Monday, July 27, 2009

The Military and Non-Violence

The launch of India's first nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, reminded me of an embarrassing moment from the past. I was in a city outside Bombay and needed to meet a high ranking naval officer for some work. I spoke about him to a couple of acquaintances, both of whom immediately said, "Oh him, he's on the nuclear submarine project". As I sat making small talk with the officer a few hours later, I casually asked, "So how is the work on the nuclear submarine proceeding? Is it likely to be functional any time soon?" He looked flabbergasted. "Who told you I was working on that?" he asked. I realised that, not only was the project supposed to be a carefully guarded secret, but that, until that moment, the officer had believed his official position as overseer of certain civil contracts was taken seriously. I hemmed and hawed, mumbling I couldn't remember who, precisely, had mentioned the nuclear sub, and changed the subject.
I hope the officer was present at the commissioning of Arihant the other day.
Arihant means 'destroyer of enemies'. A fair enough name for a submarine, you would think. But there's a catch. The word is used in Jain tradition to refer to certain enlightened souls who have, to mix religious terminology a bit, triumphed in the Greater Jihad against hatred and personal egotism. Jainism happens to be the most militantly non-violent faith in the world, if that phrase isn't an oxymoron. In the past, when Jains became prime ministers or high officials, and had to get involved in warfare, they atoned for their sins by endowing temples. The lavish marble monuments of Mount Abu were constructed from these endowments. Jains, literally, would not hurt a fly. Many go out of their way to try and protect insects, wearing masks so as not breathe the critters in, and sweeping the ground before their feet with peacock feathers to brush off any unfortunate beetle who might be chilling in the danger zone.
Many Gujarati Jains, it must be said, have been less than true to their ideals during the reign of Narendra Modi, but that's a separate issue. The issue, right now, is INS Arihant, and Jains are displeased that their prophets have been associated with a machine of destruction.
It must be difficult for the military establishment to cope with all the pacifist traditions we have in our country, but sometimes the brass seem to miss obvious points of conflict. Like, India's first nuclear test, conducted in 1974, was codenamed The Smiling Buddha. A number of commentators have since suggested it was unwise to connect history's most profound teacher of non-violence with the most horrendously destructive device conceived by humankind.
Not that India admitted its interest in stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The Smiling Buddha was classified as a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion. That seems like the oxymoron to end all oxymorons, but there's actually a treaty governing such tests, because at one time scientists believed nuclear weapons could be of help in building dams and canals. India's own military ambitions used that convenient cloak in 1974.
In 1998, the cloak was thrown off, all pretense came to an end. The Buddha smiled again, they said, of the five tests conducted that year. I doubt he did.


adrian mckinty said...


Great story about the sub. I like the subtext too "I had to meet a high ranking naval officer for some work" I mean that could be anything from journalism to James Bond.

I've been to the Dilwara Jain temples at Mount Abu, it is a beautiful complex and in a very pleasant almost zen like atmosphere too.

Girish Shahane said...

What??? You people have been to India? Pity we were out of touch at that time.
The sub story is more mundane than any James Bond scenario, but I shouldn't elaborate further because I don't want the officer to be in any way identifiable on the basis of what I've written.

adrian mckinty said...


Yup we were out for two months in Dec 2000 and Jan 2001. Strictly the north. Terrific trip, it was all good stuff but we did have one odd coincidence: For reading material I brought along A Suitable Boy and I reached a bit where the heroine visits a particular room in the British cantonment in Lucknow. I actually read that page in that room in the British compound in Lucknow. Weird huh?

I liked India very much, we'll be back at some point to visit the south. Varanasi was probably our favourite place.