‘Har Ghar Tiranga’:  The Heart, the State, and the Indian Constitution

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, August 15

In the wake of the “Har Ghar Tiranga” campaign, a campaign designed to encourage every Indian home (har ghar) to display the National Flag (tiranga, literally tri-colored), it is useful to think briefly about the evolution of the national flag, its place in the nationalist imagination during the anti-colonial struggle, and the particular way our relationship to the flag is a matter of the heart, the state, and the Indian constitution. Some people have thought that the orange in the flag represents the Hindu constituency, the green the Muslim community, and that all “others” are represented by the white in the flag.  Gandhi had said as much, in an article for Young India on 13 April 1921, except that at that time red took the place of orange, but he also added that the charkha or spinning wheel in the middle of the flag pointed both to the oppressed condition of every Indian and simultaneously to the possibility of rejuvenating every household.  The Constituent Assembly debates, which led to the adoption of the tricolored flag on 22 July 1947, suggest that some members were more inclined towards another interpretation, seeing the green as a symbol of nature and the fact that we are all children of ‘Mother Earth’, the orange as symbolizing renunciation and sacrifice, and white as symbolic of peace (shanti).  That may be so, but the tiranga cannot be unraveled without some consideration of how it emerges from the three-forked road of the heart, the state, and the constitution.

Just what, however, is a national flag and why do all nation-states have one?  The national anthem and the national flag are the bedrock of every nation-state; nearly all also have a national emblem, as does India.  India has a complicated history around the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”, and the country officially also has a national song, “Vande Mataram”; and, then, there is an unofficial anthem, “Saare Jahan Se Accha”, which has wide currency.  This makes the national flag especially and supremely important in India as an unambiguous marker of the nation-state. The honor and integrity of the nation are supposed to be captured by the flag, and the narrative of the nation-state everywhere offers ample testimony that the national flag is uniquely capable of enlisting the aid of citizens, giving rise to sentiments of nationalism, and evoking the supreme sacrifice of death.  In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and highly polyglot nation such as India, the national flag is there to remind every Indian that something unites them:  before their allegiance to a language, religion, caste group, or anything else, they are Indian. Thus, in every respect, the national flag commands, not merely our respect, but our allegiance to the nation.

The Ministry of Culture’s “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” website, of which the “Har Ghar Tiranga” campaign is one component, adds something quite different to the discussion. It states that “our relationship with the flag has always been more formal and institutional than personal”, and the campaign seeks to evoke in every Indian a “personal connection to the Tiranga” and “also an embodiment of our commitment to nation-building.”  The idea, it says candidly, “is to invoke the feeling of patriotism.” To understand just what this means, we have to disentangle two elements:  first, the question of patriotism; and, secondly, the fact that the relationship of Indians to the national flag is sought to be altered from a formal, stiff, and institutional relationship to a more personal and engaged one. Let us first turn to the second point, before returning to complete the broader discussion on patriotism.

Unlike countries such as the United States and Canada, India for a long time did not in fact permit ordinary citizens to fly the flag from their residence or business. This right was preserved as the prerogative of the state.  “The Flag Code-India”, overhauled in 2002 and replaced by the “Flag Code of India”, and the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act, 1971, set down the protocols to be observed in flying the national flag. In a now little-remembered but highly significant ruling on 21 September 1995, the Delhi High Court directed that the then “Flag Code-India” could not be interpreted so as to prevent an ordinary citizen from flying the National Flag from their business or residence. This eventually brought into existence the “Flag Code” of 2002, which permits unrestricted display of the tricolor consistent with the dignity and honor that is owed to the National Flag. However, aside from the question of the material to be used for making the National Flag, which has been the subject of considerable discussion in recent days, the Flag Code still imposed restrictions, such as being flown only “from sunrise to sunset “ (Para 2.2, sec. xi). The changes, moreover, were never public knowledge, and as a consequence it is safe to say that Indians have had a distant and formal, rather than personal and intimate, relationship to the National Flag. It is precisely this relationship that the “Har Ghar Tiranga” initiative has sought to change.

