Mumbai's terrorist outrage of November 26 has found a response truly matching it in madness. A call for a nuclear war - and nothing less - has come as the culmination of warped and warlike reactions to the traumatizing tragedy, which has claimed a toll of 200 lives.
The demented call, which still cannot, unfortunately, be dismissed as inconsequential, is not only a regional war of the said, scary description. It is also one for a global conflict of the kind.
Fittingly, the call has emanated from the real fuehrer of India's far right. He may be relatively unknown to the outside world, and less known even in his country than political leaders of the "parivar," as the far-right "family" labels itself. But Kuppahalli Sitaramayya Sudarshan is the supremo of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the misleading name meaning the National Volunteers' Association.
The RSS holds a commanding position in the parivar, as its patriarch and ideological fountainhead. It has a hold over the political front of the "family," the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well. Party leaders - even of such notoriety as Narendra Modi, who gloried in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, and of such national-level ambitions as Lal Krishna Advani, styled as the "shadow prime minister" - have always had to proclaim loyalty of the RSS from time to time.
The RSS, as every political reporter in India knows, has tightened its hold over the BJP in time for the parliamentary elections to be held by May 2009. Sudarshan's clarion call came in the course of an interview with a freelance journalist and was quoted first in a leading Pakistani newspaper on December 12. Asked if India should go for a full-fledged war with Pakistan, 77-year-old Sudarshan said, "If there is no other way left. Whenever the demons start dominating this planet, there is no way other than the war. Tell me if there is any other way out. But war should be the last resort. Before that India should consider other options."
That was his only attempt at sounding reasonable. Asked if such a war would not escalate into a nuclear conflict, he was disarmingly candid, "Yes, I know it will not stop there. It will be nuclear war and a large number of people will perish."
The vision of the apocalypse was not restricted to the region. "In fact, not me alone but many people around the world have expressed their apprehension that this terrorism may ultimately result in a Third World War. And this will be a nuclear war in which many of us are going to be finished. But according to me, as of now, it is very necessary to defeat the demons and there is no other way."
Then came the coup de grace: "And let me say with confidence that after this destruction, a new world will emerge, which will be very good, free from evil and terrorism."
He had hinted at his horrific vision earlier too. In January 2002, when India and Pakistan traded nuclear threats during a terrifying standoff in Kashmir and elsewhere, Sudarshan recalled epic Mahabharata to make his point: "When [the] Mahabharata [war] was fought in Kurukshetra, its repercussions were felt across the country but now India was the Kurukshetra and the battle, if fought, would have its effects across the globe."
In May 2005, in another media interview, he said that Pakistan-controlled Kashmir (Azad Kashmir) should be "annexed by force." What if there is a nuclear war? He said, "If it happens, it'll happen. We can't keep quiet all the time because of the scare of nuclear weapons."
It took a Mumbai, however, for Sudarshan to come out with his blood-curdling call with barely a reservation or qualification.
As Sudarshan acknowledged, he knew what a nuclear war meant - for the region and the world. Every reasonably educated person should know as well, after so many expert studies on the subject.
According to one of the studies, for example, if five cities each of India and Pakistan are hit in a nuclear war, about 1.7 million people will be killed in India and about 1.2 million in Pakistan, or a total of about three million in the region. If 15 cities of the two countries (eight in India and seven in Pakistan) are nuked, according to a classified Pentagon study, the toll could mount to 12 million deaths. Carcinogenic black rain in coastal areas of Hiroshima-like high humidity and the velocity of summer winds and dust storms especially in the India-Pakistan border region will widen the fallout. The global consequences will be no less grim - even if the conflict remains regional and does not become a world war of Sudarshan's vision. Ira Helfand, a US medical specialist, in a study of October 2007, projected "a total global death toll in the range of one billion from starvation alone" as a result of the regional war over a period of time.
Earlier studies have suggested that such a conflict would throw five million tonnes of black soot into the atmosphere, causing a reduction of 1.25 degrees Celsius in the average temperature at the earth's surface for several years. Consequently, the annual growing season in the world's most important grain-producing areas would shrink by between 10 and 20 days. According to Helfand, the world was ill prepared to cope with such a disaster. "Global grain stocks stand at 49 days, lower than at any point in the past five decades. These stocks would not provide any significant reserve in the event of a sharp decline in production. We would see hoarding on a global scale." All this was said quite sometime before the eruption of the latest food crisis.
