Monday, May 10, 1998 marked a day that will not soon be forgotten. It was the day India began nuclear testing, much to the horrified shock of the U.S. and Western European superpowers. According to Arundhati Roy, a widely and extensively lauded and criticized Indian author, it is a day that will live in infamy.
“The End of Imagination (The Bomb and Me),” Roy’s response to the rebirth of nuclear proliferation, criticizes India and the Western superpowers who Roy feels are responsible for the dawn of nuclear testing in third world nations. Roy also criticizes India for actions that signify “dreadful things” like “the end of imagination. The end of freedom, actually, because that’s what freedom is. Choice.” Roy argues that India’s decision to test nuclear weapons takes away the very freedom it was intended to reinforce. India was embracing and condoning the horrors of the western culture it was trying so desperately to defy.
According to Roy, nuclear proliferation signifies a new and diabolical form of colonization and for this, she criticizes colonized and colonizer alike: “however many garlands we heap on our scientists, however many medals we pin to their chests, the truth is that it’s far easier to make a bomb than educate 400 million people.” Roy also makes a literary reference to Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness by stating that nuclear weapons “are the ultimate colonizer. Whiter than any white man that ever lived. The very heart of whiteness.”
Technocolonialism is the fusion of technology with the institution of colonialism and nuclear proliferation is one of its manifestations. The most competitive technologies that have been and continue to be at the forefront of technocolonialism are those involved with communication, namely movies, television, radio and, more recently, telecommunication. In her essay, Roy continues to rage against the technological spin put on colonialism, remarking on the near-fascist existence that the Indian people lead, basing their reality on, and emulating such western innovations as radio, television talk shows, and MTV. Consequently, this emulation produces mimicry almost identical to that seen in colonies of the pre-war era. These former colonies’ relative success or lack thereof, reinforces the boundaries set by the technocolonialists’ “be like me, don’t be like me” mentality. (See Transnationalism and Globalism)
India’s “identity crisis” is not only a function of imperialist and western European influences, but also a function of the internal political strife it has experienced, and continues to experience. The nuclear testing that India underwent was part of a political campaign devised by the Bharata Janata Party (BJP) to encourage Hindu nationalism and create an exclusive Hindu identity for India, one that failed to recognize and include 120 million of the country’s citizens (Muslims and other non-Hindus) (See Partition of India). Roy criticizes this by saying:
We in India are an ancient people learning to live in a recent nation. The nuclear bomb and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya are both part of the same political process. They are hideous byproducts of a nation’s search for herself. Of India’s effort to forge a national identity. To define what being Indian means. The poorer the nation, the larger the numbers of illiterate people and the more morally bankrupt her leaders, the cruder and more dangerous the notion of what that identity is or should be.
Nuclear proliferation results in a great deal of fallout, literally as well as figuratively. Roy names hypocrisy as an element of this fallout. One of the purported reasons behind India’s nuclear tests was to “expose western hypocrisy.”
Exposing Western Hypocrisy — how much more exposed can it be? What decent human being on earth harbors any illusions about it? These are people whose histories are spongy with the blood of others. Colonialism, apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, germ warfare, chemical weapons — they virtually invented it all. They have plundered nations, snuffed out civilizations, exterminated entire populations. They stand on the world’s stage stark naked but entirely unembarrassed, because they know that they have more money, more food and bigger bombs than anybody else. They know they can wipe us out in the course of an ordinary working day. Personally, I’d say it is more arrogance than hypocrisy.
Roy then addresses the nature of both accusation and accuser (India):
The jeering, hooting young men who bettered down the Babri Masjid are the same ones whose pictures appeared in the papers in the days that followed the nuclear tests. They were on the streets, celebrating India’s nuclear bomb and simultaneously ‘condemning Western Culture’ by emptying crates of Cokes and Pepsi into public drains. I’m a little baffled by their logic: Coke is Western Culture, but the nuclear bomb is an old Indian tradition?
Roy then extensively details the nature of India’s own hypocrisy in its efforts to be authentic. Roy points out that many elements of Indian culture have, in fact, been imported, from cuisine to education to medical care. In February 1998, the BJP became head of the leading coalition in India. The platform they took includes the rejection of western cultural imperialism, including the public condemnation and denunciation of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pepsi. However, it is this same political party that encouraged, hypocritically, the development and testing of the nuclear bomb, a western innovation.
Here we are, all of us in India and in Pakistan, discussing the finer points of politics, and foreign policy, behaving for all the world as though our governments have just devised a newer, bigger bomb, a sort of immense hand grenade with which they will annihilate the enemy (each other) and protect us from all harm. How desperately we want to believe that. What wonderful, willing, well-behaved, gullible subjects we have turned out to be.
According to Roy’s commentary, nuclear proliferation is the means for the intended end of power. The ends, however, fell short — India was the gullible eunuch its Prime Minister vociferously maintained it wasn’t; the end was that India was proven to be as much at the mercy of colonization as before.
Roy goes on to question the implications of the intended ends:
India and Pakistan have nuclear bombs now and feel entirely justified in having them. Soon others will too. Israel, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Nepal (I’m trying to be eclectic here), Denmark, Germany, Bhutan, Mexico, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bosnia, Singapore, North Korea, Sweden, South Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan — and why not? Every country in the world has a special case to make. Everybody has borders and beliefs. And when all our larders are bursting with shiny bombs and our bellies are empty (Deterrence is an exorbitant beast), we can trade bombs for food. And when nuclear technology goes on the market, when it gets truly competitive and prices fall, not just governments but anybody who can afford it can have their own private arsenal — businessmen, terrorists, perhaps even the occasional rich writer (like myself). Our planet will bristle with beautiful missiles. There will be a new world order. The dictatorship of the pro-nuke elite.
The emergence of nuclear proliferation in third world and developing countries has left many stunned, particularly those with the greatest global power. Simultaneously, the very countries that are now causing waves of global unrest are laughed at for not only their attempts at empowerment and attempts to forge national identities, but also for proving, in Roy’s analysis, the extent to which they are what they protest most: “We storm the heart of whiteness, we embrace the most diabolical creation of Western science and call it our own. But we protest against their music, their food, their clothes, their cinema, and their literature.”
Nuclear proliferation, for Roy, signifies not only that which it was intended to eliminate, but also, ironically, a re-entry into colonialism: “[O]n August 15 last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence. Next May we can mark our first anniversary in nuclear bondage.”
- Roy, Arundhati. “The End of Imagination (The Bomb and Me).” The Nation Online. Web. 28 September 1998.
- Bloch, Hanna et al. “Nukes…They’re Back.” Time Asia Magazine. 25 May 1998.
Author: Maya Jairam, Fall 1998
Last edited: October 2017