Resurrecting Pacifism

As Anand Patwardhan's Jung aur Aman (War and Peace) languishes before the Indian Censor Board, it is clear that there has never been a more important time than this summer for Indians to watch the film. The threat of war with Pakistan has been its most urgent since the film was completed. Politicians on both sides have spoken in cavalier terms of mutual nuclear strikes. To top it all, the election of A. P. J. Abdul Kalam -- the architect of the 1998 nuclear tests -- for President of India has been broadly celebrated, confirming Patwardhan's observation that scientists have become the country's new war heroes. If for nothing else, watch this film to see the scientific establishment stripped of its popular halo of neutrality.

Jung aur Aman is a monumental cinematic effort about nuclear nationalism, and Patwardhan reflects on its origins and consequences in South Asia, Japan and the United States. The film has two parts, the first exploring nuclear hostilities between India and Pakistan, and the second revisiting the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and in the United States. It is very loosely structured, and shifts easily between the macho posturing of religious extremists, the complicity of the scientists with war-making, the persistence of Indian, Pakistani and Japanese peace activists, the consequences on civilians of nuclear testing and mining of fissile materials, the Kargil war, the Tehelka corruption revelations, the international arms trade, the terrible consequences of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fraudulent rationale for dropping them. In spite of the film's ambitious range of topics, and considerable length -- three hours -- it never becomes unwieldy, in part perhaps because it never stops presenting fascinating footage, and in part because so much needs to be said in our troubled times about making peace. Although the filmmaker opens with the statement that pacifism has come to be known as "the idea that failed," he heroically demonstrates why it should not die.

There is a moment early in the film when Dr. Raja Ramanna -- who oversaw India's first nuclear tests -- confides to the interviewer that a grazing cow could have upset the test by walking into a set of cables near the blast site. But luckily enough, Ramanna explains, the animal jumped over the cables, perhaps because "we worship cows and it cooperated with us." The response that this anecdote evokes -- somewhere between a cringe, a laugh, and utter despair -- is one you experience frequently while viewing this film, packed as it is with absurd revelations and disturbing ironies.

Patwardhan's virtuosity lies in evoking shockingly honest responses from his interviewees and in arranging them in ways that pummel his narrative forward. His subjects end up speaking for him -- less often through voicing his positions and more often through crystallizing the contradictions that he aims to expose. Take for instance the cheery spectator at an arms trade exhibition who declares that since India is getting help from international sources for Gujarat's earthquake relief, the country can now focus on buying arms and being a superpower. Or a man on a Mumbai street who is unconcerned that his city is a target of a nuclear attack because "India is now strong."

The word "superpower" appears relentlessly on the lips of Patwardhan's subjects. The hyperbolic ring of the term matters more to them than its meaning; many of Patwardhan's interviewees are calling for India to be recognized on a world stage as something other than a poor country. Perhaps it is not a contradiction that in a land where so many experience basic deprivations, policy makers focus on success in symbolic realms. Perhaps it is the case that the daunting nature of problems faced produces the impulse for instant -- albeit illusory -- successes of the military kind. Hence the rush to leave the travails of everyday life and enter this other glorious world; hence the talk of going to the moon, while others struggle to stay on earth -- to paraphrase one interviewee.

In many ways, this film builds on the theme of two Indias. The familiar divide between the rural and the urban is now elaborated as a divide between those who cherish Delhi's otherworldly promises of military successes, and those who speak the language of non-violence. While urban Indians -- fundamentalist and secular alike -- crow about the scientific establishment's successes, it is a few concerned individuals (in this case Gandhian physicists Sanghamitra Gadekar and Surendra Gadekar), and not the government, who monitor the effects of radiation on people living around nuclear testing and uranium mining sites in rural Rajasthan and Bihar. That the high incidence of radiation-related cancer and deformities among civilians, documented powerfully in the film, has passed unnoticed is a quiet scandal.