What is striking, and no longer seems to be a part of public or even institutional memory, is that in the two to three decades before independence, Indians did indeed have a personal relationship to the Congress flag or, as English officials with some derision described it, the Gandhi flag—the very flag that, after modifications, including the replacement of the charkha with Ashoka’s Lion Capital, would become the National Flag adopted by the Constituent Assembly.  Congressmen and women fought government officials with zeal for the right to hoist their flag.  They found that hoisting the flag invariably attracted the wrath, and often the vengeance, of British officials, and invariably ordered the flag to be brought down. On the rare occasion that a government official allowed the Congress flag to fly, he would receive an instant reprimand from the colonial government.  This happened in 1923 in Bhagalpur, where the official consented to have the Congress flag flown alongside the Union Jack, albeit at a lower height.  Not only the Government of India, but the British Cabinet issued a stern note saying “that in no circumstances should the Swaraj or Gandhi Flag be flown in conjunction with even below the Union Jack.” During the Salt Satyagraha, boys as young as eight years old were whipped for the offense of flying the flag or trying to hoist it.  The indomitable Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, in her riveting memoirs, has described the tussle over the flag during the Salt Satyagraha, with the Congress Volunteers hoisting the flag time after time, and the police lowering it each time.  “Up with the Flag”, “Up with the Flag”—the echoes kept ringing in her ears.

The right to fly the National Flag, in other words, was won after an arduous struggle.  The flag evolved over time:  it was Bhikaji Cama, who edited the newspaper Bande Mataram and closely networked with Indian revolutionaries in Europe, who unfurled the first Indian national flag at the 2nd Socialist International Congress at Stuttgart in 1907,  and Kamaladevi rightly points out that she “installed India as a political entity” by doing so.  The same flag had been hoisted for the first time in Calcutta in 1906.  By 1921, the charkha had been installed at its center at Gandhi’s instigation, and the flag was again modified in 1931.  As Gandhi had written, “a flag is a necessity for all nations.  Millions have died for it.  It is no doubt a kind of idolatry which it would be a sin to destroy.”  Seeing how British hearts pounded with pride at seeing the Union Jack fluttering in the wind, Gandhi asked whether it was not similarly necessary that all Indians “recognize a common flag to live and to die for”?  If the Congress flag accompanied every campaign, artists similarly positioned the flag prominently in their artwork.  In a 1945 color print celebrating Subhas Bose and the heroes of the Indian National Army who were put on trial on charges of treason, we see the Congress flag with the charkha, and the INA flag with the springing tiger, on either side of Subhas Bose (see fig. 1).  Martyrs fell along the way, but their struggle was not in vain:  in Sudhir Chowdhury’s print from 1947, the heads of the martyrs, among them Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose, lie at the feet of Bharat Mata, who hands the tiranga to Nehru on the eve of independence (see fig. 2).  In her various hands, she holds the other iterations of the national flag before it evolved into the tiranga.

Fig. 1, Sudhir Chowdhury, I.N.A. officers with Netaji, c. 1945.

If Indians fought for the national flag with zeal, they did so because they believed in what it stood for and they did so from their own volition against colonial oppression.  The affection for the flag came from within, as a mandate from the heart rather than from the state.  In any discussion of what the flag means today, it must be borne in mind that though the business of the state is to produce patriotic citizens, a patriotism that is manufactured by the state cannot endure and is as ephemeral as a market commodity.  It is no less pertinent that the Constitution of India has nothing to say on the national flag.  Though former Chief Justice Khare, heading a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, stated in 2004 that the citizen had a fundamental right to fly the flag as guaranteed by Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution, the article in question is about the freedom of speech and expression, and the right to fly the flag was interpreted as being subsumed by the larger right specified by Art. 19 (1)(a).

Fig. 2: Sudhir Chowdhury, “Worship of Martyrs”, c. 1947.

The Constitution has, of course, nothing to say explicitly on thousands of subjects, and Chief Justice Khare did what courts must do, namely interpret the Constitution.  That is well and good, but we must confront the fact that many who honor the flag do not necessarily honor the Constitution. The state may be no exception; indeed, it is far likely to honor the flag rather than the constitution.  A rogue can fly a flag as much as a saint; it takes almost nothing to show one’s patriotism.  If patriotism can be purchased on the cheap, for a 5-rupee (7. 5 cents) plastic flag put together in China, which the present regime in India has derided as the mortal enemy, it is practically worthless.  That larger right to freedom of speech and expression which subsumes the right to fly the flag is critically important, but it is also equally important to recognize that the Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, itself subsumes the National Flag.  Now that the citizens of India have won the right to hoist the National Flag without restriction, consistent with respect to the National Flag, it is perhaps time to think about the corresponding duty they owe to respect the freedom of speech and expression, and the obligation, which the present government has shown little if any interest in honoring, to protect the Fundamental Rights promised in the Constitution to every citizen.

