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August 10, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

Hiroshima, Mon Amour

There is a very good film by Alain Resnais called Hiroshima, Mon Amour, where a Frenchwoman and a Japanese man have an affair of the heart in post-apocalypse Hiroshima. They are both tortured by memories of the atomic bomb, and there is quite a lot of archival footage about the explosion and the aftereffects thereof. It is absolutely horrifying, what the bomb does to humans.

When August 6th rolls around, I think of Hiroshima; on August 9th there was, of course, Nagasaki, too. I cannot help share with the pacifist protesters, especially those in Japan, the feeling that the atomic bomb is the ultimate evil. Nevertheless, I support India's possession of a nuclear capability, for one very simple reason.

And that reason is self-preservation. The Americans dropped the nuclear bombs on Japan largely because the Japanese were in no position to respond in kind. Thus, in the single empirical case that we have, a strong power was not deterred by moral considerations; therefore, weak powers beware! If you don't have a deterrent, those who do will ride roughshod over you.

Moral issues loom large in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Large numbers of non-combatant civilians were incinerated. The immediate effect was the creation of terror in the minds of the Japanese military and civilian population. In sum, it can be called the greatest terrorist act in all of history; a crime against humanity indeed.

A recent proposal to declare the use of nuclear weapons a war crime was scuttled by the Americans. Presumably, the US does not want retroactive war crime charges laid at the feet of its soldiers; more alarmingly, perhaps the US wants to keep its options open to use nuclear weapons in the future, and does not wish to be dragged into court for war crimes.

In any case, I speculate that it is highly unlikely that the US would have bombed Japan if there were even a small chance that Japan would retaliate in kind. I base this on the fact that the body-bag syndrome -- the deaths of US military personnel -- has great domestic impact in the US.

The American public does not wish to see large casualties amongst US citizens. Whenever the body-bag count hits a hundred or two, public sentiment turns against whatever military adventure the gung-ho armed forces are engaged in. Examples: Somalia (US soldiers' corpses dragged down the street), Lebanon (220 Marines killed in a truck bomb). In these cases, recall of troops was practically immediate.

I contend that American opposition to the Vietnam war was based primarily on the body-bag syndrome -- after all, 50,000 Americans died. (Incidentally, a million Cambodians did too, essentially innocent onlookers, but then who's counting?) Therefore, Vietnam became a domestic issue, not really a foreign policy issue. Thus the media felt it appropriate to dissent: which it would not have in a real foreign policy area.

The amorality of nuclear usage that I've alluded to above is therefore one of the best reasons for India to possess its own nuclear deterrent. To be fair, the same applies to Pakistan -- what's good for the goose is good for the gander; and so Pakistan needs to possess its own deterrent vis-a-vis India.

From India's point of view, the example of Japan is very instructive. Some believe that if India were to forswear nuclear weapons, and then were to be nuked by, say, China, that the world community would come to India's rescue; and that world condemnation would ensure that China would either never attack in the first place, or else be forced to retreat. I think this is, umů, highly optimistic.

For, why did nobody come to Japan's rescue when America bombed it? Because nobody cared; nor did they want to anger the Yanks. Furthermore, there has been endless justification for the act of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is said that this helped hasten the end of the war. That it saved many more civilian casualties. Smells like rationalisation to me.

Similarly, if China were to nuke India with no fear of retaliation, I suspect there would be some hand-wringing and some breast-beating by the Yanks et al, but then they'd move on to the next headline. Just like they did with the Chinese conquest of Tibet. And over time, Chinese rationalisations will become the accepted 'truth'. A million vaporised Indians will be forgotten.

It is true that China does not suffer from a body-bag syndrome, and would be willing to sacrifice many millions of Chinese to achieve political gains. What would bother them is loss of face. If a Chinese first strike on India invited a response that knocked out a Chinese city or two, then the myth of Chinese military invincibility would be punctured. This they would wish to avoid. This sort of capability should be the goal of India's minimum deterrence vis-a-vis China.

In the case of Hiroshima, the Americans, as the victors, got to write the history books. They demonised the Japanese thoroughly as some kind of degenerate subhuman people. They claim the US saved Asia from the rapacious Japanese. Imagine, say some, if the Japanese 'fascists' had come to India, you'd have been so much worse off than under the 'civilised' British! Gandhi would have been summarily shot by the Japanese, they say.

