Sarita Sarvate

A weapon so powerful,

May 15, 1998

SALON

BY SARITA SARVATE

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The nation of Buddha, the Veddas and Mahatma Gandhi wants to be a nuclear giant.

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BY SARITA SARVATE

This week's nuclear tests by India evoked a flood of emotions for me and my countrymen.

Like every Indian of my generation, the one born after independence, I was raised to believe that science and technology were to perform miracles for "third world" countries like ours. We talked of the "green revolution" that was to feed a hungry world. We spoke of nuclear power so cheap we would not need to meter it, of nuclear medicine and nuclear vehicles.

So we studied science. During finals, our parents lighted charcoal stoves at midnight to make us tea so we could propel not only ourselves, but our families, toward a better future. Those of us who made it into the Indian Institutes of Technology, built by American and German and British aid, became heroes in our communities.

I was one of those students. Awestruck by a visit to the Bhabba Atomic Research Center and the Apsara Reactor in Bombay during the late '60s, I worked hard to become a nuclear physicist.

When India exploded its first atomic device in 1974, my friends and I cheered. After centuries of subjugation, India had entered the world stage, on its own terms. Thousands of years of thought -- philosophical, metaphysical and mathematical -- had culminated in this spectacular demonstration.

Now we have lived through three wars with neighboring nations -- the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet looming over the Indian Ocean during each conflict. Weapons no longer seem abstract concepts but real necessities of daily life. True, we gave Mahatma Gandhi to the world and preached it a lesson in nonviolence, but we had also witnessed the death of our brokenhearted idol Jawaharlal Nehru after India's defeat at the hands of the Chinese.

Our ancient epic, the Mahabharata, tells of a weapon so powerful it will destroy the world. Our ancient scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, provides a spiritual basis for deploying such a force. "It is your moral duty to annihilate those that spread evil in the world," God Krishna advises the warrior Arjuna when he despairs at the prospect of killing his own.

Not until I came to California in the late '70s was I aware of the liberal movement against nuclear weapons. Although I endorsed it wholeheartedly, a nagging unease stayed at the back of my mind -- not at my fellow graduate students' zeal to save the world, but at the absolute moral righteousness with which they viewed the universe.

In seminars and group discussions, I tried to point out that many Asian and African nations, given our shared history of colonization, viewed the U.S. and other Western governments with a legitimate skepticism and did not trust them to handle nuclear weapons any more responsibly than our governments. I tried to make them understand that the nation that was feeding its best brains to the profit-making machinery of the Silicon Valley was offended at the West's inability to treat it on equal terms in international policy.

But these arguments fell on deaf ears -- and still do.

Most people in India today are proud of its nuclear capabilities, for exactly the same reason that many Americans are proud of their country's achievements in atomic science. The nation of Buddha, the Veddas, Mahatma Gandhi, Ravi Shankar and Srinivasa Ramanujan (the mathematician) wants to be reckoned as a technological force. And having been ruled by the British for 150 years, and by the Persians and the Afghans for 600 years before then, Indians today wish to stand tall as a strong and independent nation.

For myself, I have long since abandoned my dream of becoming a nuclear physicist, turning my attention instead to the "Small is Beautiful" approach to development in countries like India. The world should not only cease any development of new atomic weapons, I believe, but should rid itself of its existing stockpiles.

But I am torn as I read the newspaper headlines. On the one hand, there is my fear for family members back home, and concern at atomic blasts still taking place in the French territories of the Pacific as well as in India. And I am outraged at the failure of America to understand the historical and cultural momentum leading up to India's actions.

But I am also glad that India has at last attracted world attention as a technological giant. I am hopeful that India's refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on the grounds that it be modified to include a clause requiring the superpowers to reduce their arsenals will now receive due attention.