An unequal deal

Print edition : August 29, 1998

India must not abandon its disarmament goals and allow itself to be coopted into the unequal nuclear order that the U.S proposes.

HIROSHIMA : HOW do you cope with an epochal tragedy? As the people of Hiroshima have known for 53 years, there is no easy way of coming to terms with the world's first experience of nuclear horror, of mega-death. Nor is there a way of forgetting what happened on that day. Sentiments here against nuclear weapons, already strong, have been strengthened by the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan. This much was amply evident at the dignified, moving ceremony on the morning of August 6, at which over 50,000 people gather at the Peace Memorial Park in the heart of the city to pay homage to the victims of the bomb. Precisely at 8-15 a.m., the hour the bomb was dropped, everyone rises in silent prayer and the Gong of Peace is sounded. The ceremony, marked by brief addresses by the Mayor of Hiroshima and other dignitaries, closes with a peace song. In the evening, people float lanterns on the river to commemorate the dead.

The Gong, made out of metal from destroyed firearms, bears a Sanskrit inscription, a dedication never to seek security through weapons of mass destruction, signed in 1964 by the then Indian Ambassador to Japan, Lalji Mehrotra. What a sour irony that his present successor should have turned up in Hiroshima just when India has violated that dedication. Neither Siddharth Singh, nor Pakistan's Touqir Hussain, covered himself with glory by accepting the invitation to them from the Mayor of Hiroshima. At least the Ambassadors of the five declared nuclear weapon-states, who too had been invited, had the good sense to decline.

The diplomats' presence offended the sensibilities of many hibakusha (radiation victims). Even more gracelessly, they chose to address the media and plead that the people of Hiroshima should "understand" India's and Pakistan's rationale for going nuclear. This is akin to Union Carbide's chairman turning up in Bhopal and demanding that the victims should "understand" that gory accidents will happen. The gross insensitivity showed by the two Ambassadors, coupled with their crocodile tears, amounted to adding insult to the injury caused by the May tests to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima's Mayor did not mince words while criticising all nuclear states: with the India-Pakistan tests, he said, "tension has been raised to new extremes... and the nuclear non-proliferation regime has been shaken to its core... Hiroshima is outraged at the.... tests and fearful that they might provoke a chain reaction of nuclearisation. Contributing to this situation is the fact that the five declared nuclear states have clung to nuclear deterrence... and made only glacial progress on... nuclear disarmament... (Their) leaders... need to focus not on their own narrow national interests but on the future of humanity...."

The Mayor's speech reflects the widespread opposition one senses here to nuclear weapons, no matter what their rationale, function or disposition. This opposition, lacking in bitterness or rancour, is rooted in noble ideals as well as the experience of real suffering. A third of Hiroshima's population was wiped out. And nearly everyone has a hibakusha history or a strong memory of the terrible events of 1945. Clearly, the people of Hiroshima have decided that they cannot eternally see themselves as victims alone. Those who died cannot be brought back to life. The best means of paying tribute to them is to ensure that nuclear weapons are eliminated. That is why people here have decided to reach out and use their immense moral authority to launch an anti-nuclear campaign. They have protested against each of the world's 2,000-plus nuclear tests. We must listen to them without cynicism and with respect.

REGRETTABLY, the Indian Government is doing the very opposite. It is now in the process of negotiating what could turn out to be a shady nuclear bargain with the United States which would allow New Delhi to keep its nuclear weapons in return for abandoning the global nuclear disarmament agenda. The fourth round of talks between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Jaswant Singh may well lead to an agreement. According to highly placed diplomatic sources I met, the U.S. has offered the following, rather complex, deal linked to U.S. President Bill Clinton's planned visit to India in November.

The U.S. has told India that it appreciates New Delhi's legitimate "security concerns" and recognises that it developed the panoply of nuclear weapons and missiles that it did, not just with Pakistan in view, but mainly with China in perspective. The U.S. no longer insists that India sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it expects India to behave in a "responsible" and "helpful" way. It has proposed four steps of restraint on India's part: signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); no open deployment of nuclear weapons in the short run; voluntary suspension of fissile material production even prior to the conclusion of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) at the Conference on Disarma- ment (C.D.) in Geneva; and no transfer of nuclear or missile technology and material to other states.

Besides, India must help the U.S. resolve the impasse in Geneva on the FMCT - in effect break the Group of 21's (of the Non-Aligned Movement) unity on linking the completion of the FMCT talks with negotiations for complete nuclear disarmament or a nuclear weapons (abolition) convention. The U.S. expects India to drop "unrealistic" demands such as further nuclear restraint and disarmament. It has pointed out the example of Pakistan which agreed to lift its veto on constituting an FMCT negotiating committee although it disagrees with the Nuclear Five - and India, which has been on the same side as these hegemons - on the scope of the FMCT. Pakistan wants it to cover not just a freeze on future production of fissile material, but existing stocks too. The suggestion is that India must play a role that is helpful to the P-5, particularly the U.S., not to the vast majority of the world's peoples.

In return, the U.S. will lift economic sanctions and technology bans and allow India to retain its nuclear weapons, indeed bestow legitimacy upon them. A similar deal is being offered to Pakistan. The two can thus join the nuclear club, but as members with restricted rights. They must also agree not to deploy their missiles in forward positions, take some crisis prevention measures and discuss the root causes of their mutual conflicts and disputes, including Kashmir.

