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A gaffe, or a historic chance?

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST


Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh with his South Korean counterpart Ban Ki-moon at their meeting in Seoul on December 15.-AHN YOUNG-JOON/AP

Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh with his South Korean counterpart Ban Ki-moon at their meeting in Seoul on December 15.-AHN YOUNG-JOON/AP

K. Natwar Singh's statement in Seoul urging the two Koreas not to emulate India and Pakistan in crossing the nuclear threshold reopens a worthy debate. The UPA, instead of being defensive, should seize the regional and global disarmament initiative.

BARELY six months after K. Natwar Singh committed an indiscretion by announcing in United States Secretary of State Colin Powell's presence that India could reconsider its decision opposing the despatch of troops to Iraq, the Foreign Minister again seemingly stirred up a hornet's nest, in Seoul. In an interview to The Korea Times (published on December 14), he distanced himself (to a limited extent) from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's decision to cross the nuclear Rubicon and said: "Even though we are ourselves a nuclear power, we support complete nuclear disarmament for Korea." He also said India's previous government (of the NDA) was "responsible for the decision to enter the nuclear standoff with neighbouring Pakistan".

The Korean newspaper interpreted this statement to mean that Natwar Singh was urging the two Koreas not to "follow India's example in becoming a nuclear power". Two days later, Indian Express (December 16) further extrapolated this interpretation and charged him with having "virtually expressed regret over India's current nuclear status". It also said that this ran counter to the United Progressive Alliance's (UPA) commitment to a "credible minimum nuclear deterrent" and minimised and denied what it called "the role that various Congress leaders had played in India's nuclear journey".

The NDA seized upon the Indian Express story to pillory the government. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in particular, accused the UPA of "belittling the country's achievement" and beating a retreat from the country's nuclear weapons policy, on which "there is consensus". Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went on the defensive and put forward an apologetic statement in Parliament reassuring the NDA that Natwar Singh's statement did not signify a change in official policy, which remains unchanged: "India is a nuclear power and a responsible nuclear power... I categorically say there is no uncertainty in our nuclear policy." The Prime Minister offered the same solemn assurance again on December 21.

In reality, it is open to doubt whether Natwar Singh committed a major breach of policy or propriety. His unembellished quote, free of interpretation, merely said that "we hadn't crossed the threshold for 50 years. And the Congress Party didn't, it was the other party". He then added: "But regret would be futile... you can't put it back in the tube, it's out."

This is fully in keeping with the UPA's own stated commitment to working for complete global nuclear disarmament and updating Rajiv Gandhi's worthy and thoughtful three-stage plan to achieve this. Natwar Singh's observation about the NDA having taken the decision to cross the nuclear threshold in 1998 is factually accurate and is fully in keeping with the freedom of an individual member of the UPA Cabinet to make a personal statement.

It is even more doubtful, indeed quite incorrect, if there is, as former NDA Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh alleged, a "national consensus" on the May 1998 Pokharan-II nuclear tests and the policy followed thereafter to turn India into a full-fledged nuclear weapons power, with an ambitious arsenal. As the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament Nilotpal Basu rhetorically asked in Parliament on December 16, is it at all permissible to call the "great divide across the polity" following the nuclear test a "consensus."

To get the basic facts straight, the NDA in March/April 1998 had promised to conduct a strategic review of India's security and revise India's nuclear policy. Then, without conducting any such review, it went ahead and detonated five nuclear weapons on May 11 and 13. The decision to do so was never discussed in the Vajpayee Cabinet or its strategic affairs committee. It was taken in unseemly secrecy. India's defence services chiefs were informed of the impending tests only two days before May 11 and Defence Minister Geroge Fernandes on that very day.

It is abundantly clear, however, that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an extra-constitutional and publicly unaccountable body, was privy to the decision. It was consulted, and in all probability mandated the fateful decision. As the present sarasanghachalak, K.S. Sudarshan, then the RSS's Number 3 leader, boasted in an interview, the BJP had every intention to carry out a nuclear blast in 1996 too, when it ruled for an ignominious 13 days, but there wasn't enough time to do so.