First published under the same title in a slightly shorter form at abplive.in, here.

Gujarati translation by abplive.in available, here.

The Art of the Freedom Struggle in India

As India prepares to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its independence on August 15th, attention will naturally gravitate towards those who were the principal architects of the movement that gave us azaadi. In the current mood, and under the present political dispensation, one can be certain that even though the putative “Father of the Nation”, Mahatma Gandhi, will be mentioned in the usual pious tones, many others will be celebrated as the greater architects of the freedom struggle.  The marginalization of Gandhi has, of course, been going on for some time, indeed long before the present BJP government came into power, and the extraordinary success of the South Indian film “RRR” tells us something about the film culture of our days, the political sensibility of many Indians, and the manner in which the narrative of the freedom struggle is being rewritten. The film is a visual extravaganza that celebrates most of the “real warriors” who delivered India from the yoke of colonial rule, and it comes as no surprise that neither Gandhi nor Jawaharlal Nehru are deemed worthy of inclusion in the galaxy of heroes. Quite predictably, the film invokes, particularly towards the end, the legacies of Subhas Bose, Bhagat Singh, and Sardar Patel among others.  The screenwriter of the film, Vijayendra Prasad, has gone on record as saying that online posts—from Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp—from some friends made him question five years ago whether Gandhi and Nehru had done anything for the country, and he says he began to reject the orthodox historical narrative that was being taught in Indian schools when he was a child.  When you learn your history from WhatsApp and Twitter, what you get is “RRR”—a visual spectacle, but absolutely brainless, and one that is curiously devoid of any understanding of the language of cinema. This is, of course, apart from the question of what the makers of the films understand by India’s adivasi culture, or their interpretation of caste and its political histories.

One way to comprehend what was transpiring during the freedom struggle and in its immediate aftermath is to understand how artists at that time responded to the events unfolding before them.  A very small if sophisticated body of work has emerged around this subject, but what has been written on it—often in obtuse language—is largely for scholars, all the more ironical because much of the art of that time is ephemeral, more like bazaar art, and one would imagine that the scholars who have sought to rescue this work from oblivion are sensitive to the fact that bazaar art is after all for the bazaar, that is for common people.  What becomes evident from a perusal of the art is that the artists and printmakers saw in Gandhi the supreme embodiment of the aspirations of a people striving to be free.  They unhesitatingly turned Gandhi into the presiding deity of the political landscape.  By far the greatest number of nationalist prints, as they may be called, feature him and the political events and the political theatre to which he gave birth—whether it be the Champaran Satyagraha, the noncooperation movement, the no-tax campaigns such as the Bardoli Satyagraha, the Salt Satyagraha, or the Quit India movement.  What is even more extraordinary is that the printmakers and artists also unhesitatingly placed him, and him alone of all the political luminaries of that time, as akin to the founder of religions and as the true inheritor of the spiritual legacy of Indian civilization.  Thus, for example, in the poster by P. S. Ramachandra Rao that appeared from Madras in 1947-48 entitled “The Splendour That is India”, Gandhi is placed in the pantheon of “great souls”—Valmiki, Thiruvalluvar, the Buddha, Mahavira, Shankaracharya, the philosopher Ramanuja, Guru Nanak, Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharishi—who are thought to have animated the spiritual life of a people (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1: P. S. R. Rao, “The Splendour That is India”, Madras, 1947-48.

Let us turn, however, to some more modest prints that came out of a workshop in Kanpur established by Shyam Sundar Lal, who described himself as a “Picture Merchant” and set up a business at the chowk. It is not possible to go into the details of how Kanpur came to have such an important though not singular place in nationalist art, but it is useful to recall that Kanpur [or Cawnpore, as it was known to the British] was the site of critical events during the Rebellion of 1857-58.  As a major manufacturing hub and production centre for supplies required by the army by the late 19th century, Kanpur also became important for labour union organizing and it was a city where communists and Congressmen both jostled for power.  We do not know exactly how these prints were circulated, distributed, or used.  Did they pass from hand to hand? Where they pasted on walls in public places or framed and displayed in homes?  We do not even know how many copies were printed of each print, and indeed how many designs were in circulation for around the twenty to thirty years that the workshop was in business. But the prints that have survived make it possible to draw some inferences about how printmakers viewed the nationalist struggle.

