From nuclear adventurism to appeasement

Published : Jun 06, 1998 00:00 IST

The BJP-led Government's nuclear adventurism and militarism have landed the Government, the country and the region in a mess the like of which they have not faced before.

When that bomb went off in 1974, I was in New Delhi serving as our Ambassador. I recall saying to the Foreign Secretary and to the Prime Minister: "You have done something disastrous. You have absolute hegemony in South Asia today, and yet you set off this bomb. The day will come in ten years' time when there will be a Mogul general in power in Islamabad and he will call you one day and say, 'I have four bombs, one for Madras, one for Calcutta, one for Bombay and one for New Delhi. We would like the Punjab and Kashmir back by Thursday, or we'll all meet in heaven on Friday.' " That is geopolitics for you.

- Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ex-Harvard Professor and ex-Ambassador to India, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, quoted in The Hindu of November 24, 1981.


Our hand was forced by the present Indian leadership's reckless actions.

- Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in a post-Chagai statement to the press in Islamabad on May 28, 1998.


A new situation has been created by Pakistan's tests but India is prepared to meet any eventuality. We are committed to maintain deterrence. (The Pakistani action) has vindicated our policy and stand...In fact, Pakistan's clandestine preparations forced us on the path of a nuclear deterrent. We had our concerns.

- Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, speaking to the press in New Delhi on May 28, 1998.


I WAS present in the U.S. Senate chamber on the first occasion and, just before that, the Senator from New York had said much the same thing to me in an interview. It was a characteristic Moynihan rhetorical flight, colourful, exaggerated and meant for dramatic effect; not surprisingly, the plot foreseen was off with respect to dates and some other particulars.

But Moynihan, who in 1981 firmly supported India's right, arising out of a bilateral agreement, to low-enriched uranium fuel for the Tarapur power plant and voted on the Senate floor for U.S. delivery of the disputed fuel, had an undeniable point. Any nuclear adventurism, any unprovoked or unilateral decision to discard the political element of self-restraint and weaponise the nuclear option, would guarantee a grave deterioration of the regional political - and security - situation in South Asia. Specifically, in a security-military sense, the effect would be to create rough strategic equivalence between India and Pakistan, put them roughly on par.

Neither Moynihan nor anyone else in 1981 could foresee that a Hindutva-inspired Pokhran-II would, in May 1998, cause not a "Mogul general" but an elected Muslim League Government in Islamabad to explode six fission nuclear devices and declare Pakistan, like India only days before it, a "nuclear weapon state".

A dangerous escalation: May 1998

The Sharif and Vajpayee statements of May 28, 1998 speak to a dangerously destabilised, volatile situation in the region: a situation marked by BJP-provoked competitive jingoism and chauvinism, the escalation of tensions and warlike words, and the chilling prospect of a nuclear arms race with all its military, political, economic and social implications.

What is clear post-Chagai is that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government's nuclear adventurism and militarism have landed the Government, the country and the region in a mess the like of which they have not faced before. Far from vindicating "our policy and stand," the latest development (6-5 in favour of Pakistan, in chauvinistic imaginings) confirms the incredible folly and irresponsibility behind the Vajpayee Government's calculations.

In fact, there does not seem to have been any calculation behind the secret decision taken, less than a month of the Government's taking office, to weaponise India's long-held nuclear option. No one within the Government seems to have been asked to carry out any kind of objective or professional review; no one certainly was given a chance to question or criticise the pre-empted course, and the assumptions and motivations behind it. The cynical dishonouring of the promise made in the National Agenda For Governance to establish a National Security Council, let it conduct "India's first ever Strategic Defence Review", and then re-evaluate nuclear policy was in keeping with the authoritarian character of the decision.

The BJP, which had considered and given up the idea of weaponising the nuclear option during the 13-day Vajpayee Government of 1996, this time treated as its top priority the fulfilment (in the words of Prakash Karat, writing in this issue) of "the long-cherished desire of the Rashitriya Swayamsevak Sangh that India make a nuclear bomb" as part of a Hindu Rashtra project of "making India a chauvinistic-militaristic power based on majoritarian rule." But the decision has boomeranged.

