Public opinion and nuclear knowledge in India

As an extension of the discussion of the dearth of women in the field of nuclear strategic community in India, an issue that comes up is the dearth of believers in the nuclear weapons technology. An observation that can be made is the lack of diffusion of knowledge about nuclear weapons in the strategic community in India. From the time when the Indian nuclear program was about the expression of pride and self-confidence, the Indian state has come a long way. Yet, there is a substantial gap in the projection and understanding of basic issues of the field not only amongst the civil society but also the strategic community barring a minority.

India has changed its projected identity over the years from a colonial state to an aspiring nuclear power to the current responsible power (as claimed by several actors in the realm of nuclear affairs irrespective of how the nuclear know-how was achieved in the first place). Atomic power is no more the Indian strategy to meet “practical and ideological goals for a new state seeking to establish its national and international legitimacy” as claimed by Itty Abraham. Hence, there is a need to move beyond the belief of seeing nuclear weapons as a ‘western weapon’. How that would happen is a difficult question to answer.

Kudankulam is a classic case of consistent resistance towards the technology. It is well known that there is no fail safe insurance towards any technology. At the cost of being seen as a devil’s advocate, it is true that there are lapses that occur beyond one’s control in every technology. The incident involving Sister Megan Rice and two other Catholic peace activists in the US is also one such example. It was apparently aimed at making the US government realize the immorality of stockpiling nuclear weapons. The incident was a clear indication of the loopholes in the safety measures incorporated by the US mechanism. There have been other incidents such as the facts put forward by Eric Schlosser in his book Command and Control. The book highlights the happenings of 1961 when the US nearly bombed North Carolina. That was a failure on the part of the government. Yet, there is a stratum of strategic community which believes in the indispensable necessity more than the need of the nuclear weapons technology. Unfortunately, that number is much smaller in India.

If one tries to point out the reasons behind the antagonism, one could include the initial attempt by the state to guard the subject which has led to the inertia among a large number of people towards the issues. As a result nuclear weapons are conveniently seen as a taboo in every which way. The resistance to understand the issues is not just confined to technical know-how but also in the conceptual aspects. The Indian state is still far behind in its efforts to encourage understanding the importance and relevance of its policies regarding nuclear weapons. The era of secrecy is over, when the discussions could be skipped however a basic understanding is missing. Any state possessing nuclear weapons is confined to the box of bad inhuman states. This is the reality for the dominant discourse in spite of a clear understanding of the terms like deterrence, security dilemma and likewise. The reason could also be the cultural baggage comprising of the Gandhian norms that do not agree with the weapons at a fundamental level. It could be the guilt of changing the course of strategic culture drastically. It could be the equivalence of anything alien to something wrong. It could definitely be the categorization of the subject as elitist or too technical. A consequence of this categorization is generally ignorance towards the subject. In India this ignorance has led to a shared psychology amongst many that nuclear weapons are a taboo. The problem is that nuclear taboo in India does not disincentivize them outside.  Hence the major challenge lies in attaining a balance between the understandings of the different India(s) that exist within one by keeping the democratic spirit in mind.


Image: Pradeep Gaur-Mint, Getty

Posted in , Culture, Education, Energy, India, Nuclear, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Policy, Strategic Culture, Technology

Shubhra Chaturvedi

Shubhra Chaturvedi

Shubhra Chaturvedi is currently Research scholar in the Diplomacy and Disarmament department at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She is currently working on the construction of norms in the realm of nuclear learning for her dissertation.

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