The `Ayatollahs' are here

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

With Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's October 24 speech, India has executed another retrograde shift in foreign and security policy. It has all but abandoned the goal of nuclear disarmament and embraced the hegemonic agenda of non-proliferation as Washington's junior partner.

A favourite phrase of Indian supporters of nuclear weapons and this country's possession of them is "Ayatollahs of Non-Proliferation" a pejorative description of those in the "security communities" of the nuclear weapons states (NWSs), particularly the United States, who would like to limit the spread of nuclear weapons while perpetuating their own atomic oligopoly. The expression covers a range of people, from former or serving high officials like Strobe Talbott and Robert Einhorn, to the Wisconsin Project's Gary Milholin, the Monterey Institute's Leonard Spector or the Carnegie Endowment's George Perkovich. It can be flexibly extended to anyone who would like to impose tough controls on the exports of nuclear material and technology.

Implicit in the phrase is the contradiction between "Do as I say" and "Do as I do", which marks the hypocritical stance of all NWSs. The fanatically religious and preachy tone evoked by the term "Ayatollahs" is supposed to stand in contrast to the "realism" demonstrated by Indian policymakers in their arguments for possessing these weapons of mass destruction.

The use of the "Ayatollah" label has always reeked of double standards, especially after India blasted its way into the Nuclear Club in May 1998 and joined the very order that the Ayatollahs are supposed to guard. But now, the phrase has become fully applicable to Indian policymakers themselves. The Ayatollahs exist as much in New Delhi as in Washington, London or Paris indeed, right inside the Manmohan Singh government.

That is the true significance of Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's ground-breaking lecture of October 24 to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, entitled "Nuclear Non-Proliferation and International Security". The 3,000-word speech is remarkable less for logic, coherence or clarity of expression than for its singular obsession with one idea, non-proliferation. Non-proliferation, according to Saran, is the cornerstone of global security today. "A new global consensus on non-proliferation is called for... India has signalled its willingness to be part of this... ."

This marks a decisive shift from the long-standing Indian position that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is a pre-condition for global security; therefore, fighting for a nuclear weapons-free world is a worthy goal. Pursuit of nuclear disarmament was central to that position. India has abandoned it for all intents and purposes in favour of non-proliferation.

The change is reflected in the text of Saran's lecture. The word "disarmament" occurs just once in it in a marginal reference to the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi plan for global nuclear weapons abolition, presented to the United Nations. "Nuclear weapons-free world" and "global nuclear disarmament" do not figure at all. "Non-proliferation" occurs 25 times. Saran has signalled that India is no longer a force for peace, but a "responsible" NWS, which, like the cabal called the Nuclear Club, will strive to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, while keeping and expanding its own atomic arsenal.

This is a total betrayal of the United Progressive Alliance's solemn pledge in the National Common Minimum Programme to "take a leadership role in promoting universal nuclear disarmament and working for a nuclear weapons-free world". The UPA promised to correct the imbalances introduced in India's foreign and security policies by the National Democratic Alliance by crossing the nuclear threshold and entering into a "strategic partnership" with the U.S., while only paying lip-service to ridding the world of nuclear weapons (notwithstanding ambiguities about the sequence of steps for achieving this).

UPA leaders, including External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh, promised to update the Rajiv Gandhi Plan of 1988 precisely to return to the disarmament agenda. Implicit in this was nuclear restraint on the part of India in the first phase of the three-phase plan, analogous to the commitment in the original plan that India and Pakistan would not cross the nuclear threshold.

In place of moderating its nuclear stand, India has hardened it and decided to behave exactly like the five NWSs recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

True, Saran makes a token reference to disarmament: "While India is a nuclear weapon state, it remains committed to the goal of complete elimination of nuclear weapons." But even this is presented within the framework of non-proliferation and conforming to its rationale: "The best and most effective nuclear non-proliferation measure would be a credible and time-bound commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons from existing arsenals."

