Oppenheimer is a must-see for Modi government’s fellow travellers
The demolition of the houses of Muslims in Nuh, Haryana, was halted only after a suo motu order by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Some village leaders in the state have decided that they would not allow Muslims to ply their trade within their territory. Manipur continues to tear itself apart. Videos circulate on social media of cow vigilantes beating up a Muslim man for transporting cattle in Gujarat — just the latest of the many that do the rounds ever so often.
Even when the law offers little protection to the tribal groups of the plains from the exercise of arbitrary power by their deemed social superiors — remember the BJP activist peeing on the head of a middle-aged tribal man in Madhya Pradesh — laws are being amended to dilute their rights.
The Ayodhya campaign is sought to be replicated in at least one more shrine in Uttar Pradesh. Gujjars and Rajputs fight over the caste identity of a mediaeval king, Bhoj Raja of Malwa. Beneath the gloss of cultural nationalism and the fastest growing economy in the world, animosity, distrust and violence waiting for a spark to flare up in society simmer.
Even the well-off cannot be secure in their homes. At one level, even an industrialist like Pawan Munjal of Hero Motors, can be subjected to tax raids, and not just the ruling party’s political opponents. A political discourse that valorises and glorifies tradition, without carefully shunning its large, unwholesome bits, encourages the objectification of women and feeds the neurosis that holds a woman outside her “respectable” coordinates of time, place, clothing and companionship is fair game. Continued political support for heavyweights such as the MP from Gonda, despite the charges of sexual harassment against him, adds to this.
Brilliant movie, but…
Why bring up these pustules of current social malaise when talking about a movie on the father of the atomic bomb, Robert J Oppenheimer, brilliant physicist, dilettante, womaniser, polyglot and prone, in the eyes of one of his loves, to carrying around an unfeeling blob where most people keep their conscience?
It is a brilliant movie, on technical and aesthetic counts, despite several shortcomings. The author is qualified only to speak about flaws in the narrative, not the quality of the narration.
In one place, Oppenheimer claims to have read all three volumes of Das Kapital in the German original. Then he proceeds to illustrate his grasp of Marxism with some familiar catchphrases: property is theft, for one. Anyone with a rudimentary familiarity with Marx’s work would know that Marx held this particular aphorism in disdain. Its originator was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French anarchist.
Marx disposed of his popular proposition with simple logic. Theft happens when you separate someone from what is his or hers without fair compensation. That is, the notion that something belongs to someone is a precondition for theft. In other words, theft presupposes property. Property, being the precondition for theft, cannot be theft itself.
This, of course, is incidental to the theme of the movie. But that cannot be said about the movie’s failure to dispute the claim that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to be bombed to end the war and save lives. Within 21 days of the successful detonation — on July 16, 1945 — of the bomb prototype, developed by the Manhattan Project that Oppenheimer headed at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Hiroshima was bombed.
The American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an enriched uranium bomb, named Little Boy, on Hiroshima, on August 6. Three days later, another B-29 bomber, named Bocscar, dropped Fat Man, a plutonium based bomb, on Nagasaki. Together, the bombs blasted, burnt or irradiated to death 150,000-220,000 people. It spawned a group of outcasts, survivors of the nuclear bombing of Japan, and their descendants, called Hibakusha, people disfigured and genetically damaged by radiation.
Justification of horror
The movie does hint at the need to test both kinds of bombs developed by the Manhattan Project and to demonstrate to the world America’s unrivalled power to destroy. Yet, mainstream American history justifies this horror as the only way to force the Japanese to surrender.
The fact is that the war in Europe was over, and Hitler had shot himself in his Fuhrerbunker in Berlin on April 30, 1945. Some historians claim Japan was holding out only to negotiate terms for an honourable surrender for their emperor. The Americans had already carried out, in early April, the most devastating fire bombing of any city anywhere in history till then, destroying 42 sq km of Tokyo and killing 100,000 people in the intervening night of April 9-10.
There were two reasons why the Americans still wanted to use the nuclear bomb on Japan. They wanted to test both the kinds of atom bombs they had developed. Further, they wanted the world, particularly Communist Soviet Union, to be cowed by this demonstration of America’s devastating might. And the US wanted Japan to surrender to itself, rather than to the Soviet Union, which, after having completed its job in Europe, had moved to Asia and was marching on Japan.
How does all this concern the Modi government’s fellow travellers? Oppenheimer, the movie, successfully explores the moral agony of a man who enables the atrocity at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is tormented ever since by a struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable: glory in winning the world’s nerdiest race of the time and the guilt of enabling a political establishment that privileged the ruthless pursuit of power and global domination over trifles like life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, human rights and peaceful coexistence of nations.
Core Sangh Parivar cadres care little for history other than the glory of ancient India and the misdeeds of Muslim rulers in the mediaeval period. They celebrate suppression of the rights of non-Hindus, and seek to realise the Sangh’s cherished goal of making India a Hindu Rashtra, a Hindu state, the mirror image of Pakistan as a Muslim state, replacing the namby-pamby Nehruvian project of building a non-denominational state that treats all citizens as equals.
Then, there are the fellow-travellers, who have disdain for the Sangh project, know that India’s cultural and historical genius is acceptance of diversity, permitting coexistence of people of diverse kinds, in terms of religion, language, ethnicity, food habits and clothing. They know that to try and deny people of any faith their dignity is not only inimical to India’s history and tradition but also bad in itself and a source of future conflict. Yet, they enable the Modi government in multiple ways, formulating policy, creating and presenting a pretty face for the nation to present to the world, doing technical things beyond the reach of mere jingoists and sectarians.
They justify their actions the way Oppenheimer did, doing things they excel in, turning their back on the overall direction of policy, where the nation as a whole is headed. Theirs only to do their duty, never to question their results.
Oppenheimer might hold up a mirror for these people to see themselves, and the moral pangs that await them. Unless, of course, they fancy themselves as being enlightened to a level above human constructs like morality and ethics. After all, it is not Arjuna, who hates the idea of killing his relatives, teachers, friends and acquaintances, whom the Gita holds up as the role model, but Krishna, who sees such qualms as mere obstacles to the discharge of righteous duty.
As the mushroom clouds of the Trinity test went up, Oppenheimer recalled a line from the Gita: “I am become death”. Do the dutiful enablers of the government, who compartmentalise its politics of hate and hope to dissociate themselves from its gory consequences on the ground, have the imagination to don that mantle?
(TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.)
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