A nuclear stand-off that borders on insanity

New Nukes: India, Pakistan and global nuclear disarmament by Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik (Signal Books, £12.99) | Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the unfinished war by Victoria Schofield (IB Tauris, £14.95)
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The Independent Culture

The human race is now closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Consider south Asia: even at the height of the Cold War, the US and USSR fought their battles through proxies. Today, India and Pakistan, both of which crossed the nuclear threshold in May 1998, routinely exchange fire along the disputed border in Kashmir.

The human race is now closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Consider south Asia: even at the height of the Cold War, the US and USSR fought their battles through proxies. Today, India and Pakistan, both of which crossed the nuclear threshold in May 1998, routinely exchange fire along the disputed border in Kashmir.

Last summer, in the mountainous Kargil district, the conflict escalated into what Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik describe as "the only large-scale conventional engagement ever between two nuclear states". During the five weeks of the crisis, Indian and Pakistani officials exchanged nuclear threats no fewer than 13 times. If that isn't enough to alarm you, consider that the two countries are now ruled by a right-wing Hindu regime driven by anti-Muslim bigotry and a military dictatorship under pressure from armed Muslim fundamentalists.

Bidwai and Vanaik are among India's leading advocates of nuclear disarmament, members of a brave band resisting the tide of jingoism now washing across south Asian cities. Their book is written out of a conviction, both logical and passionate, that ridding the world of the bomb is desirable, necessary and feasible - and that ordinary citizens have a decisive role in achieving it.

The authors are immensely well informed, synthesising data from many sources. They provide an authoritative history of the bomb and efforts to ban it, as well as insights into its economic, cultural and political impact. Gandhi condemned the bomb as "the most sinful and diabolical use of science", and Nehru always insisted that its use was unconscionable. These men spoke an ethically charged language that goes unheard in the hyper-competitive, communally divided atmosphere of India today. "Upper-caste, upper-class Indian urbanites," Bidwai and Vanaik argue, are in thrall to a "nationalism of insecurity" that makes them yearn for a "short cut to global stature". Meanwhile, the impoverished majority pays the price.

At the heart of New Nukes is a devastating interrogation of the theory of nuclear deterrence - a theory that "entails seeking security through the creation of a threat of mass destruction". Not since EP Thompson has the illogic, inhumanity and complacency of the nuclear status quo been so brilliantly laid bare. For Indian-based writers to argue that India is the principal culprit, and that Pakistan's nuclear progress has been mostly reactive, is brave. Their treatment of the "nuclear mind-set" ("intellectually and politically the haven of mediocrity") and the self-serving "nuclear elite" is coruscating.

Among the immediate casualties are the long-suffering people of Kashmir, whose travails are thoroughly documented in Victoria Schofield's Kashmir in Conflict. Outsiders dealing with Kashmir must negotiate a minefield of claims and counter-claims. Here Schofield succeeds admirably by keeping the plight of ordinary Kashmiris to the fore. Her account of the decade-long, still-unfinished insurgency is scrupulous, and neither India nor Pakistan emerges from it with any credit.

Anyone tempted to dismiss nuclear disarmament as yesterday's cause should read both these books. Indeed, New Nukes makes, tangentially, an urgent case for Britain to renounce its so-called "minimum deterrent". As long as the big powers insist that they alone have a special right to nuclear arms, their pleas for non-proliferation will fall on deaf ears.

The reviewer's book 'Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the spirit of the Sixties' is published by Verso

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