In the wake of the nuclear test explosions that took place in May 1998, first in India and then in Pakistan, much of the world responded with disappointment, shock, and outrage. The tests were presented by the authorities both in New Delhi and in Islamabad as definitive refutations of the images of India and Pakistan as "Third World" cultures or "third-rate" powers, but they were far more than simply a demonstration of military prowess or technological potential. They were in fact one of the more worrisome results of a larger mythology within each country revolving around ideas of historical purity and cultural superiority. Indeed, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that it is not the existence of nuclear weapons in and of themselves that poses the main threat to stability in South Asia, but rather the unmediated chain of command that spans the short and direct link between the mobilization of these ideological myths and the deployment of weapons of mass destruction.
Generally speaking, the debate over nuclear weapons in South Asia is something much broader than merely a question of strategy, technology, or power. It is, in essence, a question of culture. In more specific terms, the political culture of India and Pakistan has, for a number of reasons, increasingly fostered a culture of chauvinism and a culture of confrontation. That is, animosity and intolerance toward outsiders and foreigners have become politically more attractive and powerful than critical or constructive viewpoints on longstanding, difficult domestic issues.
This helps to explain at least in part why the decision of both countries to "go nuclear" produced such a misguided sense of euphoria in both India and Pakistan, where the popular reaction was, if anything, even more extreme than that of the political leadership in New Delhi and Islamabad. The news that India had successfully tested a nuclear device led almost immediately to macabre and carnivalesque scenes of revelry on the streets of India's main urban centers. This response, combined with press surveys in the days afterward that supposedly showed overwhelming public support for the government's decision to go nuclear, testified to the degree to which, as a nation, India thirsted for international recognition and prestige. The same dynamic applied to Pakistan, where the entire drama was repeated, act for act, two weeks later.
That there were so few critical or cautious voices to be found amidst the revelry was unsettling to many observers. No one seemed to notice what should have been palpably clear: namely, that the chauvinistic and pugnacious tone that saturates so much of the rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons in the region is firmly anchored in a blend of myth and history designed to support a larger matrix of beliefs regarding cultural purity and superiority. Obviously, it is science that provided the technology to build nuclear weapons in South Asia. But it is history, or more important, how certain people use and manipulate history, as much as if not more than science or even geopolitical strategy in the conventional sense that will ultimately determine if and when they are to be used.
To be sure, this is a very different explanation from the one usually advanced either in India or in Pakistan. Officials and analysts in both countries routinely insist that the decision to go nuclear was forced upon their respective countries either by each other or by outsiders. They also tend to insist and even to boast that their weapons programs are entirely "indigenous." Perhaps this is partially understandable in the context of a long-term process of decolonizing South Asian political culture, but when nearly every article or report regarding the nuclear industry in the Indian or Pakistani press repeatedly insists that everything was conceived and built indigenously--indeed, the nuclear program is often referred to as an "indigenous weapons system"--one begins to suspect, rightly, that something is amiss.
It is as if India and Pakistan are trying to convince themselves as much as each other that these weapons programs were developed without the taint of foreign assistance. If it were about anything other than nuclear weapons, this might be regarded as a disturbing but mostly innocuous political exercise. But the repetitive insistence on being indigenous in this context has become something of a narcotic mantra, or a collective exercise in self-deception, which feeds directly into the political mythologies of purity and chauvinism.
This emphasis on the "homegrown" nature of the nuclear program bears witness to the degree to which these nuclear efforts have been motivated by a collective sense of insecurity in both countries. It is less that India and Pakistan are pursuing nuclear weapons programs to prove they are great nations, as to assuage fears that they are not. Being indigenous in the politically and morally charged arena of a regional thermonuclear arms race is not about explaining cultural origins; it is about defining and strengthening present-day national boundaries. And the combination of insecurity and indigeneity in the practice of drawing boundaries has had the effect throughout South Asia of fostering narcissism within and xenophobia without. In turn, the combination of narcissism and xenophobia has produced a degree of cultural and national chauvinism that, given the right circumstances, could easily lead to a nuclear exchange on the subcontinent.
There is in fact little merit to the claims that the nuclear weapons systems of either India or Pakistan are indigenous. India acquired nearly all of the original technology and equipment for the 1974 tests at Pokhran (and all subsequent nuclear developments) from Canada (particularly the CIRUS reactor that it acquired in 1955) and from France. The vast majority of the scientists who worked to develop the nuclear weapons industry were educated...