India: of Men, Women, and Bombs

India: of Men, Women, and Bombs

India declared its manhood last spring by blasting five nuclear devices. “It had to be done,” said the outspoken Hindu nationalist leader Balasaheb Thackeray, “we had to prove that we are not eunuchs.” Picking up on the sexual subtext, a cartoon in a leading Indian newspaper depicted Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee propping up his coalition government with a nuclear bomb. “Made with Viagra,” the caption read.

Indian nuclear scientists and policy makers form an all-male club. Women surely have nothing to gain from the politics of national chauvinism that the explosions reflected, or from the economic sanctions and regional tensions that predictably followed. In large part because of the crash program of nuclear armaments, India’s military budget for 1998–1999 soared by 14 percent to $10 billion, twice the amount it spends on education, health, and social services. Meanwhile, the female literacy rate is 36 percent, women earn 26 percent of men’s earnings, and there are 927 women for every one thousand men in the population. Thus it would seem likely that women would rally round an antinuclear movement. Although some women do, a small but vocal minority—members of the ruling party—see the bomb as a potent sign of India’s newfound strength. The bomb serves as a reminder that it is impossible to identify women with any one set of political beliefs, be it violence or pacifism, religiosity or secularism, nationalism or internationalism.

By exploding nuclear bombs, Hindu nationalists were seeking to explode the image of India as nonviolent (read effeminate or impotent) and of nonviolence as a form of strength. Paradoxically, they christened the bomb “Shakti” after the goddess of female energy. The show of nuclear—and sexual—prowess must also be placed in the context of the fragile political base on which India’s new ruling coalition rests. Nuclear bombs can be a means of boosting flagging political fortunes and commanding the world’s attention. The tragedy is that nuclear bombs are not merely symbols, they are a frighteningly destructive force. And India’s nuclear tests immediately promoted a spiral of macho display that could bring disastrous consequences to the entire world. How has this come to pass?

Masculinity, Femininity, and Nationalism
The Hindu nationalist government exploded nuclear bombs in part to shatter stereotypes about the “effeminate” Indian that date back to the period of British colonialism. The British particularly disparaged Hindu male elites, whom they described as members of the “nonmartial” races. By contrast, they identified some communities, including Muslims, as members of the “martial” races and characterized them as robust and brave. Not surprisingly, the “martial races” were loyal to the British empire; the “nonmartial” races tended to be nationalists.

It was against this background that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi ...