is the idea of marrying the bomb to patriotism and national resurgence. As Advani claimed, “the primary aim of the tests was to make the people of India self-confident”, thus conveniently labelling all dissenting voices as “ISI mischief” or imperialist conspiracies that cannot countenance Indian self-assertion. Shakti se shanti, roughly translating into Reagan’s “Peace by Strength” mantra, remains the BJP’s strategic culture of which a “credible minimum deterrent” is the crown jewel.      


Pakistan followed a similar trajectory from “celibacy” to “ambiguity” during Ayub Khan’s reign (1958-’69), all the while assaying to cement a national identity with a single reference point-India. Ayub believed that Pakistan’s difference from India “went beyond the dictates of Realpolitik and into the realms of religion and Hindu pathology”, thus projecting not only a national but even ethnic and civilisational divide to consolidate the idea of Pakistan. While Indian (Hindu) hostility was accepted as implacable, the General ruled out utilising the nuclear option to deter the threat and hoped to “buy a weapon off the shelf somewhere” if India tested. It was left to the rising Qaid-I-millat, Zulfi Bhutto to inveigle nuclear politics into the discourse by amplifying the anti-India theme into a “small country facing a great monster” clash, an injustice remediable by the nuclear deterrent. In The Myth of Independence (1969), Bhutto declared in typical romantic vein, “Pakistan’s security and territorial integrity are more important than economic development”, a hierarchy of values that solidified in the wake of the loss of Bangladesh (1971) and India’s PNE. Reacting to Pokhran I, Bhutto the emotion-rouser swore, “Pakistanis would eat grass to ensure nuclear parity with India”. In 1977, just before Zia’s coup, Bhutto unleashed the nuclear genie into popular domain by cock-tailing Indian, American and Israeli hegemonic designs of subjecting Pakistan to “nuclear blackmail” and making the Islamic Bomb Pakistan’s dominant identity test.


Zia-ul-Haq’s junta (1977-’88) pursued the “nation in danger” spiel lateral to the blossoming of an epistemic community of strategic experts and a militantly fundamentalist Jamait-I-Islami. Nizamani opines that national consensus on the nuclear programme was manufactured and imposed during this period by tying the bomb to Pakistan’s twin commitments to Islam and Kashmir. Since Zia’s theocratic leanings turned the country into a citadel of Islam, terms such as “holy” and “unholy” entered the jargon of nukespeak, all opponents of weaponisation being tagged with the latter. Adherence to the atomic option also became a regular tactic for regime legitimacy, whereby “Zia and the nation had become synonymous” and ethnic sub-national urges could be transposed to nuclear dissidents under the bogey of “Indo-Jewish” conspiracies to defame and malign Pakistan. The irreversible political entrenchment of the Islamic Bomb was confirmed in post-Zia democratic set-ups, with both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif attempting to outdo each other in public eye as champions of continuation of the nuclear programme “without yielding to external pressures”.


Nizamani likens Jamait’s contribution to Pakistani nukespeak to the BJP’s in India. Pan-Islamism and the “unfinished agenda of 1947”, Kashmir, were tied into the nuclear logic by its ideologues, Khurshid Ahmad and Mushahid Hussain. A Pakistani “imagined community” devoid of heterogeneity, while impractical like BJP’s ‘one culture, one people, one identity’, is a strong institutional canvas for the Jamait’s bomb crusaders. Others, while eschewing the logocentric assumptions of the Jamait variety (eg. India and Hindu are synonymous; Islam is inherently superior to Hinduism and Judaism), have joined the nuclear bandwagon on neo-realist deterrence planks. Career diplomats like Agha Shahi and Abdul Sattar (present Foreign Minister) and military experts like Abdul Qayyum view the bomb as the only viable deterrent to prevent India from swamping Pakistan with its conventional superiority (the assumption being common that India has been the ‘aggressor’ since 1947). Indeed, the Kargil standoff in May 1999 seems to have been fed by Islamabad’s belief that presence of nuclear weapons rules out conventional war by India (curiously enough, both Indian and Pakistani nuclear arguments based on strength and deterrence have been belied in Kargil). To go back to Chagai, Pokhran II predictably led to Pakistan’s own set of explosions three weeks later, the “threshold era” giving way to bombs finally ensconcing themselves on the shelf and further marginalising the dissenting voices on the fringes.


Dissenting narratives in both countries face a precipitous existence since May 1998, drawing flak from the strategic elite, politicians and mobilised electorates and castigated on a not insignificant charge of treason. The supreme irony of history is evident because of the total reversal of roles in the dialogue. Jana Sangh/BJP and Jamait, “siblings of the same theory”, began as dissenters and trouble-shooters in the Nehru and Ayub eras when anti-nuclear activists were widely regarded as liberal and progressive. Now the boot is on the other foot. Even as an Arundhati Roy bewails the spectre of “nuclear meat hooks in the national brains of India and Pakistan”, a Kanti Bajpai accuses loss of conventional Indian superiority now that Pakistan has the “ultimate deterrent”, or a Praful Bidwai advocates immediate Indian signature to NPT, CTBT and other non-proliferation treaties, the state of Indian discourse has reached a crystallisation that ignores these voices at best. In Pakistan, Nizamani warns of a serious threat to the very existence of liberal intelligentsia that question the rationale of an economically burdensome nuclear deterrent or further still, the definition of ‘national identity’ that the strategic elite have copyrighted. Journalist Khaled Ahmad and Scientists Zia Mian and Pervez Hoodbhoy are fast vanishing phenomena in an age of nuclear nationalism where dissent has become politically incorrect.       


In my final assessment, Nizamani’s assumptions are fresh. His approach, by self-admission, is unique because it breaks free of the confines of established theoretical models (Kenneth Waltz, Barry Buzan- K.J.Holsti) upon which leading western attitudes toward Third World security issues are predicated. The only theory-conforming trend I observed (contrived?) was the importance attached to domestic inputs in foreign policy formulation (“external and internal realms were intimately linked”). The author’s Foucaultian influence in positing a direct relationship between discourse (knowledge) and practical state policy (power) in establishing “regimes of truth” struck me as a breath of fresh air by injecting the role of ideas and perceptions into a discipline thus far viewed from a narrow military-strategic lens. This book is also highly recommendable for approaching Indian and Pakistani nuclear history in a comparative framework, which though not singular, enhances the wealth of literature from a regional perspective that has poured in ever since ‘Buddha’ smiled again in the deserts of Pokhran and the ‘Islamic bomb’ shattered the silence of the Chagai hills. It is a particularly useful follow-up to George Perkovich’s epic, India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (1999).  


 A parting word about western disquiet over possible nuclear war in South Asia based on concepts such as ‘weak state’ and ‘irrational choice’ is appropriate. Nizamani’s book offers an open-ended answer. On the one hand, the intertwining of patriotism, jingoism and Kashmir with the nuclear projects does raise concern that India and Pakistan may ‘irrationally’ or emotionally activate mutually assured destruction. On the other hand, since the book has uncovered that nuclear arsenals are extensions of the political projects of dominant discourses on national identities rather than pure military means to settle scores on the battlefield, there may be hope. Zulfi Bhutto’s “thousand year war against India” is definitely on, but the betting stakes are open about the future nature of this war-conventional or mushroom clouded.                     

(Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied Indian History at St.Stephen's College, Delhi, and took a second BA in Modern History from University College, Oxford. He is currently analysing the BJP's Foreign Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science).