In the perpetually hot, dust-blown highway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, hidden amidst babul trees, is a road that leads toward a village which has begun to call itself ‘shakti stal’.
The inspiration behind the name is India’s second nuclear test in 1998, which went by the code word Operation Shakti. The heavily-guarded site of the underground explosion is a mere 3 km from Khetolai, a village of roughly 5000 people near the town of Pokhran. India’s first nuclear test, which happened under Indira Gandhi in 1974, was conducted about 10 km away.
Since 1974, stories of the after-effects of radiation have flared up several times. Mangilal Bishnoi, a retired school teacher, keeps a ready list of people who have succumbed to cancer. “Many cows have also gotten sick and died. The effects of radiation stay on for thousands of years," he says.
Dr R.G. Sharma, then with the S.N. Medical College, Jodhpur, led a study of the region from 1984-88 and found over 2,600 new cancer cases in the wider Thar region in the 10 years since 1974. The report suggested that “a major cause of bone malignancy is ionizing radiation", but the doctors cautioned that “no correlation should be made with the Pokhran explosion unless further studies are done". Those longitudinal medical studies were unfortunately never done and local doubts and suspicion remain.
Now, caught up in an election cycle in which muscular nationalism has taken centre stage, Khetolai has had an uneasy past few weeks. At an election rally last week in the neighbouring Barmer district, prime minister Narendra Modi had declared that India is not afraid of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. “Have we kept our nuclear bomb for Diwali," he asked.
In the only habited village in India which has some idea of the fallout of a nuclear explosion, ready support for a nuclear exchange is hard to come by. “We want to live in peace. We don’t need war. If nuclear weapons are used, everything that is in front of our eyes will disappear," says 62-year-old Zajmal Ram Bishnoi.
Congress flags adorn the central chowk of the village, which has veered toward the Congress for years. Ask Zajmal Ram why he is voting for the Congress, and he says: “Aazadi ke liye" (for freedom). But freedom from whom or what? “The Congress got us freedom from the British," he says. It is as if the village is stuck in a time warp – some in 1947, others in 1974 and 1998.
However, several do remember the Modi-era of the past five years and claim it was filled with “nakli promises". Recovering black money and putting Rs.15 lakh in each person’s bank account is a promise which many mention, often in the context of a joke which leads to much laughter. “The moment Modi said I’ll give Rs.15 lakh, I went easy on farming and began to rest," says Gokul Ram Bishnoi (68). “Where is it?" he asks and then laughs. “Why should we bring back Modi? He’s gotten enough chances."
For the many environmentally-minded Bishnois of Khetolai, the abrasive nationalism is just one more reason to vote against the BJP.
The village does have a small, new segment of younger voters who are beginning to lean towards Modi, sometimes as an act of rebellion. Mangilal, the teacher, says there was a difference between the 1974 test, under Indira, and 1998. “The second one was more contained," he says. “We need nuclear weapons. It builds our country’s reputation on the world stage."