By Chintan Girish Modi
I think it was the last quarter of 2006 when I got introduced to Jonathan Schell’s text The Fate of the Earth (1982) in a class I took at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad. The course was taught by A.V. Ashok — more prophet than professor — impressing upon us the disastrous consequences of a nuclear winter, and the moral crisis leading up to it.
Schell wrote, “To say that we and all future generations are threatened with extinction by the nuclear peril, however, is to describe only half of our situation. The other half is that we are the authors of that extinction…since we pay for extinction and support the governments that pose the threat of it.” I was moved by the scale of suffering that was described. However, at the age of 21, I did not really pause to reflect on how I could play a role in averting that catastrophe.
By then, I had already watched Anand Patwardhan’s award-winning documentary film War and Peace (2002), a commentary on the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, and the peace activism that had arisen in response to nuclear tests compelling ordinary citizens to pay a heavy price in the form of irreversible health hazards. Only, years later, after my visit to Pakistan in 2012 as part of the Exchange for Change program, did I realize that I needed to care more, read up, and speak out.
After five years of participating in cross-border peacebuilding initiatives, and facilitating peace education workshops, when I eventually learnt of an opportunity to contribute more actively to the conversation around denuclearization in South Asia by signing up for Global Zero’s Action Corps Leaders program, I jumped at it. Global Zero is an international movement headquartered in Washington DC, United States of America, which envisions a world with zero nuclear weapons. It has field organizers, grassroots team leaders and volunteers in the United States, India and Pakistan.
I got shortlisted for an interview, and finally received an email stating that I was offered a position in the 2017-2018 class of Action Corps. I was absolutely delighted to read my offer letter state, “This is an opportunity to gain unparalleled training in grassroots advocacy and organizing, make an immediate impact in your community, and be part of the international movement of leaders committed to a safer, nuclear weapons free world. With nuclear tensions rising across the globe, now is the time to build resistance to India and Pakistan’s nuclear policy, and we are so excited to have you on board.”
I was invited to participate in a four-day training in Washington DC from September 22 to 25, with two other Indians, three Pakistans, and over three dozen US citizens — all either young professionals or students keen on doing what we can. The South Asian Action Corps Leaders were invited to fly in a day early to get over the jet lag before we could dive into an intensive, almost breathless, series of workshops, mini-lessons and panel discussions.
We, Indians and Pakistanis, were thrilled to meet each other in this neutral space outside South Asia, without the kind of anxiety both have to go through if we dare to apply for a visa to visit each other’s countries. After a satisfying dinner and laughter-filled conversation, we wanted to prolong our time together by going for a walk.
We ended up at the White House. I was absolutely uninterested in that structure because of its current occupant, so I wandered over to chat with a man seated outside a tent that was flanked by a number of signs and posters including photographs from the devastation caused by USA when it bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons in 1945. The tent was pitched right opposite the north portico of the White House, against the lawn of Lafayette Park.
From that conversation, I learnt that he was one of the volunteers who devote their time to serving this unofficial monument to and for peace. As John Zangas wrote in an article published in April 2017, “The Peace Vigil is anchored in its place like an immovable stone, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as it has since 1981. It quietly faces the doors of the White House, refusing to go. Like a bug in the eye of power, and a burr in the foot of the cyclops, it stands as a resistance to war. Its right to be here is enshrined by law, the grandchild of dozens of court battles fought in the 1980s and 90s by its founder, William Thomas.”
Over the next three days, our Action Lab training took place at Impact Hub, a membership based community space in downtown DC that brings together activists, educators, artists, social entrepreneurs, policy makers, academics, and various others who are interested in social justice initiatives. We learnt about the movement for nuclear disarmament in USA, and the history of Global Zero as an organization, apart from various examples of action such as rallies, sit-ins, demonstrations, and teach-ins. We also attended sessions on petitioning, event planning, storytelling, and working with the press.
Ironically, all of this was happening just around the time when US President Donald Trump was firing verbal missiles at Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un from his Twitter account, threatening genocide of the North Korean people by launching a nuclear war. I was shocked to discover that, currently, the President has the authority to use a nuclear weapon whenever and whereve he wants. There are no checks and balances on the decision of the White House.
Global Zero’s ‘Beyond the Bomb’ campaign is geared towards generating awareness and expanding public support for the Markey-Lieu bill that aims to remedy this situation. If all Congressmen (I wish they had a gender-neutral term to refer to them) and Senators decided to back this bill, and it became a law, it would be mandatory for the US President to get Congress approval before going ahead with the first strike use of a nucelar weapon.