The Pokharan-II tests came in for sharp criticism from the Centre-Left component of the political spectrum, as well as civil society. The Left parties were unsparing in their attack on them. At least two former Prime Ministers (H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral) deplored the NDA's capitulation to "the nuclear lobby".

The Congress party was divided. Party president Sonia Gandhi had on May 11 drafted a statement criticising the tests, but this was pre-empted by senior Congress leader Sharad Pawar's premature congratulation of India's nuclear scientists for their "achievement". (For details, and a review of the Parliamentary debate which followed, in which the majority of MPs who spoke criticised the tests, see my book, co-authored with Achin Vanaik, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, OUP, New Delhi, 2000.)

It is noteworthy that the Congress' criticism was spearheaded by none other than the present Prime Minister. In the 1998 monsoon session, Manmohan Sigh warned of the consequences of the tests and a costly arms race, which would send defence expenditure skyrocketing to a point where "there would be nothing left to defend".

Meanwhile, a broad cross-section of intellectuals, including social scientists, physicists and biologists, besides social activists, mobilised themselves to protest against the tests. In the weeks that followed, the number of groups and individuals which demonstrated in the streets vastly exceeded the minuscule mobilisation organised by the Sangh Parivar, exposing the parody of the CNN-driven image of "the people" jubilating over the nuclear blasts as the authentic representation of the public mood.

Since then, the movement for nuclear disarmament and peace, although still small, has gathered momentum. The establishment of the broad-based Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in November 2000, supported by over 250 people's movement groups and social activists' organisations, its second very successful National Convention in Jaipur in November 2004, and the holding of the Anti-War Assembly in Hyderabad in December, testify to this. Opinion polls show that more than two-thirds of Indians polled - in one case, 73 per cent - oppose the manufacture or use of nuclear weapons by India.

This is reflected on the political plane too. The Left parties, now with their largest-ever presence in the Lok Sabha, demand that India must unconditionally roll back the nuclear weapons programme to the point of dismantling weapons and that New Delhi must return to the disarmament agenda.

The rationale underlying the opposition to nuclearisation is unassailable. It is greatly reinforced by experience over the past six and a half years. This experience, to put it starkly, is embarrassingly negative. Nuclear weapons have not made India more secure. Just the opposite. Today, millions of innocent citizens are vulnerable to nuclear strikes from across the border, especially from weapons that can be carried by missiles, against which no defence is possible. The same is true of Pakistani civilians, who too can be reduced to specs of radioactive dust in devastating attacks by Indian missiles.

Nuclearisation has failed to impart stability or maturity to the India-Pakistan strategic relationship. On the contrary, it has encouraged rank adventurism. The two states' leaders openly taunted and threatened each other with a nuclear attack both during the Kargil War of 1999 and during their eyeball-to-eyeball military confrontation, with a million soldiers, over 10 long months in 2002. Nuclear weapons will forever act as an enormously complicating factor in any military tension between India and Pakistan.

Nuclear deterrence involves both elaborate preparations to kill lakhs of civilian non-combatants and the active will to do so. As earlier argued often in this column, deterrence is a fraught, indeed dangerous, doctrine on which to base security. During the Cold War, it repeatedly produced crises, generating panic reactions and bringing the globe perilously close to catastrophe - despite the colossal sums invested by the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in command and control systems, equivalent to five times India's current gross domestic product.

Given the peculiarities of the India-Pakistan situation, where there is no strategic distance worth the name between the two, and with numerous potential flashpoints and a history of rivalry breaking into war, nuclear deterrence is simply unacceptable. India and Pakistan are courting serious trouble by relying on deterrence - a historic blunder, if there ever was one.