The premise is debatable. It is quite likely that a Gandhi would not have survived if the Japanese were India's colonial rulers. But then, Gandhian tactics were meant to deal with the peculiar British mindset and certainties, their idea that they were born to rule. Other monsters would have required different tactics and different heroes.

On the other hand, that the English in particular were 'civilised' is pure propaganda, in my opinion. They were barbarians. Just ask any of their colonial subjects, even other whites. Ask the Australians (or see the film Gallipoli). Ask the Scottish (Braveheart). Ask the Irish (Molly Maguires, In the Name of the Father). Or ask the Tasmanians, who were driven to extinction by English sailors who kidnapped their womenfolk for sexual purposes.

Or read the brilliant book The Raj Syndrome -- A Study in Imperial Perceptions by Professor Suhash Chakravarthy (Penguin India). Meticulously researched and copiously footnoted from original sources, it is a scathing indictment of British rule in India. I think this book ought to be made required reading in Indian high schools, as an antidote to endemic neo-Macaulayism.

The Raj Syndrome suggests a very interesting hypothesis -- that the British, over time, began to believe their own mythology. To justify their colonial aspirations, the British created an entire world-view that suggested that they were somehow (perhaps by divine dispensation) uniquely suited to rule the world; in any case they were manifestly superior to their conquered subject peoples.

The British also invented racism, as another myth that could support their colonial ambitions. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the British gave respectability to racism. Not only known racists such as Rudyard Kipling, but even a James Mill (The History of British India) was absolutely sure that it was proper for Britain to rule Indians and other non-whites.

The British did many clever things to sustain their myths. Macaulayism was one. Another example: according to Professor Gauri Viswanathan (The Masks of Conquest), the very first place in the world where English was studied as a literary language was, surprise, surprise, Madras University! Up until that time, in the 18th century CE, only Greek and Latin literature were thought worthwhile.

English was considered merely a transactional language, not worth serious study. But the British introduced English literature to India as part of intellectual colonisation -- to convince Indians of their superiority, even in literature. And once it was successful in India, it was introduced into Ireland and other colonies, and sort of reluctantly taken up by the Oxbridges.

But what happened to the British is that over time they began to believe their own brainwashing, that they were essential to India. That the place would collapse if they left. This is why they tolerated Gandhi, as some eccentric person running around, according to that arch-imperialist Winston Churchill, in a diaper. They did not seriously believe Gandhi was a threat to them or that it was possible for India to survive without them.

They also believed that Indians were completely docile, essentially unable to take up arms in their own defence. And that is where the Indian National Army comes into the picture -- as described in The Forgotten Army: India's Armed Struggle for Independence by Peter Ward Fay, and in the recent documentary.

This rag-tag group of 50,000 had no serious chance of liberating India from the colonialists; but they certainly succeeded in creating their own mythology -- that Indians would stand up and fight for Independence. That Indians would ally themselves with others using the sound principle that the enemy's enemy is a friend. Surely this entered into the British decision to leave India?

And consider those allies -- the Japanese. Despite the current little tiff based on nuclear issues, I believe that Japan should be one of India's prime targets for good relations. The reason is that India and Japan are the two nations most threatened by a common enemy, China.

As the Americans increasingly withdraw from Asia, leaving it to the tender mercies of the Chinese Army, it is in Japan's self-interest to take a more active leadership role. Much of SE Asia has traumatic memories of Japanese occupation during World War II; India is one of the few powers that has no such hangup. An Indo-Japanese strategic plan to contain and limit China would be appropriate.

There are other reasons too: for instance, many Buddhist Japanese are interested in India as the Holy Land of their faith -- I have been on flights which carried many Buddhist monks and nuns who were coming to visit Sanchi, Bodh Gaya and Benares, and in general, the Buddhist Circuit. India should take advantage of this old cultural tie.

Furthermore, India should be promoted vigorously to the Japanese as an investment destination. Despite various hassles, the Suzuki-Maruti tie-up has done well; Sony and others have entered the market. Japanese investments in China and South-East Asia have not panned out that well. India offers an entrepot into the Indian Ocean region, including East and South Africa, as well as a transit/assembly channel into Europe.

The Japanese will eventually come out of their economic problems; as businesspeople, they are known to be long-term investors. If India can succeed in making the country attractive to Japanese industry, there could be synergy between their capital and Indian intellectual property.

In the final analysis, Subhas Chandra Bose was right, in my opinion, in entering into an alliance with the Japanese. Modern India would do well to follow in his footsteps as part of its "Look East" strategy.

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