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Agni-5: The National Firework of India

India’s successful launch of a long range inter-continental ballistic missile has led to hyper-nationalist posturing and antagonism with China, of a kind disappointingly reminiscent of Cold War hubris. The bombastic rhetoric must not undo the bilateral ties between the two states.


BY ANTONY OU | JULY 2012

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On 19th April 2012, Agni-5, India’s first long range inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) was successfully launched from Wheeler Island, off the Odisha coast. The 5000-8000 km-range missile is able to fly to the Middle East, certain parts of Europe, Russia, Pakistan, South East Asia, and basically anywhere in China.Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, congratulated his country by saying, “Today’s successful Agni-5 test launch represents another milestone in our quest to add to the credibility of our security and preparedness and (plan) to continuously explore the frontiers of science. The nation stands together in honouring the scientific community.” Defence Minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony also acclaimed Agni-5 as a “major milestone” of the country’s scientific development and national security. The Indian mainstream media presented images of joyful citizens: everyone rallied and rejoiced for the newly launched missile.

Such euphoria has further reinforced the already nationalist India. It seems that every Indian is ecstatic that India has finally joined the exclusive ICBM “elite club”, together with the nuclear superpowers such as USA, Russia, China and France. In the eyes of Indians, Agni-5 was no longer a weapon capable of mass destruction; instead, it was a glorious firework display, celebrating India’s military power in the name of science and self-defense – at the development cost of USD 499 million.

On the same day, I was interviewed live from Hong Kong by Arnab Goswami, the anchor of The Newshour, an Indian prime time news program of Times Now. During the 30-minute program, I was astonished and overwhelmed by the chauvinism of the discussants.

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Moreover, they had a very strong sense of distrust, if not hatred, towards China. They think that China was being rude, over-critical and sometimes even satirical towards the “scientific development” of Agni-5. The “West” congratulated India while China’s mainstream media severely questioned the capability of Agni-5 and its overall military strength. For instance, the Global Times, a daily Chinese newspaper owned by the Communist Party of China, nit-picked India by commenting that “India should not overestimate its strength.”

I was asked, “Why is China being critical about Agni-5?” The political agenda had been set, with the assumption that China is threatened, and is also deeply worried about the nuclear development of India. Due to the poor satellite connection between Hong Kong and India, I could barely hear the anchor and discussants. My responses were fragmented and incomplete. The intention of this article, therefore, is to clarify my political responses to my Indian friends. My argument was: On one hand, the launch of Agni-5 prompts the imaginary of the foreigner, such as China, as an enemy, as an external Other. On the other hand, Agni-5 is a political tool governing the behaviours of Indian citizens, by refreshing their glorious past and war memories, reinforcing these as the founding fantasies of India’s modern nationalism. Both Sinophobic and Indophobic celebrations should never be encouraged if we do not anticipate a world of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) initiated by the two Asian heavyweights.

  • Agni: Transcendental Myth Prevails

The word Agni originally refers to a Vedic-Hindu deity. He is the god of fire, the messenger of gods and men, and the director of every ceremony. He illuminates human knowledge and sometimes is transformed as the thunderbolt of Indra’s weapon. He has been the god dispelling darkness and evil for centuries, and Vedic-Hindu worshippers venerate him as one of the most important gods. In their eyes, Agni governs the fire of eternity, and everyone should worship the god who provides such a destructive, but useful, source of energy.

By naming their missiles Agni, modern Indians appropriate ancient mythology for contemporary political ends. Since the first launch of Agni-1 in 1989, the fire of god symbolizes “the eruption of mass social movements and a political party of government that represented a majoritarian, chauvinistic anti-minority ideology of “Hindu” supremacism.”[1] Chetan Bhatt, a professor of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), refers here to the rightist nationalist the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, the so-called central-left party, Indian National Congress-led incumbent government have continued the Agni legacy, as if there is a consensus across the society that there are always enemies from the outside, and the biggest of them is China. Indians need Agni, the god of fire, to do what is necessary by maintaining national security and justice. In this sense, they have successfully re-created their own god and worship him without doubt.

Praful Bidwai, a famous Indian journalist and political activist, challenged this form of Indian nationalism, saying that “I am disturbed by this euphoria. I think it reminds me that all this is very chauvinistic, hyper-nationalism, a kind that was witnessed in Germany and Italy before the war (World War II) and this is a fanaticism of a different kind which really disturbs me. We should not be proud of the weapons of massive destruction”. There are different forms of nationalism, but the most dangerous category is often militarily-driven. Nuclear weaponry has caused millions of deaths, irreversible damage to families and environments, and plastered cities yet to be rebuilt. Science and modernization have become two powerful and seemingly “neutral” discourses when it comes to attaining nuclear power – moral shields, disguising the ugly truth of the possibility of causing barely comprehensible disaster. The launching of Agni-5, hence, is not a day for celebration. For Indians and the world, we will have to pray that the weapon of mass destruction would never be used.