The pro-bomb lobby's fond hope that nuclear weapons would expand India's room for manoeuvre in world politics has also been belied. India has accepted unequal treaties and lopsided economic bargains, especially those imposed by the U.S., to ward off pressure on its nuclear weapons programme. As for the assertion that nuclear weapons enhance a nation's international standing, it is only necessary to look next door. Until the September 11 attacks, nuclear Pakistan had become a virtual untouchable state. India's global stature has admittedly risen recently. But that is because of the Information Technology business, the stability and vibrancy of our democracy, and to an extent, the perception that India has now entered the league of fast-growing economies - not because of, but despite, nuclear weapons.

Therefore, the issue Natwar Singh has raised is highly pertinent. It is a timely reminder of the urgency of returning to the disarmament agenda. The UPA has committed itself to fighting for global disarmament. Manmohan Singh reiterated this on December 21 in Parliament when he said: "We are a country with a civilisational heritage for complete nuclear disarmament. We will join hands with other countries to promote complete disarmament on a non-discriminatory basis globally."

The UPA has, however, fought shy of any regional initiative for nuclear restraint or risk-reduction. It complacently, but falsely, claims that nuclear weapons are a "stabilising" factor in the subcontinent. Recently, at the discussions on nuclear and conventional military confidence-building measures in Islamabad, the two governments blithely declared that Kashmir is no longer "a nuclear flashpoint". This is pure, unadulterated, wishful thinking. So long as Kashmir remains a contentious issue, it will trigger suspicion, hostility and military crises - with a potential for escalation to the nuclear level.

It is of the utmost importance that India take the initiative for regional nuclear restraint and disarmament along with Pakistan - independently of working for the global elimination of nuclear weapons. The most important first steps in such an initiative should be self-evident: agreements not to deploy nuclear weapons, a moratorium on nuclear tests and missile test-flights for one year, extending to two, three years and more, and an accord to keep nuclear bombs/warheads separated from delivery vehicles. This should pave the way for longer-term agreements to stop producing fissile material, dismantle missiles and create a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia.

Sage advice to this effect comes from no less the Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the CPI(M) general secretary. In a seminal article in People's Democracy (October 3), Surjeet argues for regional nuclear disarmament in South Asia, endorsing Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf's statement (to NBC News and CNN) that he did not rule out the possibility of India and Pakistan jointly announcing a decision to dismantle their nuclear arsenals. However, he was of the view that "this has to be initiated by India". He further added that "it has to be bilateral. It has to be between India and Pakistan." Surjeet distinguishes this from the proposal made in the 1980s by General Zia-ul-Haq, which was compatible with a U.S. "nuclear umbrella" for Pakistan, which then may or may not have had a nuclear capability.

However, says Surjeet, "now that both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, the first thing is to assure the whole world that no nuclear conflagration would be allowed to take place, much less start, in this part of the world. Hence the need for both the countries to display maturity and give up all talk of deterrence and the like. The last six years are a witness to the sordid fact that deterrence has... only aggravated the anxiety of the world peoples about the fate of humanity on the earth. Then, pending a satisfactory resolution of the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty], disarmament and other such issues, the imperative for both the countries is that they address each other's concerns on the nukes issue, progressively get rid of nuclear weapons and together fight for general and global disarmament."

Surjeet continues: "Insofar as the General's contention that `this has to be initiated by India' is concerned, there is no harm if India initiates the process. It is not only India's duty as the biggest country of the subcontinent; it will even add to India's prestige in the world and give a momentum to the fight for total and general disarmament. Committed to the cause of disarmament, therefore, the present UPA regime must think about how the subcontinent may be denuclearised and pressure mounted on other nuclear weapons states that they too must eliminate their nuclear arsenals".

There is not a moment to be lost in moving towards such a sensible nuclear policy. By making his statement in Seoul, Natwar Singh has, perhaps inadvertently, opened a new, historic opportunity for course correction. All peace-loving people must seize it.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 14, 2005.)



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