Competitive jingoism

The 11 claimed nuclear explosions and the talk of weaponisation, deterrents, and the deployment and use of nuclear weapons for "self-defence" have introduced a dangerous new calculus in the troubled India-Pakistan relationship. As part of the political fallout from Pokhran immediately came statements from some top persons in the Vajpayee administration that made them sound, for a while, like aspirant Unabombers. On both sides, radioactive fallout might have been fairly successfully contained by the scientists, but the provocative linkage sought to be established between the Kashmir issue and self-proclaimed nuclear weapon status raised questions about the unstudied effects of distant radiation on the processes of human thinking.

After the initial euphoria over Pokhran-II wore out and competitive claims, boasts and putdowns about the two South Asian nuclear programmes generated much public confusion, various oppositional voices - political and intellectual - have joined the Left and the scientists who, from the beginning, took a firm stand against the BJP-led Government's nuclear adventurism and militarism.

In the parliamentary debate, the Opposition drawn from the Congress(I), the Janata Dal, the Left parties and some other small parties clearly had the better of the exchange. A rattled Vajpayee Government found itself very much on the defensive. Aside from speakers from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, former Prime Ministers H.D. Deve Gowda and Chandra Shekhar and former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram effectively challenged the Vajpayee Government's decision to remove the element of conditional self-restraint from India's nuclear policy and to weaponise.

The dangerous escalation of tensions in the region was spotlighted along with the harmful diversion of national resources and attention to a nuclear arms race and the break from longstanding Indian nuclear policy. Many speakers also criticised the reactionary jingoism and militarism that has been inducted into India's foreign policy, particularly in relation to China and Pakistan.

(It is interesting in this connection to read the post-Pokhran-I statement issued from Tihar jail in May 1974 by George Fernandes, the present Defence Minister and recently converted bomb enthusiast: "Without the necessary economic infrastructure, all talk of a bomb can be just so much bombast. And should any government discuss such a proposition seriously without first taking steps to provide all citizens of the country with food, clothes, shelter, pure drinking water, education and a chance to live a life befitting human beings, such a government can be called nothing but criminal." He recorded similar sentiments in October 1981 and December 1985.)

The idea of deploying and using the ultimate weapons of mass destruction - nuclear weapons - instrumentally to tackle India's political problems with neighbours such as Pakistan or China is foolish, irresponsible and revolting. Prime Minister Vajpayee's talk of deploying nuclear bombs as "weapons of self-defence, to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion" strains credulity.

Some conciliatory-sounding signals have been sent out recently, to China as well as to Pakistan. But the enormous combined damage done by the Pokhran explosions, the talk of nuclear weaponisation as a fait accompli and as "complete", and the unfriendly attitudes indicated towards China - in repeated statements by Defence Minister George Fernandes and BJP leaders and in Prime Minister Vajpayee's May 11, 1998 secret letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton - and Pakistan will take a lot to undo.

What is the truth about the explosions?

The Indian and Pakistani governments, and the two nuclear establishments, are engaged in an unedifying game of claiming superiority for one's own explosions and nuclear weapon capabilities, and putting down the other side's efforts and capabilities.

But whatever be the merits of the competitive claims, the Vajpayee Government and the Indian nuclear energy establishment need to come out with the full truth, backed by sufficient evidence, regarding the nature and success of the Pokhran tests in the face of scepticism expressed by some Indian, and several foreign, experts about the official claim to have exploded a "hydrogen bomb", a fusion device.

Dr. R. Chidambaram, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, has specifically said on record that the thermonuclear device exploded on May 11 was a "secondary fusion device" with a "fission trigger" and had a yield of 43 kilotons. Other senior scientists in the nuclear energy establishment have reiterated the claim. However, a number of nuclear weapon experts are of the view that it was only "a boosted fission device" with a probable yield, as measured by an international network of seismological centres, of 20 to 25 kilotons.

Whatever the truth, the people of India deserve to know it: "big claims," as a Western science journalist has pointed out, "require big evidence to back them up." The Government of India must come up with firm evidence to substantiate its claims about the "hydrogen bomb" and its actual yield and also about the sub-kiloton tests.