This means nothing in the absence of a commitment to resolving the tension between being an NWS and working towards complete abolition by dedicatedly fighting for universal nuclear disarmament.

It bears recalling that even Ronald Reagan, who ignited a particularly dangerous phase in the Cold War by terming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the "evil empire", launching Star Wars-style missile defence, and enunciating the doctrine of "limited nuclear wars", also believed in the long-term desirability of nuclear disarmament.

The shift to non-proliferation is egregiously inconsistent and shot through with illogic. In place of ideology and universal values, India has substituted a narrow, defensive, myopic concept of the national interest, which is poorly demarcated from capitulation to U.S. pressure.

Global nuclear disarmament is imperative and legally mandatory in the opinion of the International Court of Justice because nuclear weapons are an absolute evil. They are indefensible under all circumstances. They violate all rules of a just war. They involve the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force, are quintessentially directed at non-combatant civilians (who must always be immune from military targeting), and kill in brutal, cruel and inhuman ways. Their lethal effects are not limited to the present generation, but last thousands of years. Nor is their destruction easy to limit in space.

Non-proliferation, unless explicitly linked to universal disarmament, seeks to maintain nuclear weapons, while only preventing their further spread into states other than the handful (eight or nine, if North Korea is included) which already possess them. This violates the core rationale of disarmament. An obsession with non-proliferation arises from an utterly cynical and parochial notion of security, premised on the view that nuclear weapons are safe in the hands of the supposedly wise politicians of a cabal of states. In reality, nuclear weapons cause insecurity everywhere.

Thus, Saran says "the international community also needs to ask whether the global non-proliferation regime is better with India inside the tent or outside", and then claims that India measures "up to the required norms" for being inside. This replicates the nauseating rationalisation for India's nuclear policy reversal in 1998, advanced by people like Arun Shourie and Jaswant Singh by citing the "Third Class Railway Compartment" syndrome. When you are outside the coach, you try to barge your way in. Once you are inside, you keep all potential entrants out by force.

This insults one's intelligence. There is nothing "natural", leave alone worthy, about behaving like thugs unconcerned about the costs their "gains" impose upon other people's rights.

Indeed, the analogy is wrong because the rail story is based on the scarcity of a resource the public is entitled to. Nobody is entitled to nuclear weapons. So this is an argument for nations becoming moral monsters.

PIVOTAL here is the claim that India is a "responsible" NWS, which has always abided by the NPT without signing it. Saran says: "India, in fact, scrupulously followed all the basic obligations of an NPT member", and "we are even more conscious of our obligations to the international community on the control of WMD technologies... " This claim has been trumpeted so loudly and frequently from within and without the government that many have come to believe it. It is time to nail the lie.

India may not have exported nuclear materials and technologies, but it has imported them in ways that affect the prevailing system of controls. India's nuclear programme is not basically indigenous. India has had overt, as well as clandestine, nuclear dealings with countries as different as the United Kingdom, the U.S., Canada, the USSR/Russia, China, France, Norway, even Germany. India's first two reactors could not have been designed, leave alone constructed, without British and American help. Its basic power reactor design is Canadian. India has imported heavy water from the U.S., the USSR, Norway and China, and bought fuel from the U.S., France, China and the USSR. India also tried to buy beryllium (used as a neutron reflector in bomb assemblies) from Germany.

Most important, the plutonium which went into India's first bomb (in 1974) came from a reactor (CIRUS) designed and built with Canadian help and charged with heavy water from the U.S. India deceived the two donors by using the reactor's products to make a bomb. (CIRUS still remains a plutonium source for bombs.)

India has thus repeatedly violated nuclear commerce norms, which are necessary to control the spread of nuclear weapons. It consciously acquired nuclear technology and materials to make bombs, which is prohibited under the NPT. India was the first major case of nuclear proliferation after Israel secretly crossed the threshold.