Yet another study estimates the smoke unleashed by 100 small 15-kiloton nuclear warheads could destroy 30 percent to 40 percent of the world's ozone layer. This is expected to kill off some food crops.
A Third World War with origins in this region may lead to the emergence of a "terror-free" world of Sudarshan's special sense, but it will be a significantly truncated world indeed, to go by all available evidence. Nuclear militarism had always occupied a prominent place on the ultra-nationalist agenda of the RSS and the parivar. The BJP's parent body, the Jan Sangh, had demanded an Indian bomb, even in 1951, a full 13 years before China acquired nuclear weapons. The very first thing the BJP-led government of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did in May 1998 was to conduct bomb tests and declare India a nuclear-weapon state. The regret in parivar circles is that the bomb is yet to be used.
During the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999, the RSS organ in Hindi, Panchjanya, wrote, "Pakistan will not listen just like that. We have a centuries-old debt to settle with this [Islamic] mindset. It is the same demon that has been throwing a challenge at Durga [Hindu goddess] since the time of Mohammed bin Qasim [of Saudi Arabia, eighth century, who conquered Sind and Punjab]."
Panchjanya added, "Arise, Atal Bihari! Who knows if fate has destined you to be the author of the final chapter of this long story. For what have we manufactured bombs? For what have exercised the nuclear option?"
What makes Sudarshan's call scarier is the not so indirect support he is receiving from supposedly apolitical "security" experts. Says one of them, Marroof Raza, "The suggestion of external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee that India could exercise a military option against Pakistan has alarmed the international community, particularly the US, that a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbors could see the first ever use of nuclear weapons by both sides. It is precisely this nuclear nightmare scenario that Pakistan's establishment and its military brass, in particular, have often exploited to blackmail the world each time India wants to take them to task for their many acts of terror...."
This sounds like a repetition of the RSS chief's rhetoric: "How long can we keep quiet all the time because of the scare of nuclear weapons?"
Satish Chandra, a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan and deputy national security adviser in the Vajpayee government, said on December 14, "Terror outfits operating from Pakistan are state supported. Until and unless we inflict pain on Pakistan we are not going to achieve results." He added, "We have a variety of options before us. Water, agriculture, covert action and economy are some of the options before us to get the results. You have other options as well." The last sentence can again sound Sudarshan-like to some.
Meanwhile, the post-Mumbai war of words between New Delhi and Islamabad has served to illustrate the special danger of a nuclear conflict in the specific regional context. What New Delhi described as a "hoax call" was allegedly made to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on November 28 by a man who claimed to be India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and spoke in a "threatening" tone. The call threatened eruption of a military conflict, with Pakistan placing its army on high alert and its air force moving aircraft to forward bases on its front with India.
A semblance of normalcy has now been restored with Mukherjee denying the call and Zardari officially accepting the denial. The incident, however, has shown how well-founded are the apprehensions of an accidental nuclear war in the region, voiced by the peace movements in both the countries
Islamabad's official response to war cries from within India has been an attempt to sound reasonable, but not without a counterwarning of the same nuclear kind. Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the country's parliament, "We are a nuclear power ... we want to act in a graceful manner and we do not want to create an impression that we are an irresponsible nation."
Surprisingly, no political party in India has so far reacted to Sudarshan's call to nuclear arms. Parties and forces opposed to the far right have, perhaps, chosen to treat his declaration with the contempt it deserves, in their view. If they have done so, they are indulging in an egregious error. The nuclear saber-rattling needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness.
Particularly eloquent, of course, is the silence with which the BJP has greeted the beating of the nuclear war drum. The BJP has always found it impolitic to implement the parivar's agenda fully while in power, which it has so far had to share with allies.
This, however, may precisely be the compulsion behind Sudarshan's call. His interview, which the RSS has taken care to authenticate officially, would appear designed to put pressure on the BJP against deviating from the path of the parivar if it returns to power in five months.
There may, thus, be a method in this nuclear madness.