At 3:45 [P.M.] on May 11, 1998, the ground near Pokharan in Northwest India shook ominously, and the recording needles on seismographs around the world jumped with alarm. India had exploded the first in a series of nuclear test devices. A little more than two weeks later, neighbor and rival Pakistan answered in kind with its own series of tests. "I cannot believe that we are about to start the twenty-first century by having the Indian subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the twentieth century," a distressed President Clinton said.1
The entry of India and Pakistan onto the roles of declared nuclear weapons powers and its meaning for global security and arms control will be extensively discussed in Chapters 12 and 13. What is important here is to see how India's nuclear tests relate to the rise of nationalist religious traditionalism in India and the vision of Hindutva, a concept that intermixes Hindu theology and nationalism.
Eighty percent of India's population of 890 million adheres to Hinduism, a religion whose origins are at least 3,500 years old. Another 14 percent, mostly in the northwest, are Muslims, and Christians and Sikhs each account for about 2 percent of the population. Religious tensions are not new in India, but the rise of a Hindu fundamentalist movement, politically represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is both a symptom and a cause of increased religious tensions (Jaffrelot, 1995).
In the 1996 elections, the Hindu nationalist-oriented BJP captured enough votes and seats in India's parliament to be asked to form a government by India's largely ceremonial president. Even though the BJP had less that one-third of the seats, its leader and prime minister-designate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, formed a shaky coalition government. It fell in after only 13 days, but the BJP was far from finished.
India's travails, general government ineffectiveness, and continued nationalist sentiment brought the BJP and Vajpayee back to power after elections in early 1998. Statistically, the BJP won only 25 percent of 344 million votes cast and 178 seats in the 543 member Lok Sabha, the dominant chamber in India's parliament. That was only a little better than two years earlier, but it was enough to allow the BJP to regain power and to move India into the nuclear age.
The rise of the BJP has caused concern in India and abroad (Bouton, 1998). Muslims and many Hindus feared that a BJP-controlled government would try to suppress religious and cultural diversity in India. Vajpayee has regularly tried to dispel such concerns, but he has also proclaimed that "appeasement" with Muslims and other minorities would "injure the Hindu psyche," and he also has spoken repeatedly regularly of Hindutva. 2
Vajpayee himself is a moderate, at least by BJP standards, but many Hindu nationalists are virulently strident. Some BJP supporters even speak of Akband Bharat, the unification of the entire Indian subcontinent (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan) under Hindu Indian leadership. According to one nationalist leader, Srikanth Joshi, "Muslims are converted Hindus but they have forgotten their Hinduness. So we will awake them to their Hinduness, and in time they will realize their mistake."3 Another leading BJP fundamentalist zealot is Balasaheb Thackeray, who dominates Bombay politically from his position as head of the Hindu ultranationalist group Shiv Sena, which means the "Army of Shiva," after the Hindu god of destruction and cosmic dissolution. Among Thackeray's views- "In Hindustan you have to be Hindustani."4 Muslims and others were also dismayed when Vajpayee named Lal Krishna Advani as his interior minister. The interior minister controls the national police, and Advani is a strong nationalist who remains under indictment on charges that in 1992 he incited a crowd to destroy a sixteenth-century mosque in the city of Ayodhya.
The BJP's platform advocates not only the return of India to its traditional Hindu culture, but also the resurrection of the India that was once a great power. Many Hindu nationalists have maps depicting the ideal of Akhund Bharat, "Old India," with territory encompassing Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The BJP has pledged to deal with Pakistan more sternly about the disputed region of Kashmir, which separates them. Vajpayee and other BJP leaders also hinted that they would make India a declared nuclear power, and they kept their word on the afternoon of May 11.
There are a range of strategic arguments that India has made in support of its decision, but a review of the rhetoric clearly shows the strong traditionalist, nationalist influence in the thinking of India's leadership. Vajpayee evoked India's "past glory and future vision to become strong." 5 He also contended, speaking in English and mixing nationalist and religious imagery, that nuclear arms are "a necessary component of overall national strength....The greatest meaning of the tests is that they have given India shakti." 6This is the Hindi word for power that is commonly used when referring to the strength of Hindu gods.6 It is also worth noting that the code name for the nuclear devices was Shakti. Other Indian leaders also took that nationalist line. The defense minister, George Fernandes, dismissed threatened international sanctions by telling Indians, "We have become a very soft people, and we must realize that nations are not built through soft options. One has to be willing to live a hard life."7 As Bombay boss Thackeray declared, "We have to prove that we are not eunuchs." 8
It must be said that there was dissent in India, but the many Indians celebrating in the streets and shouting, "Bharat mata kijai" (victory to mother India) drowned out the voices of the few who dared to speak. Hindutva and the glory of Bharat--or perhaps destruction--came a little closer.
1. Newsweek, June 8, 1998, p. 25.
2. New York Times, May 16, 1996, p. A1
3. New York Times, February 16, 1998.
4. New York Times, November 3, 1995, p. A6.
5. New York Times, May 16, 1998, p. A5.
6. New York Times, May 16, 1998, p. A5.
7. New York Times, May 5, 1998, p. A6.
8. New York Times, May 13, 1998, p. A14.