India Bomb Cries: 'Respect Me'
Rivalry with Pakistan isn't the point, say Indians. The bomb is meant to put 970 million people on the world stage.
India's nuclear-bomb-building program isn't really about deterring China, as this country's defense minister has suggested.Skip to next paragraph
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It isn't even about Pakistan, even though the two nations treat each other as enemies.
It's about "you" - as several Indians put it in recent conversations - meaning the United States. It is about contempt, a word that comes up often when people here talk about how they think India is perceived abroad.
Listen to I.K. Gujral, a recent prime minister, talking about India's perennial attempts to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council: "They're all talking about [bringing in] Japan and Germany. What about a billion people who live here? The more we demand, the more they treat us with contempt."
Or hear Mani Shanker Aiyer, a former member of Parliament who helped devise an Indian proposal for global nuclear disarmament: "The West ignored it contemptuously."
And Veena Talwar Oldenburg, despite her tenured position at the City College of New York and her US passport, labels US reaction to India's tests as scolding. Indians "don't want to be treated contemptuously," she says.
What is striking is that none of these people would identify themselves with the nationalist and Hindu-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leader of the coalition government that decided to explode nuclear devices May 11 and 13. But the BJP, whose name translates to Indian People's Party, timed the blasts well.
The explosions have perked up a huge and democratic nation long frustrated with its low standing in world affairs, especially now that India has shown impressive rates of economic growth in recent years. Many people here say that India, more than China, is a superpower in the making - a free country with a growing middle class and a well-educated work force that is finally getting its act together.
So even someone like Mr. Aiyer, a vociferous BJP opponent who says having nuclear weapons is pointless and "idiotic," reserves his most bitter harangue for the United States. The ultimate provocation for India's tests is "you," he argues to an American reporter. "If you go on insisting you need weapons for your security, whether it's a penknife or a nuclear bomb, you can't teach us to obey a doctrine in which you say it's right for you to hold them and wrong for us to."
Mr. Gujral says the world would not pay attention to how threatened Indians were feeling. Although he says he perceived no "imminent threat" during his recent tenure in the prime minister's office, he says New Delhi's defense planners had become worried about an "ominous" scenario. China, to the north, is nuclear-armed, and in recent years had been helping Pakistan to develop the nuclear capability it demonstrated late last month.
Gujral says India also had begun to worry about the "Diego Garcia factor," a reference to an American military base on an island of that name in the Indian Ocean, as well as sharing in the concern that states such as Iran and Iraq might acquire the bomb.
As many analysts here have argued lately, nonproliferation doesn't feel very solid in South Asia.
Of course not everyone is so exercised about the US or even about the bomb. "In most of the rhetoric, there's this sense of 'Now we can hold ourselves up to the Americans,' " says Urvashi Butalia, a writer and publisher. "But the question is, who cares?"
And in a country where 48 percent of the population is illiterate, there is vast ignorance about the nature of nuclear weapons and their effects. Reports from the countryside say that few villagers are impressed by the bomb; their main concerns remain economic and social development.