One of the workshops required all the Action Corps Leaders to go out into public spaces, greet random people we met, and encourage them to sign a petition demanding that their Senators and Congressmen “oppose nuclear war with North Korea, support a no-first use policy, and demand checks and balances on the President’s ability to use a nuclear weapon.”
It was an exhilarating and unnerving experience. Many people walked past me. Some smiled although they were in a hurry, while others did not even make eye contact. I did get a few signatures, and had some interesting conversations. There were people who flatly refused, saying that petitions do not make an iota of difference to someone who holds the highest office in the country. Others were happy to sign because they were looking for a way to express their frustration, and they now had a chance to make their voice heard.
On the fourth day, we had a training in Nonviolent Direction Action at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church. It was beautifully structured and executed, drawing on personal experiences of the participants as well as the facilitators. The discussion was much broader than the nuclear disarmament movement alone. We got a chance to reflect individually and collectively on the struggles, strategies and successes of the movements led by Native Americans, people of colour, Muslims, and queer groups.
The last day was my favourite one because the training was not top-down unlike the other days. It engaged me intellectually as well as emotionally. There was room for uncomfortable questions, instead of a compulsion to cover material within a stipulated time.
The Action Lab was special because I got a glimpse of the efforts people have been making in order to counter each step that brings us closer to the brink of a nuclear war. It felt wonderful to be with so many peers who think that speaking up for peace, and against war, is a worthwhile enterprise. I felt encouraged to continue working for peacebuilding between India and Pakistan.
What disappointed me was the fact that none of the trainers, experts or panelists on the first three days were South Asians, except the two Field Organizers who work with Global Zero. Only a 35-minute slot was dedicated to ‘Nukes 101 — South Asia Past and Present’. I wish more energy and resources had gone into acquainting the American Action Corps Leaders with grassroots movements for denuclearization in South Asia.
There are many activists and academics in the region who have been working on this issue, and it seemed unfair that the four-day training hardly referred to anti-nuclear resistance movements in South Asia, or the Global South at large. One of the facilitators on the last day was of Pakistani heritage but her role involved talking about nonviolent direct action, not anti-nuclear initiatives.
I was able to stay in the United States for a few weeks after the Action Lab, thanks to the generosity of friends who welcomed me into their homes. During this time, I learnt more about activism focused on highlighting the dangers of nuclear weapons.
On October 8, I attended the 32nd anniversary celebrations of the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Massachusetts. Owing to the rain, the open-air celebrations were shifted to a Japanese temple maintained by monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order. The invitation had a quote from Nichidatsu Fujii Guruji, the founder of the order, stating, “Civilization is not about installing electric lights, having airplanes, or producing nuclear weapons. What defines civilization in its entirety? It is not to kill, not to destroy; not to wage war. It is about people holding one another in mutual affection and respect.”
The temple hosted an inter-faith ceremony, with spiritual leaders from all the Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — reciting prayers for peace in the world. That was beautiful to witness, at a time when people are holding on a bit too tightly to narrow identity frameworks, and refusing to see what they have in common.
I wish they had invited female spiritual leaders as well. I am not nit-picking here. It is important to affirm that women can do an equally good job of representing their faith. Thankfully, the occasion was graced by an exceptionally gifted Native American woman who led the water ceremonies at Standing Rock in Dakota. She spoke with tremendous presence and passion, and a touch of humour.
A week later, in New York City, I found myself aboard the Peace Boat — a chartered passenger ship that travels the world on peace voyages, creating opportunities for dialogue between people of various nationalities. Students and young professionals volunteer their services on the ship in exchange for free or discounted accommodation and meals, and the opportunity to be part of workshops led by experts in sustainable development, conflict resolution, inter-cultural communication, and peace education.
The ship had docked in New York on October 15 and 16. On both days, an invited group of people interested in the work and activities of Peace Boat were able to hear first-person accounts of youth who have travelled on the Peace Boat voyages, testimonies of survivors from the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the experiences of volunteers from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
I was thrilled to be in the same place as all these people, soaking in the wisdom and inspiration because I would need it in future when faced with the (sometimes) difficult task of staying true to my work as a peacebuilder in a volatile nuclear armed South Asia. I am back in India now, and excited to work with people here on advocacy for the reduction of expenditure on and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. If this interests you, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org