When I was in Delhi, recently, I was invited to dinner at the home of General Chhachhi. He is a tall Sikh gentleman, who began his career fighting for the British in Burma, fought in all India's wars, won many medals for bravery, and ended up with six stars. The other guests, all from Pakistan, included two more retired generals, the head of a medical institute, a leading newspaper columnist, two trades union organisers, and a number of a key figures from the women's movement. They had come to India to attend an anti-nuclear convention and were being entertained by their fellow Indian peace activist, General Chhachhi.
The nuclear tests that were carried out in India in May 1998, closely followed by Pakistani tests, are widely assumed to have been popular. CNN showed pictures of jubilant Indians and Pakistanis, looking much as though they were celebrating a victory in a Test match. The tests seemed to mark the final demise of secular, humane India, the India of Gandhi and Nehru, of non-violence and tolerance. It was the coming to power of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, that led to the tests although the institutional momentum of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission was also an important factor.
Someone at the party said that the RSS, the rightwing movement close to the BJP, had killed Gandhi twice - once in 1948 and once 50 years later - with the tests.
But the BJP triumph was shortlived. Anti-nuclear groups sprang up all over India, much as in Europe in the early 80s. Opinion polls show that more than 70% of the population is opposed to the development of nuclear weapons and the popularity of the BJP has not increased.
Last year, there was a march from Pokharan, the test site, to Sarnath near Varanasi where Buddha lived and preached, to coincide with the first anniversary of the test, which had taken place on Buddha's birthday. Some 30-40,000 people took part, including 80-year-old Gandhians, veterans of the independence movement.
Some 600 people came to the anti-nuclear convention last month from all parts of India, as well as delegations from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They included villagers and people from tribal areas directly affected by the nuclear programme and activists from Kashmir fearful of the consequences of nuclear proliferation. A south Asia committee was also established.
The Indian government has an array of justifications for the tests. The demonstration of a nuclear capability is supposed to counter China and to establish India as one of five great powers on the Eurasian continent in the 21st century (the others are the EU, Japan, Russia and China). Yet the tests, at least initially, isolated India internationally and the sanctions and loss of international confidence contributed to a slowing of India's rapid rate of growth of the early 90s. Subsequent improvements in the US-India relationship are seen to have more to do with Indian achievements in both software and democracy.
The tests were supposed to expose the hypocrisy of the nuclear powers, who have pressed India to join the non-proliferation regime and to sign the comprehensive test ban, while failing to disarm themselves. Yet India and Pakistan's tests have merely contributed to American propaganda about the risks of proliferation.
The threat of an increase in nuclear weapons is supposed to stabilise the subcontinent, to provide a form of deterrence in the region. Yet the existence of nuclear capabilities has not halted the various conflicts in the region and it did not prevent a fourth Indo-Pakistan war in Kargil last year. (A ceasefire has been declared in Kashmir but it is unlikely to hold.)
India can never establish its status through nuclear capabilities. The cost of becoming a nuclear power is the real risk of war, as well as the ongoing cost in terms of the economy and democracy. Far from raising India's status, its threat to increase its nuclear capability helps to entrench the ideology of a world pecking order based on nuclear weapons - and this is an order in which India will always be inferior.
India's comparative political advantage lies in the tradition that the BJP and the RSS are trying to kill. The south Asian anti-nuclear movement could become an inspiration for global disarmament. This is the only way that the hypocrisy of the nuclear weapons powers can be effectively challenged - from below by the anti-nuclear movements, not from above by competitive armament.
Mary Kaldor is a professor at the London School of Economics. The Indian Coalition for Disarmament and Peace: firstname.lastname@example.org
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000