One of the artists who produced prints diligently for Sundar Lal’s workshop was Prabhu Dayal and we may confine ourselves to three examples of his artwork. In a print entitled “Satyagraha Yoga-Sadhana”, or the achievement of satyagraha by the discipline of yoga, Gandhi is shown centre-stage, with Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal positioned at either end of the Mahatma (see fig. 2).  He sits meditatively on a bed of thorns, reminiscent perhaps of the dying Bhishma as he lay upon a sheaf of arrows and delivered a last set of teachings on the duties of the king and the slipperiness of dharma. There are no rose bushes without thorns; similarly, there is no freedom without restraint and discipline. The resolution for purna swaraj had been passed in December 1929 by the Congress at the annual meeting in Lahore presided over by Jawaharlal, and it is the rays of full independence or “poori azaadi” that shine upon the three.

Fig. 2: Satyagraha Yoga-Sadhana, print by Prabhu Dayal, published by Rashtriya Chitra Prakashak Karyalaya, Kanpur.

More remarkable still is a print from 1930 which casts the epic battle between Rama and Ravana as a modern-day struggle between Gandhi and the British, between ahimsa (nonviolence) and himsa (violence), between satya (truth) and asatya (falsehood; see fig. 3). The ten-headed Ravana is incarnated as the hydra-headed machinery of death and oppression known as the British Raj. This struggle is represented as the Ramayana of our times. In this “struggle for freedom” (“swarajya ki larai”), Gandhi’s only weapons are the spindle and the charkha, though just as Rama was aided by Hanuman, so Gandhi is aided by Nehru.  There is no mistaking the fact that Nehru is rendered as the modern-day Hanuman, who, in his hunt for the life-saving drug (sanjivini), carried back the mountain.  A forlorn-looking Bharat Mata, Mother India, languishes in one corner of the print, cast in the shadow of the architecture of the new imperial capital built by the British as a monument to their own power. Gandhi in his rustic dhoti, bare-chested, presents a stark contrast to the Hun-looking British official in high boots whose hands bear a multitude of weapons of oppression: artillery, the baton of the police, military aircraft, indeed the entire arsenal of the armed forces and the navy. The oppressive and power-crazy British also wield Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which restricted the assembly of people and was used by the colonial state to foil nationalist demonstrations—and is still being used in independent India.

Fig. 3: Prabhu Dayal, “Struggle for Freedom” (“Swarajaya ki Ladai”), c. 1930, published by Shyam Sunder Lal Agarwal, Kanpur.

Prabhu Dayal, however, was ecumenical in his comprehension of the different strands of the freedom movement.  Contrary to the view which some had then, and which is increasingly becoming popular among those who deride nonviolence and imagine that Gandhi was an effete individual who placed before his country a worldview for which a muscular nation-state can have no respect, Dayal did not see Bhagat Singh or Subhas Bose as having an antagonistic relationship to Mahatma.  Much of his work suggests the complementariness between Gandhi and Bhagat Singh as in, for instance, this print entitled “Swatantrata ki Vedi par Viron ka Balidan”, or “The Sacrifice of Heroes at the Altar of Independence” (see fig. 4).  Here Bhagat Singh, Motilal, Jawaharlal, Gandhi, and countless other Indians are lined up before Bharat Mata with the heads of the immortal martyrs, ‘amar shahid’, who have heroically already laid down their lives for the nation: Ashfaqullah [Khan], Rajendra Lahiri, Ramprasad Bismil, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Jatindranath Das.  Prabhu Dayal did not doubt the sacrifice of the “Lion of the Punjab”, Lala Lajpat Rai, or of the many young men who took up arms in their quest for India’s independence.

Fig. 4: Prabhu Dayal, “Swantantrata ki Vedi par Viron Ka Balidan” (The Sacrifice of Heroes at the Altar of Independence), c. 1930, published by Shyam Sundarl Lal Agarwal, Kanpur.

Much of this artwork has only in recent years begun to receive the critical scrutiny of historians and other scholars.  These prints do not only tell the story of the freedom movement; rather, they helped to forge the identity of the nation.  What kind of art will do the same at this critical juncture of India’s history remains to be seen.

Note:  All the prints are part of the author’s own collection. This article is related to, and in part drawn from, his forthcoming book, Insurgency and the Artist (New Delhi:  Roli Books, c. Oct 2022).

This is a slightly revised version of a piece first published under the same title at abplive.in on 12 August 2022.

Published in a Marathi translation at ABP Network, here.

Also available in Bengali translation at bengali.abplive.in, here.

And in a Gujarati translation at gujarati.abplive.in, here.

