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Gandhi's legacy is blown away

THE events of the past week have been a shock to those who associate India with Mahatma Gandhi and the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, and like to think of India as a great spiritual civilisation, dwelling on a higher plane than our own crassly materialistic societies.

With five nuclear explosions in the Rajasthan desert, India blew these comfortable but drastically outdated perceptions to bits. The BJP-led government's gratuitous act was greeted around the country by a wave of excitement and euphoria. All the other political parties, sensing the prevailing mood, fell rapidly into line behind the government. The denunciations and vociferous protests of the peace movement were conspicuous by their absence. The simple explanation: India has no peace movement.

India has no peace movement. Allow that idea to sink in for a moment. Free India's founding father secured the liberation of his country from Britain by non-violent means. Gandhi, Churchill's "half-naked fakir", remains around the world the symbol of a radically different way of achieving political goals.

And it's not only Gandhi: Indian opposition to the nuclear arms race has been consistent and honourable throughout its first half century of freedom. In 1954 Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, was the first statesman in the world to call for a halt to nuclear testing, separate from negotiations on disarmament. Nehru's initiative finally bore fruit in the post-Cold War era as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

But since then something has curdled within the state of India. From being the CTBT's inspiration and advocate, it has become its principal spoiler. Almost alone but for Libya and Bhutan, India voted against the CTBT in the United Nations General Assembly. And now, without even some made-up incident to provide an excuse, with no enhanced external threat, India has gone much further, blowing the treaty to pieces and gratuitously starting a South Asian nuclear arms race. What is going on?

While Gandhi was India's founder, India was never really Gandhian. Gandhi found his inspiration for non-violence in the spiritual roots of Hinduism; but his ideas, while useful for external public relations, failed to sink roots within modern India.

Thus, according to the writer Praful Bidwai (almost the only outspoken opponent of the Indian bomb), Indians remain extraordinarily ignorant of what weapons of mass destruction can do. Mr Bidwai has taken nuclear workshops into schools where most students were enthusiastically in favour of India acquiring the bomb. He has then shown a 20-minute film on what actually happened at Hiroshima, and the result was a dramatic turnaround. The current Indian enthusiasm for the bomb is simple-minded and ignorant to a degree which we in the West, saturated with anti-nuclear material, can scarcely imagine.

This ignorance feeds into the intellectual debate on the bomb. In the absence of passionate opposition voices, the hawks make the running. But if that is the background, the present situation is special. For the first time (except for 13 days in 1996), the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP is in power.

The BJP is as anti-Gandhian as you can get. In fact the people who conspired to assassinate Gandhi in 1948 were supporters of the paramilitary, quasi- fascist RSS, the BJP's parent organisation. The BJP has advocated India's possession of nuclear weapons throughout its exist-ence. Now, at the first opportunity, they have brought it about.

Ian Jack, Section 2, page 1