Analysing Vajpayee's defence

Prime Minister Vajpayee's four page suo motu statement of May 27 in Parliament, and the nine page paper titled "Evolution of India's Nuclear Policy" that goes with it, represent the only serious defence of a pre-emptive decision attempted by the Government. It is based on the following core assertions and contentions:

1. The 1998 Pokhran explosions are "a continuation of the policies" set into motion that put India on the path of self-reliance and independence of thought and action.

2. The 1980s and 1990s saw "the gradual deterioration of our security environment" as a result of nuclear and missile proliferation. In addition, India has been "the victim of externally aided and abetted terrorism, militancy and clandestine war."

3. At a global level, the unequal and discriminatory regime of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been perpetuated and the nuclear weapon states have shown no willingness to "take decisive and irreversible steps in moving towards a nuclear weapon-free world."

4. Under these circumstances, the Government faced a difficult decision and "the touchstone that has guided us in making the correct choice clear was national security."

5. India is now undeniably a nuclear weapon state. This status is "not a conferment that we seek, nor is it a status for others to grant." It is "an endowment to the nation by our scientists and engineers." It is also "India's due, the right of one-sixth of humankind."

6. India's nuclear weapons are "weapons of self-defence," which will ensure that the country is "not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion." The BJP-led Government "does not intend to engage in an arms race."

7. India's nuclear policy has been marked by restraint and openness. "Restraint, however, has to arise from strength. It cannot be based upon indecision or doubt." The Pokhran-II tests have led to the removal of doubts. The action involved has been "balanced" in that "it was the minimum necessary to maintain what is an irreducible component of our national security calculus."

8. After displaying "the assurance of action," the Government has announced India's decision to observe "a voluntary moratorium" and refrain from conducting underground nuclear test explosions. It has also signalled a willingness to "move towards a de jure formalisation of this declaration."

9. The Government of India will "continue to be in the forefront" of the calls for opening negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention along the lines of the Biological Weapons and Chemical Weapons conventions.

10. Disarmament continues to be "a major plank" of the Government's foreign policy.

11. The people of India, and Indians abroad, have "with one voice spoken in favour of our action" and the government's nuclear policy is supported by an underlying national consensus.

A close analysis shows the reasoning to be shot through with inconsistencies, the argument to be false, the concluding appeal for total national support hollow.

The May 1998 Pokhran explosions represent a "continuation" of longstanding Indian nuclear policy in the same cynical sense that war can be understood to be a continuation of policy by other means. India's nuclear policy with its twin components - the refusal to surrender the nuclear option by acceding to the Unequal Global Nuclear Bargain (UGNB), and self-imposed and conditional restraint in not militarising the option as part of the larger commitment to global nuclear disarmament - was eminently sustainable. The accomplishment of the BJP-led Government, within two months of taking office, has been to undermine this longstanding policy without discussion, without review, without intelligent consideration of the consequences and implications.

Vajpayee's reasoning, which claims that national security was "the touchstone that has guided us in making the correct choice," does not even attempt to show there was any change in the national security environment to warrant the sudden decision to weaponise the nuclear option. His references to the "gradual deterioration of our security environment" in the 1980s and 1990s and to India becoming a victim of "externally aided and abetted terrorism, militancy and clandestine war" only substantiate the reading that the BJP came to the government with a pre-set agenda. It was the agenda of implementing the RSS-Bharatiya Jan Sangh-BJP vision of converting India into a chauvinistic-military power based on majoritarian rule and a Hindutva platform. The tirade against China, the references to Pakistan, and the hint of an anti-China strategic alliance between India and the United States in Vajpayee's leaked letter of May 11, 1998 to U.S. President Bill Clinton further substantiate such a reading.

Vajpayee's suggestion of a growingly troubled India-China relationship combined with a worsening India-Pakistan relationship is patently untrue. This becomes evident when one considers the breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations that occurred in December 1988, Rajiv Gandhi's public confirmation that no Chinese nuclear-tipped missiles were deployed in Tibet against India, worthwhile efforts to improve India-Pakistan relations, and the absence of any kind of new evidence that Pakistan was going ahead with weaponisation of its nuclear option.