Making Meaning of the Crime of Nagasaki:  American Power and Dehumanization in the Nuclear Age

It is on this day, August 9, seventy-seven years ago, that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.  Several air-raid alarms had sounded early that morning, but such warnings had by now become routine.  The Americans had been firebombing Japanese cities for months, and there was little reason to suspect that this morning would be any different. Two B-29 Superfortresses, as the gigantic bombers were called, had left Tinian air base and arrived at Kokura, the intended target, at 9:50 AM, but the cloud cover was too thick to drop the bomb with any degree of accuracy and the planes departed for the secondary target, Nagasaki.  Here, once again, visibility was sharply reduced owing to thick clouds, but then, fortuitously for the animated plane crew, the veil was lifted momentarily—just enough to drop “Fat Boy”, as the bomb was nicknamed, at 11:02 AM.  Nagasaki had thus far not been laid to waste: a deliberate decision, since the effect of the bomb could not be judged if it were dropped on a city that had already been reduced to rubble.  The clouds had parted, and the virginal city was now open to being ravished by “Fat Boy”.

Nagasaki, the Morning After: 10 August 1945. Photograph: Yosuke Yamahata.

At the moment of detonation, less than a minute later, something like 40,000 people were killed instantly.  Over the next five to six months, another 30,000 died from their injuries; the casualties would continue to mount over the years, some succumbing to their injuries, others to the creeping radiation.  At least 100,000 people had died within a few years in consequence of the bombing.  Almost ninety percent of the buildings within a 2.5-kilometre radius of the hypocenter, or “ground zero”, were entirely destroyed.  The following day, August 10, following the expressed wishes of the Emperor, the Japanese government conveyed its surrender to the Allied forces, though the American insistence on an “unconditional surrender” continued to be a stumbling block for several days.  It was not until August 15 that Emperor Hirohito, taking to the airwaves to speak to his people directly for the first time, announced Japan’s surrender.  On September 2nd, the Japanese foreign minister signed the instrument of surrender, and the hostilities of World War II were formally brought to a close.

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese Government, on board USS Missouri (BB-63), 2 September 1945. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki has been, comparatively speaking, little explored and it is similarly less recognized and commemorated than the bombing of Hiroshima three days earlier.  It is, of course, the singular misfortune of Hiroshima that it ushered humanity into the nuclear age and catapulted humanity to new and heightened levels of barbarism.  “Little Boy”, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, killed 70,000 people instantly—at the moment of detonation.  The city was leveled, utterly ruined, and transformed into a mass graveyard.  The graphic photographs that survive tell the same story, but in different idioms.  There is the photograph of a young girl who survived initially but whose eyes were hollowed out; she was blinded by the bright light emitted by the explosion.  Thousands of people were literally rendered naked:  the intense heat and the fireballs stripped them of their clothes, and on one woman’s back the kimono’s pattern was seared into her flesh.  This is one kind of barbarism.

Blinded by the light and by “Little Boy”: Hiroshima, 6 August 1945. Photograph: Christer Stromholm.

It is another if related kind of barbarism to adopt the view, in the words of an American military officer at that time, that “the entire population of Japan is a proper military target.”  Fewer than 250 people who were killed in Hiroshima were soldiers; the targets, in other words, were the elderly, women, and children, Japanese men of fighting age already having left the city to serve in the armed forces or auxiliary services. The hyper-realists have always adhered to the position that, whatever restraints on warfare international law might impose, and whatever the ethical sentiments that soft-headed people may have, war is a brutal business and that at times nothing is forbidden in the pursuit of victory.  Historians generally encompass this view under the rubric of “total war”.

It is still another kind of barbarism, however, to continue to defend both the atomic bombings years and decades later, as many Americans especially do, on grounds that are at best specious.  As late as 2015, seventy years after the bombings and considerable scholarship calling into question the conventional view, a Pew Research Center survey indicated that 56 percent Americans supported the atomic bombings and another 10 percent declared themselves undecided.  Many arguments have been advanced in defense of the use of the bomb.  Some commentators resort to what I have already described as the argument that, in conditions of “total war”, nothing is impermissible.  Since such an argument often sounds crass and unforgiving, others prefer to speak of “military necessity”.  The defense of the bombings often hinges around Japan’s obdurate refusal to surrender on the terms that Americans had every right to impose.  