The negotiations over the proposed deal have now reached a fairly advanced stage. There are several hitches and uncertainties, of course. For instance, it is not clear how keen the Americans are on a fissile production freeze prior to an FMCT and how acceptable this will be to New Delhi's policymakers. (If it is made public, it could attract a good deal of flak from the hawks.) Such a freeze would be difficult, although not impossible, to verify without fairly intrusive inspections, especially in India's case. (It would be fairly easy to verify whether, say, Pakistan's Kahuta plant is switched off, by means of military satellites monitoring infra-red radiation. But it would be harder to monitor India's dispersed plutonium reprocessing plants.)

Again, it is not always easy to define just what constitutes open or overt deployment - there is a range of possibilities from hardened silos (the most obvious), to a Jaguar waiting on a runway with bombs strapped to its wings, to keeping nuclear-capable missiles in a state of readiness at a discreet distance. American negotiators have reportedly given India a non-paper on this subject. The Indian response is yet to be formulated. But one thing seems clear. The Americans do not insist that non-deployment be permanent: "There may come a time when deployment becomes necessary; security environments and interests are not unchangeable." This may be so especially as regards China.

The U.S.-proposed formula represents an admixture of many different approaches and measures, inspired perhaps by the plurality of the different lobbies and viewpoints at work in the U.S.: from the hard right China-containment group, to the more, "you-have-to-account-that-nuclear-India-is-a-reality" standpoint, from the weapons labs to the arms-controllers, from non-proliferation fanatics to those who see India as a potential military ally in the long run.

However, beyond the differences and divergences, three things are clear. India will have to break the unity of the Non-Aligned Movement, especially at the C.D., and resist all future nuclear restraint measures if it accepts the proposed deal. Second, the proposal is fully compatible with, if not slanted towards, India being subtly drafted as a potential ally or partner in a possible future U.S. strategy to contain or counter China. And third, New Delhi is being asked to oppose nuclear disarmament and "realistically" accept that a nuclear weapon-free world is a mirage. India should bid goodbye to nuclear disarmament.

ALL three propositions are distressing, indeed dangerous. They run against the interests of the people of India and some of the sensible positions India has itself taken in the past, for instance, favouring non-alignment and a non-hegemonic international order, refusing to play big power or bloc politics, or being drafted in as a Western ally against Third World countries, and defending (albeit increasingly weakly) the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons. Such slippages and doctrinal departures are, of course, far from inconceivable under the Bharatiya Janata Party Government. After all, Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee chose to share the rationale of the tests not with the Indian public, but the President of the U.S. And the come-hither nature of the anti-China gesture in his May 11 letter to Clinton has left an abiding, if sordid, impression on the public.

Again, undermining the G-21 position on the FMCT is a grave matter. The G-21 rightly argues that a mere freeze on future missile production is meaningless: there are surpluses of 2,241 tonnes of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in the world, of which the military inventory alone is 1,567 tonnes (1990 estimates from David Albright, Frans Berkhout and William Walker, World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1992, SIPRI/OUP). This is enough to make over 40,000 nuclear weapons, or double the present global nuclear arsenal.

A freeze-only FMCT does not constitute a sacrifice nor a significant restraint measure. It must be linked to a commitment to put nuclear disarmament on the C.D.'s agenda. India would hardly be doing itself or G-21 a service by undermining this logic. And yet that is what it is asked to do under the proposed bargain. The worst thing India could possibly do for global security as well as its own is to oppose, and sabotage the prospect of, nuclear disarmament.

It is far from clear whether Jaswant Singh, as yet not even a proper Cabinet Minister, has the mandate to negotiate and sign such an agreement. It is hard to know whether anyone politically and democratically acceptable, as opposed to mere bureaucrats and ambitious pen-pushers with agendas of their own, is making such vital decisions. But it is clear that the Americans have made some version of the proposed bargain a precondition for Clinton's visit later this year. If such a visit is to be "positive", "forward-looking" and fruitful, it must follow a deal. New Delhi must tell Washington by early September or so that it is willing to accept the substance of the bargain under discussion. Or else, there would be too little time to plan the trip. In that case, Clinton might cancel his South Asia visit altogether, or limit it to Pakistan (if it is willing to sign a similar deal - as seems likely) and Bangladesh.

Evidently, India-U.S. negotiations along these lines have already registered substantial progress. Or else, such elaborate proposals would not have been tabled by now. This in turn would not have happened had Indian negotiators not made a series of concessions over the last three rounds of talks. Whether they are able to pull off the deal will be determined by the state of play not only within the BJP but also in the larger political arena.

SO what should the Opposition parties do? It is clear that they must oppose the substance of the proposed bargain - not because it involves the CTBT and other measures of restraint, but because it makes an unconscionable compromise: cooptation into a fundamentally, structurally, flawed, unequal global nuclear order, which is neither in India's nor the world's interest. Sabotaging the global nuclear disarmament agenda is nothing short of a sin. Non-BJP parties can have their differences on the CTBT. After all, the treaty has been distorted and vilified by the hawks for reasons that should be only too obvious today. Even those who take a good, impartial, second look at the CTBT may hesitate to endorse it publicly. But the central issue is not the CTBT. It is weaponisation. It will be totally wrong, indeed suicidal, for India to make nuclear weapons. It is this that must be strongly opposed. And that means rejecting the substance of the deal being proposed.

But is there an alternative? There is. And that is to take a number of unilateral restraint measures, including a commitment never to make, use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons, work energetically for genuine, rapid, step-by-step nuclear disarmament, which involves regional restraint as well as global progress towards nuclear elimination as spelt out in the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Plan. This will not only make it politically difficult for the U.S. to impose an unequal deal upon India. It is the only sensible and ethical approach. India cannot redeem the grave wrong it committed in May except by returning to the agenda of nuclear disarmament - without deviations, detours and diversions based on convoluted logic and guided by nuclear deterrence-driven thinking.

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