Climate change and nuclear conflict between India, Pakistan are real dangers. They need to be addressed

Karan Singh
Since the recent dramatic changes in Jammu & Kashmir, Imran Khan has in every speech ended up by more or less threatening a nuclear war. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

When I meet any of my six grandchildren, I often wonder what India will be like when they reach my age, which will be around the end of the century. I’m sure they will have been tremendous progress in many fields, but there are two areas that I find particularly worrying. The first is the continuing environmental degradation and global warming, which are creating serious problems. The air we breathe and the waters of our rivers have become highly polluted and unless this trend is reversed, we will face serious and widespread health problems in the years and decades to come. Climate change, in fact, is now one of the most serious challenges facing the human race, impacting as it does the entire world without exception, and it can only be tackled on a global basis. It is nothing short of tragic that the world’s most powerful country has pulled out of the painstakingly crafted Paris agreement

Extreme weather conditions are already wreaking havoc around the world — lethal hurricanes are regularly hitting the American continent, and the melting of glaciers is causing ocean levels to rise due to which at least a dozen countries will disappear from the face of the earth over the next two decades. The fact that thousands of animal, plant and insect species are becoming extinct every year adds to a deeply disturbing scenario. In our own country, erratic weather patterns have seen on the one hand whole cities being drowned, while on the other, there are prolonged droughts threatening the livelihood of millions of farmers. The great Himalayan range itself, which from time immemorial has defined the geography of India, is now threatened with pollution, and the sacred streams emerging there from, particularly the holy Ganga, are also heavily polluted. Environmental pollution threatens the livelihood of millions of our citizens and unless it can be reversed, it is likely to deteriorate further. This, in turn, will cause civil strife and sharpen inter-state conflicts over the sharing of river waters.

The second and even more serious concern is with regard to the possibility of a nuclear conflict. While we tend to dismiss Pakistan’s bluster as “nuclear blackmail”, we have now got into a situation of extreme danger. My fear is not that either India or Pakistan will be unwise to start a nuclear war. The real danger is that if an Islamist organisation, perhaps even without the approval of the Pakistan government, were to launch a major terrorist attack on India, our retaliation could lead to a major conflict. What this means, in effect, is that the destiny of our children and grandchildren rests not with the governments of our two countries but with rogue terrorist groups fuelled by a fundamentalist ideology.

A few days ago, I read a statement by some Islamist leader in Pakistan who said, in effect, that even if Pakistan is annihilated in a nuclear war it would not matter because there are dozens of other Islamic countries in the world, but at least we would wipe out idolatrous Hinduism off the face of the earth. In the face of such statements, the danger of being willy-nilly pushed into a conflagration which could end in a nuclear exchange is very real.

With regard to bilateral talks with Pakistan, again, the key lies with terrorist groups, because we have taken the stand that we will not talk as long as terrorism continues. Since the recent dramatic changes in Jammu & Kashmir, Imran Khan has in every speech ended up by more or less threatening a nuclear war. We may dismiss this as bluster, but he is the duly-elected prime minister of a country with nuclear bombs, and therefore, we have to take his threats seriously. Earlier reports that Pakistan was developing tactical nuclear weapons which could be used in a ground war are disturbing and add to the possibility of a catastrophic conflict. In the light of these developments, it is for the Government of India to seriously ponder over the situation and see what can be done to defuse the tension.

I am horrified at the casual manner in which some of our politicians, television anchors and “defence experts” dismiss the possibility of a nuclear conflict. Do they have the faintest idea of the sort of havoc that would be caused within the first hour of a nuclear exchange? Millions on both sides would perish immediately and many more would die horrible deaths in the years and decades thereafter. Large parts of the Subcontinent would become unlivable for many decades. Is this the future that we will leave for our grandchildren?

In his last message on the August 15, 1947, which was also his 75th birthday, the great seer Sri Aurobindo wrote about his five dreams for the future. One of these was “a world union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind”. While he held that human unity was an inevitable step of evolution, he also wrote that “a catastrophe may intervene, interrupt or destroy what is being done”. These ominous words have always haunted me. Albert Einstein once said, “The unleashing of the power of the atom bomb has changed everything except our mode of thinking, and thus we head towards unparalleled catastrophes”.

The only way to avoid this is for the Pakistan government or the so-called “deep state” to make absolutely sure that there will not be a major terrorist attack on India from Pakistani soil. This, they should do in their own interest as well as in the interest of India. The trigger for a major conflict lies clearly in Pakistan, and this should be made clear to them through diplomatic channels. Meanwhile, our own hyper-triumphalism should not propel us in a direction that would directly lead to a conflict. One can only hope and pray that better sense will prevail and both India and Pakistan can continue to fight against what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called our common enemies — poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and retarded economic growth.

There are two alternative scenarios for the future of humanity. The European philosopher Arthur Koestler held that our race is programmed for self-destruction because of an engineering defect in the human cortex whereby the feeling and the thinking elements are inadequately integrated. As a result, as Duryodhan says in the Mahabharata, “I know what is right, but I am not attracted to it. I know what is wrong, but I am attracted to it”. As against this, the great evolutionary philosopher Sri Aurobindo holds that we are a race programmed for evolution. Having come up all the way through the mineral, vegetable, aquatic and animal forms, we are now half-way between the animal and the divine, and according to him the evolutionary thrust is bound to continue so that ultimately we move from mind to super-mind and from man to superman. The jury is out on this existential question, but recent events would tend to favour Koestler’s view. To conclude this rather grim article on a lighter note, I will recall a limerick that I heard long ago. It goes as follows: God’s plan made a hopeful beginning, but man spoilt his chances by sinning, We know that the story, will end in God’s glory, but at present the other side’s winning.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 22, 2019 under the title 'Future tense'. The writer is a former Union minister.