However, at rock bottom, there is but one fundamental claim on which the proponents of the bombings rest their case.  It is the argument that the atomic bombings saved lives.  We can all envision scenarios, so goes the argument, where one preserves lives by taking other lives.  Had the bombs not been dropped, the Americans would have had to undertake a land invasion, and the battle of Iowa Jima had shown the Americans that the Japanese would be prepared to defend their country to the last man—and perhaps woman and child.  Tens of thousands of American soldiers would have been killed.  The somewhat more sensitive adherents of this view, mindful of the fact that Americans are not the only people fully deserving to be viewed as “human”, insist on reminding everyone that hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians would also have been killed.  Thus, it is not only American, but also Japanese, lives that were saved when the United States decided to unleash destruction on a scale the like of which had never been seen in history. 

President Truman’s remarks on August 11 unequivocally suggest that saving Japanese lives was certainly not on his mind—and neither was it on the minds of the military planners or even the scientists charged with bringing to fruition the Manhattan Project:  “The only language they [the Japanese] seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.  When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him like a beast.  It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”  There is but no doubt that the Japanese had been entirely dehumanized.  In prosecuting the war against Germany, the United States always made it clear that the Nazis, not ordinary Germans, were the enemy; however, no such distinction was observed in prosecuting the war against Japan.  Military planners and most ordinary Americans alike saw themselves as being at war against the Japanese, not just against the Japanese leadership.  The savage lampooning of, and racism against, the Japanese is to be found in countless number of cartoons, writings, and official documents, as well as in the expressly pronounced views of people in the highest positions in the American government and society.  The Chairman of the US War Manpower Commission, Paul V. McNutt, said that he “favored the extermination of the Japanese in toto”, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s own son, Elliott, admitted to the Vice President that he supported continuation of the war against Japan “until we have destroyed about half of the civilian population.”

A case can be made that the United States, in undertaking the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, committed war crimes, even crimes against humanity, and engaged in state terrorism.  Quite reasonably, we may expect that such a view will be aggressively countered, though the argument that the dehumanization of the Japanese—even if precipitated to some extent by Japan’s own wartime atrocities, some on a monumental scale—played a role in the bombings seems to be unimpeachably true.  Those who seek to defend the bombings appear, moreover, to be unable to comprehend that the nuclear bombs were not simply bigger and far more lethal bombs, and that the bombings were not merely a more aggravated and ferocious form of the strategic bombing carried out first by the Luftwaffe and then the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the U.S. Air Force. The atomic bombings breached a frontier; they constituted a transgression on a cosmic scale, bringing forth in the most terrifying way before humankind the awareness that the will to destroy may yet triumph over the will to live.  The sheer indifference to the idea of life, any life, on the planet suggests the deep amorality that underlies the logic of the atomic bombings.  In this sense, we may say that the crime of Hiroshima is the primordial crime of our modern age.

Still, is it also possible to argue that the crime of Nagasaki was yet greater than the crime of Hiroshima?  Why did the Americans have to drop a second bomb?  Why could they not have waited a few more days for Japan to surrender?  The defenders of the Nagasaki bombing argue that, since the Japanese had not surrendered immediately after the Hiroshima bombing, it was quite apparent to the Americans that they were determined to keep fighting on.  The Japanese may have believed that the United States had only one bomb; some argue that surrender was not an option for the Japanese since the warrior culture was pervasive in their society and “Oriental culture” does not permit such an ignominious ending.  On the other side, it has been argued that American military planners had a toy, and what use is a toy if it is not going to be put into play.  

As I have argued, and many others have argued this long before me, the atomic bombings were never just intended to induce Japan to surrender. Before the war had even ended, the United States was already preparing for the next war, and that against a mortal enemy—the Soviet Union. Japan, at this time, was an entirely decimated power; it was, indeed, of comparatively little interest to the Americans.  If this sounds implausible to some, consider that Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, the Director of the Manhattan Project, himself confessed that “there was never from about two weeks from the time that I took charge of this Project any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis.” It was imperative to convey to Stalin that the United States would not be prepared to allow the Soviet Union to spread the poison of communism around the globe and seek world domination; as Secretary of State James Byrnes remarked, “The demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia with America’s military might.”

With Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States sought to deliver a one-two punch:  knock out Japan and put the Soviet Union on notice that the United States was prepared to exercise its Manifest Destiny as the one indispensable country in the world.  “Power corrupts,” John Dalberg-Acton [Lord Acton] famously pronounced; “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

First published under the same title at abplive.in on 9 August 2022.

Available in a Marathi translation, here.

Available in a Tamil translation, here.

Available in a Telugu translation, here.