What the Prime Minister's suo motu statement and supporting policy paper reveal is that the BJP's nuclear game plan, if there was one, has backfired and virtually collapsed. The idea of exploding, weaponising and breaking into the nuclear weapon club in a grand coup d'etat against the NPT and the UGNB has turned out to be a pipe-dream. Vajpayee's boast that "India is now a nuclear weapon state" and that "it is not a conferment we seek, nor is it a status for others to grant" sounds like a lament. The line that nuclear weapon status is "India's due, the right of one-sixth of humankind" sounds like a twisted parody of what various progressive and democratic voices have claimed for India's millions by way of basic needs - food, clothing, shelter and so on - and minimum human entitlements.

Although some of the members of the BJP-led Government claim to have anticipated the Chagai development and the Union Home Minister and top BJP leader, L.K. Advani, has actually welcomed it in a newspaper interview, little thought appears to have been given, while taking the decision on Pokhran-II, to the near certainty of Pakistan following suit, and the consequences and implications. Pakistan might lag behind in overall nuclear energy development, but the possibility of it demonstrating the capability to explode nuclear device of some kind does not seem to have entered the Government's political understanding.

But it turns out from Vajpayee's parliamentary statement, and various others that preceded it, that this Government is no longer fundamentally opposed to the UGNB and the NPT division of the world into a nuclear weapons club and the rest. The United States spearheads an international campaign, backed by a developing regime of sanctions, that makes three tough demands on India (and Pakistan): 1) sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) quickly and without any conditions; 2) participate in the negotiation and speedy conclusion of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva; and 3) roll back or undo the claimed nuclear weaponisation.

The irony is that when the old nuclear policy - characterised by its pursuit of independence, its conditional self-restraint, its non-military orientation, its refusal to come into the UGNB, and its high-ground moral and political arguments - was at work, India's nuclear option and leverage in international nuclear energy dealings could be preserved and even strengthened. India might not have succeeded in shaping negotiations, but its principled policy resistance to the UGNB and the use of its leverage to push for movement towards global nuclear disarmament could not be ignored.

The reality is that after Pokhran-II, India's leverage against the UGNB has been undermined, its nuclear option very nearly eroded.

What is the evidence for this?

The Vajpayee Government, in a highly vulnerable situation brought about by the pincer action of the sanctions, the escalating tensions in the region, and the political demands pressed on it by the U.S. and its allies, has indicated that it will join the CTBT as well as the FMCT to come.

On May 11, Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, offered that "India would be prepared to consider being an adherent of some of the undertakings in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," adding: "But this cannot obviously be done in a vacuum. It would necessarily be an evolutionary process from concept to commitment and would depend on a number of reciprocal activities." This was widely interpreted as a demand for the recognition of India by the nuclear weapons club as its sixth member, and for the lifting of the general embargo placed by the U.S. and its allies on India's nuclear industry.

But the subsequent announcement of a "voluntary moratorium" on underground nuclear explosions and the offer "to move towards a de jure formalisation of this declaration" show that the Vajpayee Government's resistance to the UGNB has caved in. The Prime Minister's latest statement is, in effect, an offer to accede to the CTBT in the same old "vacuum", without any reciprocity, and without any conditions.

Basic objections

India's real objection, based on the understanding that the CTBT was a strategic underpinning of the NPT regime, was that the United States, tailed by the other nuclear weapon states, (1) was bent on perpetuating the discriminatory nuclear order; (2) was refusing to commit itself to any time-bound disarmament schedule; and (3) had written loopholes into the treaty which would permit nuclear weapon states, while maintaining their active stockpiles, to continue refining and developing their nuclear weapons at their test sites and in their laboratories (through computer simulation and so forth).

Article I of the treaty prohibits state parties from conducting "any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion" and on the basis of the negotiating record, this is understood to include all nuclear explosions with yields above zero, in accordance with Clinton's August 1995 proposal. Article IV and the verification protocol provide for a tough verification regime which will rest on an International Monitoring System and on-site inspections that could, under certain circumstances (as Iraq's experience has shown even before the CTBT has entered into force), prove unacceptably intrusive.

