President Obama’s Prague speech, in which he laid the foundations of a renewed quest for a world free of nuclear weapons, was greeted around the world with both awe and skepticism. Analysts all around the world dissected his words, ruminated over his intent and commented on his vision, I found the speech intriguing for completely different reasons. When President Obama said that the goal of nuclear disarmament will not be accomplished in his life time, for many political pundits around the world, it represented an act of buck-passing. However those words conveyed an essential truth: the need of an enabled posterity to understand the risks of a trigger-happy nuclear world and to continue the endeavour towards a world free of nuclear weapons and concomitant hazards. Yet at the altar of political interpretations, this foresight was sacrificed.
It is this characteristically different reading of his speech which allows us to see the importance of an enabled posterity which can understand fully the stakes involved in the project of nuclear disarmament and can convincingly argue the case of a nuclear weapons free world. If the goal of a nuclear weapons free world is to be pursued, one has to acknowledge the importance of youth, the shoulders which are going to bear responsibility for the future and who will make sure that the quest continues, until the ultimate goal of a global zero is achieved.
In the context of South Asia, the need for involvement of youth in the nuclear discourse is being acutely felt. There is a paucity of institutions, both government backed or private, which can educate the masses specially students and develop a capacity among the youth in order to understand the nuances of nuclear weapons and issue of disarmament. Without an independent and matured understanding of the issue, critical reflection on the need and viability of nuclear weapons has become a casualty. Given the desperate socio-economic condition of the majority of the people in the region, the unwillingness of the state to allow a more informed understanding of nuclear issues and the incapacity of youth to question nuclearisation appear to constitute nothing less than a conspiracy to sustain the discourse of nuclear brinksmanship.
There are also very few avenues for students, who have genuine interest in the subject, to understand the minutiae of the debate and engage with these at both national and international level. Hardly any regional workshops or conferences are organised to bring the youth of the region at a single platform to discuss nuclear disarmament. Given the rapid proliferation of think tanks and NGO’s in the aftermath of 1998 nuclear explosions, such a scenario is an awful reminder that nuclearisation has been accepted as something normal in the subcontinent.
Fallouts of such a situation are many. First, even when most of the states in the region are democracies, the lack of expertise on nuclear issues is a serious handicap in openly debating the need and viability of nuclear weapons and subsequent opportunity costs. This lack of knowledge encumbers the development of strong civil society initiatives against the politically motivated weaponisation program of the national governments. This also allows the dominant narratives of the nuclear hawks and other bureaucratic lobbies in the region to be generally accepted by the uninformed citizenry, since the capacity for critical evaluation is lacking. More so, such a situation also allows the use of overt weaponisation strategies by the political parties to garner an electoral base.
Second, the politics of nuclear weapons has allowed the building of militarist regional order where power hierarchies have dominated the issues of cooperation and development. The muteness or relative silence of the Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) on issues of nuclearisation of the region points in this direction. Even when the nuclearisation imperils the security of all the states in the region, NNWS have hardly acted as a cohesive pressure group within the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to bring the agenda of nuclear disarmament at the negotiating table in various regional summits. Again the lack of expertise on the nuclear issues and active civil society in these countries has played a spoilsport.
Third, the lack of effective regional youth networks dealing with the issue of nuclear disarmament has not allowed the development of a collective identity of the region as a possible nuclear weapons free zone. The issue of nuclearisation of the region is still seen through the contours of national boundaries and the deficiency of interactions has stifled the possibilities of hearing the views of the others.
Yet to underscore the need for developing and shaping young minds in South Asia is to understand the fact that the thought process of strategic communities in South Asian region is still embedded in the experiences of the Cold War decades. For example, the Indian strategic mindset mostly perceives various arms control proposals through skepticism bred and nurtured during the Cold War years and it is hard to conceive a different approach until this staunchly embedded thinking is challenged. Most of the strategic analysts in the country are victims of this Cold War nuclear schizophrenia.
What is also to be noticed is that India has relinquished its stand on global nuclear disarmament for all practical purposes, though it still rhetorically clings to the past at times. Such a reinterpretation of Indian priorities is informed from a wrong perception of India’s rise. The need, therefore, is to reverse this trend of great power mimicry and to provide a new discourse in which priorities are not the amount of fissile material production but the alleviation of poverty and illiteracy.
In the case of Pakistan, on the other hand, the anti-India security discourse has helped the political elite specially the military to secure its sectional interests over the years. Nuclear weapons are only a new avatar, though much more potent and aggressive, of this contrivance of Pakistan’s military to perpetuate its hold on Pakistan’s polity and society. Interestingly, in both the states, people have come to love the bomb rather than detest it. The atomic publics of India and Pakistan, as Itty Abraham puts it in his new book, have embraced the weapons of their own destruction rather emphatically.
In this backdrop, it is important to understand the crucial role which young, independent analysts can play in ameliorating the situation. There is a need to question and challenge the current discourse which eulogises nuclear weapons as acceptable instruments of political and social life. The collective wisdom – that nuclear weapons make us safe – is not what the youth of the region have decided for themselves; it is rather an imposition on younger generations from above, from the nuclear hawks who have sworn their life in the service of nukes.
The time is appropriate for thinking of a new collective future for South Asia, a future without nuclear weapons and only the youth can do that because in all legitimacy, the future belongs to them and them only.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.