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Beyond the euphoria

Print edition : May 23, 1998

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To hail the "achievements" of Indian scientists in the tests and to claim that they have delivered "security" to the people, is to take a somewhat short-sighted view.

THE current euphoria about Indian science and technology generated by the successful nuclear tests has little parallel in the history of independent India. Official pronouncements, statements by leading political figures or political parties and media commentaries invariably begin by hailing the event as a triumph of Indian scientific expertise.

This trend is not new. In India, major achievements and milestones in the development of indigenous capabilities in science and technology have always been greeted with justifiable enthusiasm. But in the present case, the enthusiasm has gone well beyond that level, with marked jingoistic overtones, ranging from street demonstrations and processions to the Prime Minister's residence to editorial writers waxing eloquent on how the same spirit of success must extend to all fields of national endeavour. Indian science is seen as having established the country as a nuclear weapon power, making it a "global player" that cannot be "ignored" by the other nuclear weapon states.

So what exactly has Indian science, particularly nuclear science, achieved in the current context that would justify this enthusiasm? These tests appear to have two technically noteworthy features. The first, of course, is the explosion of a thermonuclear device, popularly known as the "hydrogen bomb". It appears possible that the triggering mechanism for this may have been of a significantly advanced design, comparable in quality to those well-known to be in use by other nuclear weapon powers, apart from an entirely new method of producing the hydrogen isotope, tritium, involved in the device.

The second noteworthy feature was the explosion of fission devices that are of low yield (three such explosions seem to have been performed altogether), which permitted the gathering of data that would make it possible to do further testing of fission devices purely by computer simulation and so on, without recourse to actual explosions. The second feature, relating as it does to methodologies that are known to be in use only in fairly recent times even in countries such as the United States and France, has in particular, been hailed as a major achievement. India thus can seek to join the select band of nations that can undertake what is known as sub-critical testing.

Apart from these features, reliable reports from various sources indicate that there were other significant technical inputs involved, including high-quality computer programmes and expertise from the fields of high-pressure physics, reactor physics and experimental ballistics.

BUT two considerations should make us pause for a less euphoric evaluation of these advances, significant though they may be in purely technical terms within the limited domain of nuclear weapons technology. The first consideration is, how advanced is this advanced technology that India is supposed to have mastered? It is worth noting that the time-lag between the development of these testing methodologies in the U.S. and its adoption by countries such as France has itself been quite short.

This suggests that the degree of complexity and sophistication required may not be quite so high as it seems. To obtain a better idea of the scale of advanced technology involved, it is interesting to compare India's achievements in nuclear testing to the degree of advance it has made with regard to the development of a fast breeder reactor on a scale suitable for power generation. The Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam was completed last year, years behind schedule, a good part of the delay having been caused by the loss of the collaboration with France. A full-scale power-producing reactor is still on the drawing board.

The point is that, in the nuclear field, weapons technologies are in several respects simpler than those relating to peaceful uses such as power generation, where India's performance, though noteworthy in many respects, still leaves tremendous room for improvement. It is also useful to note that much of nuclear weapons technology is secret in nature, and this secrecy adds to the feeling of triumph that accompanies the acquisition and mastery of such technology. This secrecy also contributes to the ease with which the bogey of the competitor having stolen a march on India can be raised, a feature well known throughout the period of the Cold War.

The second consideration with respect to these claimed advances in the arena of nuclear weapons testing is what gains have really accrued or will accrue in terms of strategic and tactical advantages in relation to the powers and forces that are perceived to be a threat to India. In this regard, two simple points are clear from the long history of the Cold War. The first is that leads in weapons technologies will always be short-lived. The other side will catch up at some point, resorting to desperate measures if necessary. The second is that it is not exactly necessary that the sophistication of the armaments needs to be perfectly matched on both sides. Even with one sophisticated player, the other player needs only a few weapons of just the Hiroshima category with rudimentary delivery systems, in order to raise significantly the dangers of a nuclear confrontation. Thus, to hail the "achievements" of Indian scientists in these tests and to claim that they have delivered "security" to the people, as scientists like Raja Ramanna have done, is to take a somewhat short-sighted view.

QUITE apart from these considerations, another negative feature of the current situation is the delivery of science as a tool into the hands of ultra-nationalistic jingoism. We have indeed come a long way from the original vision of Homi J. Bhabha, and others of his era like Vikram Sarabhai, who saw science as an integral tool in the task of development. We have travelled very far from the vision of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who saw in science and technology projects, "the modern temples of independent India", to an insecure nationalism that sees nuclear explosions as the only means to secure "respect" for India in the community of nations.

Even if the earlier Nehruvian vision of science had its share of naivete in its underplaying the role of socio-political change as an important aspect of development (land reforms were never as important as the Green Revolution), it nevertheless had the not-inconsiderable merit of a humane and peaceful world-view as its fundamental premise. The current scene seems to have room only for unrelieved hawkishness, cloaked occasionally in the language of strategic analysis that sees scientific achievement purely in terms of the power advantages that it brings. Characteristic of the current jingoistic euphoria is the impatience with all subtleties in nuclear policy, foreign affairs, or related questions. If India is nuclear weapons capable, so goes the argument in one instance, popular with scientist-commentators, it must test such weapons.

But perhaps the worst aspect of the nature of the current public discourse on the nuclear question is the complete absence of any sense of horror at the induction of such weapons of mass destruction, or even a sense of sober reluctance at the thought of their possible use.

Participants in panel discussions on television, show hosts, studio audiences, scientists in talk shows of various kinds, all of them (with a few honourable exceptions) sustain the discussion in the bland language of strategic analysis. "Nuclear weapons are not weapons of war," intones a strategic affairs analyst on a BBC discussion panel, "they are political weapons." The Prime Minister, speaking to a cheering crowd in front of his residence, assures them: "We will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if we need to, in self-defence." Where exactly will he explode them? Will it be in Punjab, in Kashmir? If it is on foreign soil, will Indians remain uncontaminated by the fallout? Such questions are not asked in the din of celebration and euphoria that follows his statements.

If there is one lesson that has to be learnt from the years of tension that was the Cold War, it is this. Nuclear weapons do not add to security. Nuclear weapons breed tensions, their induction and further development breeds only endless cycles of destructive competition that developing countries in particular can ill afford. And once nations begin to travel down that slippery slope, it is not easy to stop. All through the years of the Cold War, the consistent Indian position on nuclear disarmament remained a beacon of hope to democratic and progressive forces, both in the Third World and in developed countries.

India was often joined in its efforts by the best of scientific minds throughout the world, many of whom spent a serious fraction of their time fighting for peace and against nuclear war. From the great Albert Einstein onwards, through the years, in movements like Pugwash and others, scientists consistently fought the idea that nuclear weapons provided security or that nuclear conflicts could be won. While standing firmly against nationalist chauvinism and jingoism, progressive intellectuals and scientists, in India and in South Asia in general, need to go back to the lessons and inspiration of that experience.

Dr. T. Jayaraman is a theoretical physicist working at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

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