India won world attention by standing up against this inequitable and seriously flawed Treaty - which cannot, it bears emphasis, be seen in isolation from the discriminatory NPT framework - and especially its near-coercive Article XIV providing for Entry Into Force (EIF). What the latter means for India is that its ratification of the CTBT (along with ratification by 43 other states specified for possessing nuclear power and research reactors) has been made a specific condition for EIF. The effective deadline is September 24, 1999, that is three years after the CTBT was opened for signature.

Article XIV provides that if the CTBT has not entered into force by that deadline, the states which have ratified the treaty shall meet in a Conference that will consider the situation and "decide by consensus what measures consistent with international law may be undertaken to accelerate the ratification process in order to facilitate the early entry into force of this Treaty." It is noteworthy that even the NPT does not have this draconian provision for Entry Into Force. In effect, by throwing the entire burden of the CTBT coming into force on India's shoulders, by making India accountable for the treaty not entering into force and its consequences and by fixing a deadline, Article XIV of the CTBT represents a direct demand on India's sovereignty and also an ultimatum.

In his statement of August 22, 1996 made in Geneva, External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral linked these objections to "certain national security concerns" which "make it impossible for us to subscribe to a draft CTBT that is merely an instrument for horizontal non-proliferation rather than disarmament." India's security concerns "oblige us to maintain our nuclear option." While pointing out that the country had exercised "unparalleled restraint" in not carrying out nuclear explosions since 1974 and in refraining from "weaponising our option," Gujral declared that "we cannot accept constraints on our option as long as nuclear weapon states continue to rely on their nuclear arsenals for their security."

The question for the Vajpayee Government is: how have the five Pokhran explosions removed these basic objections that involve principles and are also linked to national security considerations?

But this is not all.

One has only to read the research articles available on the Web site of the Institute of Defence and Studies and Analyses (IDSA) to understand how strongly, and why, the Indian Government and the nuclear policy establishment have been opposed to the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, negotiations for which will begin soon in Geneva. The FMCT is meant to prohibit all further production of fissile material - enriched uranium and plutonium - for weapons purposes, or outside safeguards, in all countries.

To go by the pre-Pokhran-II track record, India's basic objections to such a treaty could be summed up, in the words of strategic affairs analyst Savita Dutt in an IDSA journal article, "Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty: A Critique," thus: (1) the FMCT, although presented as a non-discriminatory treaty "global in its reach and universal in its application," would be discriminatory in that it would "in effect disarm the threshold states" while leaving the nuclear weapon states with "huge stocks of weapons grade fissile materials which would be available to them for decades to come"; (2) India would, as with the CTBT, be expected to insist on "linking FMCT negotiations to time-bound nuclear disarmament steps"; and (3) "judging from the way India has reacted to the CTBT," an FMCT as a strategic underpinning of the NPT regime would be considered "not in the national interest of the country." With regard to Entry Into Force,the FMCT is likely to have the same provision of implied coercion that the CTBT has.

In short, the Indian policy understanding has been that such a treaty would be even worse than the CTBT: it would serve the purpose of 'capping, rolling back and eventually eliminating' India's nuclear weapon capability while leaving the huge stockpiles of the nuclear weapon states in place.

What is more, in May 1997, Prime Minister Gujral announced at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Trombay that, for the above-mentioned reasons, India would not sign the FMCT that was about to be negotiated in Geneva.

But on May 11, 1998 Brajesh Mishra signalled a reversal of this policy understanding by offering that "we shall be happy to participate in the negotiations for the conclusion of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament." Vajpayee, in the paper on the evolution of India's nuclear policy he submitted to Parliament on May 27, reiterated and elaborated Mishra's offer thus: "India has also indicated readiness to participate in negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty... India's approach in these negotiations will be to ensure that this treaty emerges as a universal and non-discriminatory treaty, backed by an effective verification mechanism. When we embark on these negotiations, it shall be in the full confidence of the adequacy and credibility of the nation's weaponised nuclear deterrent."

What is suggested by all this is that the BJP-led Government's nuclear policy is well into a process of swinging from hawkish adventurism to compromise and appeasement. Such are the costs of an ill-considered and harmful leap in the dark for narrow political ends.

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