A collection of essays, Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out, edited by Pervez Hoodbhoy focuses on the ramifications — political, historical, and moral — of the nuclear bomb in India and Pakistan. Essays by dissident Indians and Pakistani scientists outline how, while the rest of the world has recognised both the futility and fatality of the nuclear arms race, the politicians, generals, and oligarchs of India and Pakistan have yet to realise that amassing bombs in the region can only lead to disaster, not military triumph. Hoodbhoy recognises the controversial nature of such a project, as he warns his readers in the introduction that “this will not be a popular book,” but it is an absolutely necessary one.
In the prologue to the book, John Polyani, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986, delivers the unequivocal message in his preface that nuclear bombs are a man-made plague on the earth; while Hoodbhoy in his introduction describes how Pakistan acquired the bomb for deterrence but continues to milk it like a cash cow, threatening Western countries that if they don’t continue to bail Pakistan out financially, our weapons could “go missing” and that would be a much higher price to pay.
The strength in the book played out many times is not just Hoodbhoy’s technical expertise of the physics that go into making a bomb, but his knowledge of the military mindset and psychology vis a vis the bomb. He’s also well-placed to expound on the historical and political backdrop to the bomb: he discusses the effects of wide-ranging topics such as economic sanctions, the ‘war on terror’ and the killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistan’s sense of self-image as a nuclear power, with rival India breathing down its neck next door.
The essays cast a cool, balanced eye on the myriad aspects of possessing the bomb and the possibilities of using it in the future without resorting to emotional rhetoric. Hoodbhoy, who holds a rational, secularist stance deeply unpopular with Pakistan’s jingoistic right, uses his scientist’s mind to analyse the current situation, and ask hard-hitting questions. Right now the Pakistani side is smug, imagining that it holds all the cards while at the same time holding its own against a United States that it believes wants to rob Pakistan of its nukes, but what happens if things go wrong and Pakistan does lose control of its weapons? What are the effects of nuclear war on the region and why are Pakistan and India’s generals, obscurantists and general population so unable to imagine anything beyond total victory?
The topics in the book’s essays are weighty, yet interesting philosophical questions are raised amongst the heavier technical and historical facts. For example, in “Scientists and India’s Nuclear Bomb,” M.V. Ramana recounts India’s nuclear history and how scientists were inducted into the nationalistic agenda, observing wisely that science “is a social activity strongly influenced by social and political structures around it”. In “The Coming of the Atomic Age to Pakistan,” Zia Mian explains the central role the United States played in helping Pakistan achieve its nuclear dreams, but also shows that Pakistan was neither economically nor scientifically fully prepared for the Atomic Age. In two other essays, Mian also shows us how difficult it is to command and control nuclear weapons, despite the military’s efforts to use the bomb as part of Pakistan’s overall war strategy.
Hoodbhoy contributes seven of the essays and co-authors two more with Zia Mian. His contempt for Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders’ short-sightedness is clear as he discusses Pakistan’s nuclear history; the creation of a national identity around the bomb; its ramifications for Kashmir; whether the bomb could ever be used in a sectarian war against Shia Iran at the behest of Saudi Arabia — clearly one of the most controversial essays in the collection — the safety and security of the nuclear arsenal; and finally, nuclear diplomacy in Pakistan and world disarmament treaties.
Hoodbhoy applies his scientist’s mind to rationally analyse the events and forces that have contributed to Pakistan’s present situation, displaying an expert’s understanding of Pakistan’s history, ideology, national makeup, and military capability. In his chapter on “Post bin Laden: The Safety and Security of Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal,” he leads in with a long, thoughtful rendering of how Pakistan has gone from a secular South Asian nation for Muslims to a highly Islamicised Arab-aspiring hotbed of militancy. About the Pakistan Army’s contribution to this phenomena, he writes:
“Currently, it might perhaps be more accurate to consider the Pakistan Army to be consisting of two armies. The first is headed by Gen. Kayani: let us call it Army-A/ISI-A. This army considers the protection of national borders its primary goal. It also seeks to maintain the status quo, giving the army extraordinary powers in national decision-making and financial privileges. The second, Army-B/ISI-B is Allah’s army. It is silent, subterranean, currently leaderless but inspired by the philosophy of Abul Ala Maudoodi and Syed Qutb. Possessed by radical dreams, it seeks to turn Pakistan into a state run according to the Sharia.”
The collection also bravely addresses what we don’t talk about when we discuss the bomb: Hoodbhoy has no truck with the rhetoric used by either side in defence of nuclear technology; he pinpoints ignorance from the highest to the lowest echelons behind the warped ideology and misguided estimation of its usefulness. On the other hand, rightful recognition is given to Professor Abdus Salam’s contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear development. Two essays analyse nuclear energy generation in Pakistan and India and argue that it won’t work in either country for a variety of scientific, environmental and medical reasons. In an essay called “What Nuclear War Could Do to South Asia,” written by an American, a Pakistani, and two Indian nuclear scientists, the authors discuss whether a nuclear war would cause total annhilation or manageable destruction, or some combination of both — and chillingly conclude that “nothing would ever be the same again”.
What marks the book as noteworthy is how the authors of the essays use the scientific method rather than appeals to emotionalism or patriotism to determine that the bomb is no equaliser, no bringer of safety and security. We have been lied to by our leaders and our generals: the bomb cannot protect India or Pakistan: the latter country needs “peace, economic justice, rule of law, tax reform, a social contract, education and a new federation agreement” to truly survive. Confronting the Bomb will help you understand many issues around the nuclear arms debate — and you’ll be forced to consider if going nuclear has been truly worth the price we’ve paid for it.
The reviewer is a novelist
Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out
Edited by Pervez Hoodbhoy
OxfordUniversity Press, Karachi