Perhaps such problems go unnoticed because of the disjuncture between the urban and rural India, and the middle class identification with NRI aspirations. The film provides ample evidence that the NRI who lives in America provides the frame of reference for Indians gauging the country's international status. Both Pramod Mahajan and Abdul Kalam relate stories of NRI Indian students who, after the 1998 tests, hold their heads up high because American schoolmates now supposedly respond to them with awe. NRI experiences are now the staging ground for mainland Indian ambitions, and policy makers seem to answer more to Indians abroad than those who are their charge.

It is important to note that the fundamentalist forces, who Patwardhan has consistently taken on over the past decade, are not the only beneficiaries of nuclear adventurism. In many ways it is those South Asians with transnational connections -- either living abroad or circulating in transnational forums -- who have also gained from the increased attention to the subcontinent. Policy makers, researchers and academics in particular have suddenly found their views in demand. While the brinkmanship of Indian and Pakistani leaders now makes international headlines, progressive South Asians are faced with a new challenge -- of disputing orthodoxies about subcontinental politics being newly circulated by talking heads. The crucial one, in my view, concerns the question of Kashmir. So much is being said currently on radio talk shows, newspapers and internet forums; at the same time, very little is really new -- the recognition of autonomous Kashmiri aspirations remains minimal.

Over the past few months, the wagering of millions of lives by subcontinental politicians has proceeded largely unremarked on their home streets, while drawing shock and alarm elsewhere. I have never been asked as many questions about South Asian politics in my ten years living in the United States as I have in the past month. I have never had people asking me not to travel to India for my vacation. I have refuted friends' fears by relying on the hope that accidents and miscalculations will not lead to nuclear strikes. The fragility of this hope becomes evident when watching Zia Mian's Under the Nuclear Shadow. This is a short film set in Pakistan with the same broad theme as Jung aur Aman -- nuclear nationalism -- and its strongest feature is a careful explanation of the risk of accidental firing of nuclear weapons. In the event of a military confrontation between India and Pakistan, there is only a 3-4 minute window for acting on reports -- true or false -- about missiles fired by the enemy. Parvez Hoodbhoy's seasoned insights (based on a long track record of anti-nuclear activism) coldly remind us of how likely miscalculations can be. This film has a considerably more pedantic tone than Jung aur Aman, but like the latter, it provides disturbing glimpses into the minds of religious extremists in Pakistan. The similarities between Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists -- their chilling desire to wipe each other off the map, their hunger for attention and even the bizarre phrases they share such as "every child is an atom bomb" -- are in full view when watching these films together.

If there is a gap in these films it is in their silence on how to resolve the issue of Kashmir. While peace activists have typically steered clear of discussing Kashmir in order to create a space for dialog on other fronts, I am increasingly convinced of the limits of this strategy. In not presenting their specific views on this issue, the air is left crowded with the voices of the hawkish. This critique applies more to Jung aur Aman than Under the Nuclear Shadow, as the former is a far more ambitious film. While Patwardhan presents unforgettable moments of likeminded camaraderie between Indians and Pakistanis, it is odd that no interviewees speak about Kashmir. In one part of the film, there is a long interview with the family of an Indian soldier killed by militants in Kashmir, but this does not amount to a clear statement by the filmmaker. Given the centrality of Kashmir to the tensions between the countries, this silence becomes the proverbial elephant in the room.

These two films will probably be more widely watched abroad, if not in India and Pakistan. Patwardhan's film however deserves a place in the library of everyone troubled by the question of peace-making, South Asian or otherwise. His loving portrayal of Gandhi's legacy, basic questioning of why a nuclear bomb has ever been used, and unsparing examination of its consequences will fire the spirit of those who call themselves pacifists and change the hearts of many who do not.

Getting the Films

Pakistan and India Under the Nuclear Shadow

Produced and directed by Pervez Hoodbhoy; written by Zia Mian

The film can be ordered by contacting:

Eqbal Ahmad Foundation
P.O. Box 222
Princeton, NJ 08542-0222, USA

Interested folks can also read the following book, available at most electronic bookstores: "Out of The Nuclear Shadow," Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian eds. (Rainbow, Lokayan and Zed Press).

Jung aur Aman (War and Peace)

For details on procuring Anand Patwardhan's Jung aur Aman, please see


These two films will probably be more widely watched abroad, if not in India and Pakistan. Check this for more

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