Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Review: Countdown by Amitav Ghosh

This is a non-fiction by Amitav Ghosh, first published in 1999, after India tested out the nuclear devices near Pokhran. Media published the event as a great advancement for India and announced its time has arrived. Many thought of nuclear bomb as more than a weapon, it may not be used stop small wars but it can avoid a big one and can bring influence in the global pecking order where India is suppressed for long, from colonial times. Few disagree with it and think nuclearization is a threat and if put to wrong to use it can hurt lives of millions.
Amitav travels to Pokhran to learn what the natives think of it and to see the effects of the nuclear explosion in first person. He arrives at Delhi to meet with George Fernandes, the then defense minister who was a critical of nuclear weapons, but made a decision for India go ahead with the tests. George thought five nations who possess nuclear weapons cannot say to rest of the rest world how to behave. Author along with a group of journalists travels to Kashmir along with the defense minister where he gets to meet with defense personnel and know their opinions on the nuclear weaponry.

He then travels to Pakistan, meets a religious group head, a Govt. official, social activists, and many journalists to get their side of opinion. A religious head opines that in the event of a war, there is always a threat that nuclear weapon would be used. During the discussions it comes out that Kashmir is not the principal problem between India and Pakistan. Though both sides are not determined to resolve the issue, but even if it is solved, other issues would take center stage. Water sharing would become an issue; trade may suffer for any reason. A Muslim being mistreated in India can trigger protests and violation in Pakistan and vice versa.

The author later explores the damage caused by the use of a nuclear weapon and its impact on the social life, immediately and in the times to come. He references a study made by M V Ramanna (Bombing Bombay?: http://www.ippnw.org/pdf/Bombay.pdf). He concludes that nuclear programs of both India and Pakistan are more status driven and not threat driven. But for this pride, they will have to run the risk of nuclear accidents, war and the casualties they bring.


This is a small book (84 pages long); a quick read and the situations led to writing of this book have gone through a cycle to come up again now. While the world is more aware of the damages after the accident at nuclear power plant in Japan, disarmament is still a distant dream. If Ukraine had its nukes, did Russia dared to annex Crimea? I suppose this thought itself would make Governments pump more money into nuclear programs.