It is a bit rich - and wholly incredible - for India to sanctimoniously preach non-proliferation to its neighbours. India did nothing to stop proliferation in its immediate neighbourhood - Pakistan. In the 1980s, Pakistan made seven different proposals for nuclear restraint - so that neither country would cross the threshold. India summarily rejected all of them, making none of its own.

Ultimately, the Indian government goaded, taunted and teased Pakistan to cross the threshold through Home Minister L.K. Advani's famous "geostrategic" speech on May 18, 1998. India turned a blind eye to Pakistan's nuclear pursuits partly because it knew these would furnish it with an excuse to rationalise its own bombs. This makes India's non-proliferation concerns hollow and hypocritical.

Now, India is trying to be more loyal than the king. It says it is not enough to investigate Iran's "previously undeclared" nuclear activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must probe the supply side too involving "the Pakistan-based A.Q. Khan network". "We see no reason why there should be an insistence on personal interviews with Iranian scientists but an exception granted to a man who has been accused of running a global `nuclear Wal-Mart'."

This is partly an attempt to score points against Pakistan. In part, it is also a signal to the U.S. that India will play a proactive role on non-proliferation. That is one reason why India now advocates "global norms that go beyond the NPT". It would be a matter of time before India joins the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to intercept suspect shipments on the high seas. This is a controversial arrangement, which many countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Iran, oppose.

All this is a huge departure from India's past doctrines. Yet, in a classic instance of denial, Saran claims "continuity and consistency in our approach". To do this, he falsifies India's past. Thus, he says, India "can truly claim to be among the founding fathers" of nuclear non-proliferation. He invokes Nehru as its apostle. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nehru campaigned for nuclear disarmament, not non-proliferation. The two are as different as chalk and cheese. Non-proliferation is about preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Disarmament is about getting rid of all of them.

Traditionally, India was sharply critical of states that took proliferation only to mean the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons, not its vertical dimension the stockpiling and refinement of nuclear weapons in the NWSs. It opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on the ground that it would do little to stop vertical proliferation. But now, there is not even a trace of a reference to vertical proliferation.

Saran also advances a new rationale for overt nuclearisation from that outlined by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his May 1998 letter to Clinton. This said India had two nuclear neighbours, with one of which it had fought three wars. Now Saran says: "As you are all aware, the indefinite extension of the NPT and the enactment of the CTBT finally compelled an exercise of the Indian weapon option in 1998." This is news to all observers of the evolution of India's nuclear policy. It is also a thoroughly disingenuous rationalisation.

This new turn takes India one more level further into the nuclear abyss, following the transition from nuclear renunciation to 1974, the shift in the 1980s from uncertainty in pursuing the nuclear programme to acquiring a nuclear capability, the hardening of the Indian stance in the mid-1990s during the CTBT debate, and then Pokhran-II.

This shift puts India firmly in the rogues' gallery of states that defy international law and the will of the world community, a majority of whose people want nuclear weapons abolished. (The ratio is 72 to 90 percent in the U.S., the U.K. and France, and even higher in countries like Germany and Canada, according to professionally conducted polls). India's nuclear weapons never had a security rationale. They were always driven by a false sense of "prestige". The same false notions are propelling India into a more reactionary stance.

There is another sordid side to this. The latest doctrinal shift is linked to the July 18 U.S.-India nuclear deal, and the vote against Iran both part of India's decision to join the American camp as a junior, subordinate ally. Ratification of the deal by the U.S. Congress has become a lever with which Washington can extract any number of concessions from India.

The premise underlying the unequal Indo-U.S. relationship is fundamentally flawed. The U.S. is not a force for world peace or progress, but just the opposite. At the root of India's subservience to Washington is the complete absence of a long-term vision of the world, the political forces that are likely to shape it, and the emergence of alternatives. The illiterate world-view that most Indian policymakers adhere to neither comprehends the limitations of U.S. power, nor makes allowances for other forces and trends.

This is all the more reason for pitying our policymakers and demanding that the UPA change direction and return to the disarmament agenda.

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