South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

IVY Bua the inveterate Pentecostal proselytiser was in her 80s when she found that her driver was on leave. Her lifelong mission to spread the Lord’s word had given her the gift of provisioning for reliable backups. A large fridge perpetually stacked with salted meat loaves and sherbet, together with an ever open and overworked kitchen was part of the arrangement to lure young souls like me and my brother Shanney, always ready to receive spiritual goodness if it came with delicatessens.

It was early morning and Ivy collared the kindly Sikh cabbie from the neighbourhood to drive her to Delhi’s Gulmohar Park where she would wake up her daughter with the good news. The verdant residential colony hosted India’s senior journalists, her son-in-law among them, all granted subsidised land under Indira Gandhi’s watch to build relatively spacious homes.

Ivy was in a tearing hurry and called out the happy tidings from the door. The world, according to her cult’s guru, the South Korean preacher Rev Moon, was coming to an end by early afternoon, India time.

It was not clear how since no nuclear conflict was on the horizon. Perhaps a meteor would ram into the planet as it had done millions of years ago when the impact snuffed out the world of dinosaurs. The promised tidings in hand Ivy was keen that the daughter and her husband join her for lunch, which she fervently hoped would be their last great meal together before she would escort them and a parliament of assorted followers to their hard-won heavenly abode.

In a larger context, had it not been for Ivy’s fraternity of Christian missionaries in India, the quality of secular education they took to the cities and intractable villages or to the forest tribes of India would elude millions. Not everyone who believes in the hereafter is as benign as Ivy Bua was. There are those that seek to bring the end of the world through distilled villainy.

The militant Islamic State group would inflict horrific pain on quarries in its self-serving quest for boons in the next life. An Iranian sect ran a bizarre order of beliefs around the time Khomeini returned to Tehran. He had their leaders put under house arrest. The Hojattiyeh plan was to chuck incendiary bombs into the Soviet Union in the hope that the communist military would pummel them. The Americans would come to their rescue. There would be Third World War and the believers would be on their much-awaited journey to paradise while the lesser mortals would be dispatched to Abu Ghraib-like torture chambers to account for their sins.

The belief in the end of the world can come with a fridge full of delicacies or it could show up with nuclear-tipped missiles. Going by David Attenborough’s insights into the climatic holocaust looming over the earth, mindless consumerism could usher the end via secular if insatiable greed that capitalism spawns. The Soviets didn’t believe in the raptures but they too were ready for the end of the world if provoked. Mao Zedong had famously proclaimed how in the event of a nuclear attack by either the US or the Soviets, the surviving comrades would retreat to the mountains where they would produce more babies. That was then.

In the case of the Soviets, the end would offer no religious reward; it would just end absurdly in plumes of nuclear clouds that would destroy all life on earth. The Dead Hand weaponry the communists devised would ensure that in the event of a decapitating first strike by the enemy, a robotic system would survive to launch a full range of retaliatory attacks on the enemy. The idea perhaps was to make the end a more evenly balanced enterprise. A fatal flaw in the Dead Hand device was its secrecy. The enemy was not aware of its existence for it to be a deterrent.

Last week marked the anniversary of tit-for-tat nuclear tests by Pakistan after India came out in the open with its array of bombs. The Indian government secretly told the US that the tests targeted China. Whatever the stated purpose, the move signalled the willingness if not preparedness by the South Asian rivals to join the destruction of the planet when the time came.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed this nationalist bravado in different parts of the world, which may not be a bad idea at all. Look at it this way. People who were claiming to be ready for nuclear exchange over Pulwama or Ladakh in India only recently, and their leaders who rode the ceaseless tide of jingoism (not essentially different from the much-maligned North Korea) were now gazing impotently at hospitals that were running out of oxygen and medicines, at doctors dying in droves while tending to save lives.

Above all, the leaders would be looking at the rich as they pleaded on their knees for a hospital bed. They were now looking at bodies strewn on pavements, in fields and in rivers. They were looking at wrecked industries and upended means of livelihoods of millions. In a nuclear war, there won’t be a hospital left to go to, or a job to find or lose. That’s one hard lesson from the pandemic raging today, if any lesson is to be learnt.

The pandemic will go leaving its relatively small trail of destruction. A 2017 report from the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health revealed that pollution accounts for nine million premature deaths a year — roughly 16 per cent of the global death count and more than the number of deaths due to war or hunger. Now look at India’s prime minister and his two most ardent financial supporters. One sells coal, the other is a vendor of oil. Were we not better off with Ivy Bua’s packed fridge and the gentle hymns she made us sing for a promising supper?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

[email protected]

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2021