More ironically, Agni-5 (and possibly Agni-6) might not provide national security for India. The Indian government, intellectuals and mass media often claim that the Agni missiles are used for the causes of self-defense and security through deterrence. The former means that whenever there is a nuclear attack on Indian soil, India should have the capability to retaliate. The latter refers to the deterrence of nuclear attacks from other countries. However, such Cold War thinking is misleading: it seems to assume that every state in the 21st century is in a constant state of war. In addition, if we must think like any Cold War generals, nuclear deterrence, in fact, gives no strategic advantages to India, because India would have to compete in an intensive missile race with China, while the latter is at the moment three times stronger than India, economically and militarily. The Indian government had once denounced the Cold War arms race, yet they are now embracing the idea. Such a dramatic change of foreign policy, generated by the “Yellow Peril”, is deeply worrying.

  • Nationalism: China’s experience

China is another highly nationalistic community in the 21st century. The national ethnic-cultural identity of “Han” (which comprises 92% of the total population) has been built for more than 100 years, and was reinforced after 1949. It has been subsequently reinforced by the reification of war memories, “common” history, as well as the fact that the population shares the same language of Mandarin/Putonghua. State capitalism and Confucianism, which have partially and gradually replaced the Communist ideology, attempt to bind Chinese citizens together as an indispensable community.

The atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb and artificial satellites are all the products of the scientific and modern development of China during the 50s and 60s. As mentioned above in relation to India, nuclear missiles happen to be one of the most effective political tools of Chinese nationalism. Although scientists did not name their missiles after the Chinese gods and goddesses in the old days, Chang’e 1 and 2 (artificial satellites), together with Tiangong 1 to 3 (space laboratory modules) are cultural references: the former is the Moon Goddess and the latter literally means “Heavenly Place”. Scientists never let go of chances to remind general citizens of their glorious ancient past.

The Han Chinese have also created their common “imagined” enemies, notably the US (this is the reason why Taiwan cannot be “liberated” by the People’s Liberation Army of the Chinese Communist Party), but the most hated country is Japan because of the World War II occupation and the massacres. The war memories and hatred towards Japan, strengthened by movies, TV programs, literature and textbooks, have been so vivid that no one could possibly “forget” their common history. The grand narrative is as convincing as “common sense”, forming cultural hegemony to most of the Chinese Han population. There are also memories of the war between the two countries of China and India, notably the Sino-Indian War in 1962, during which thousands were killed and wounded. These war memories have not been internalized on the scale of those relating to the Japanese, however.

  • Indo-Sino Relationship: conflict or cooperation?

As Ananya Chatterjee rightly points out, “The post-Soviet world system has been characterized by the opening up of geo-graphical boundaries of the different nations in the overall perspective of economic integration.”[2] For China and India, the long-term economic relationship is evident. In January 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited China and met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao for bilateral discussions mainly related to trade and commerce. From December 15-17 2010, Prime Minister Singh officially invited Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, joined by 400 Chinese business leaders, who would like to sign business deals with Indian companies.

During the visit to Tagore International School, Wen commented that “India and China are two very populous countries with ancient civilizations. The friendship between the two countries has had a time-honoured history, which can be dated back 2,000 years; and since the establishment of diplomatic ties between our two countries, in particular in the last ten years, there has been significant progress in the friendship and cooperation of the two nations.” If someone has never been briefed by the war memories and the recent military disputes such as the Dalai Lama visit of India in 2009, she would think that these two ancient civilizations are embarking on a road trip to world peace.

Barry Buzan describes the relationship between the two rising Asian countries as “Security complex”— the two countries are developing strong economic ties, and at the same time managing potential rival military conflicts.[3] There are competitions, military hiccups and even irreconcilable differences (for instance, trade imbalance in favour of Beijing), but the two countries would not fall into wars of violence and brutality. The controversy over Agni-5 should be contained within its teacup, not fed.

More importantly, at the dawn of the 21st century, the worries of states are very diverse and complex. Cooperation across many different aspects is and should be prioritized over imagined military competition. Issues such as human rights, trafficking of all kinds, migration, natural resources, trade and environment are absolutely vital issues on which states should collaborate with each other.[4] It is necessary for governments, intellectuals and the mass media to take the initiative to inform and advocate for these vital partnerships to their own citizens. Euphoria over missiles of mass destruction belongs to the late 19thcentury. We should be gradually moving forward to global cooperation and citizenship.

  • The Battle on the Snail’s eyes

Let me end this essay with a Chinese parable. In the book of Zhuangzi, there is a story about a snail, on whose left eye there is a kingdom called Provocation; and on whose right eye, Stupidity. The two kingdoms fight each other for their territories up on the different stalks, and many die. One side might lose temporarily, but after 15 days it revives and fights again. Armageddon is not impossible, if we pettily think and act like the creatures of the two kingdoms in the eyes of the snail.


Anthony Ou is the China Review editor of Political Reflection Magazine, the China Representative of CESRAN, and lectures in various tertiary institutions. His thesis Just War and the Confucian Classics: A Gongyuangzhuan Analysis is available as a monograph.

[1] Bhatt, Chetan. 2001. Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths, p.1, Berg, UK

[2] Chatterjee, Ananya, 2010.”Sino-Indian Relations: Competition or Cooperation? Political Reflection Vol.3(No.1): 42-47

[3] Buzan, Barry, People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era, 2nd ed., Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 1991,p.209

[4] ibid.


This article first published at Open Democracy.

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