Nuclear tests -- a call for a new world order

June 10, 1998|By Sarita Sarvate

A YEAR AGO, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of India's independence. The British literary magazine Granta issued a special India edition. The New Yorker followed suit, with a nostalgic look at the aftermath of British rule in India. The beautiful Arundhati Roy was hailed as a new literary genius.

Looking back, it seems such a magical moment in history -- as if nations around the world were acknowledging not just 50 years of freedom from colonial rule but the ushering in of a new world order, one in which there were no first-class citizens or second.

Today India is making headlines again, along with Pakistan, with nuclear tests on the subcontinent. But this time the West is not cheering.

India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has called on "all nuclear states . . . and the international community to join . . . in a convention to deal with . . . all nuclear weapons in a global, nondiscriminatory framework." At the dawn of the new millennium, an ancient civilization has called for a new world order in which nations would negotiate arms reduction.

The superpowers have responded to the call with utter indifference; indeed, they held their own convention in Geneva, without India or Pakistan.

"Stop playing with fire," President Clinton seems to be saying to the leaders of India and Pakistan.

Pentagon experts

The countries of South Asia do not have the wherewithal to use nuclear weapons in a strategic, responsible manner, Pentagon experts claim, and might set them off in a fit of passion. Military strategists are preaching that the poor countries of South Asia should not waste their precious resources on nuclear tests instead of uplifting the lot of the masses.

It seems we are back with the old world order, in which "Third World" countries are underdogs, and Western leaders are patriarchs. Certainly no one in the media here has questioned the role of America as the moral cop of the world.

But most Indians and Pakistanis see it differently. Does America not have hungry and homeless, they ask. Does America not spend billions of dollars on its so-called defense while begrudging paltry millions for its welfare recipients? They know that America, the world's richest country, has some of the world's poorest schools because it takes money away from its children to give to weapons builders. In their eyes, America has no moral ground to stand on.

Unlike the people of the United States, the people of South Asia have long memories. They know that long before America was "discovered," an advanced Indian civilization produced "cotton so fine, a garment could be folded inside a thimble." Long before Europe's barbaric tribes were killing each other, the Indian scholar Chanakya had written an economic and political treatise, the "Arthashastra."

U.S. experts claim that America will always be the economic, military and moral leader of the world. But for residents of the Indian subcontinent, Western ascendancy seems a mere split-second in recorded history.

"Third World" countries want the consumer goods, the infrastructure, the luxury that Americans have, U.S. analysts say. Perhaps they do. But even during America's most affluent 1960s, most Indians berated America for problems of teen-age sex and violence, its breakdown of family life, its horrifying street crime -- and the bystanders' apathy toward it -- just as they talked glowingly of its smooth multi-lane highways and gigantic department stores.

Scandal capital

Long before CNN came along, American scandals, political and social, were the fodder of Indian newspapers. Patricia Hearst's kidnapping and Watergate are forever intertwined in our collective memories.

The treatise of "Arthashastra" laid down guidelines for a king's behavior in the year 325 B.C. The ruler must learn to control his "six enemies" -- lust, anger, greed, vanity, hautiness and exuberance. Mr. Clinton might think himself the moral leader of the world, but the South Asian populace grimaces while imagining his alleged promiscuities as he preaches restraint.

India's political rhetoric indicates that it is more interested in the superpowers reducing nuclear arsenals and less interested in melting down the subcontinent. Perhaps the South Asian position on the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty is purely symbolic, but the metaphor cannot be overstated. The timing of the nuclear tests is not purely coincidental. Fifty years after the end of colonialism, old underdogs are demanding new respect.

It is time for the powerful nations to sit down with the less powerful in a spirit of cooperation and negotiate arms reduction on all sides. Only then will we begin to forge a new ideology of equality for the new millennium.

Sarita Sarvate is a California writer and physicist who was born and raised in India. She wrote this for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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