'Weaponisation is harmful'

Print edition : June 06, 1998

As Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission between 1987 and 1990, M.R. Srinivasan was among the most persuasive advocates of nuclear power in a global context of growing scepticism about its efficacy and economy. He was a member of the Planning Commission, holding charge of Energy, under the United Front Government. Shortly after Pakistan conducted its second series of nuclear tests, Srinivasan shared his perceptions on the recent events with Sukumar Muralidharan. Excerpts from the interview:

Your first response on hearing of the Pokhran tests was to commend the scientific endeavour behind it. Do you think this effort can be separated from the political context in which it was conducted, and the particular manner in which it was expressed?

You see, Indian nuclear policy has really been anchored on the basic objective that we must work towards a nuclear weapons free world, that we must use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. If we go back to the formulation of the policy by Dr. Homi Bhabha and Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and the political leadership - Pandit Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi - the objective has been that we should use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It is true that the same kind of technology also gives us a certain weapons capability. But unlike other countries, which started their programmes for weapons applications and later added on peaceful purposes, we went the other way.

Does the Pokhran test, and the political rhetoric which has followed, mark a departure from the continuum of India's nuclear policy?

Would a firm commitment that we will not weaponise be a logical and ethical requirement of our nuclear policy?

I would not say that. The Pakistani tests indicate that they have gone along on the weaponisation path for some considerable time. Therefore, both with respect to the potential of Pakistan and the nuclear capability of China, a certain degree of preparedness is inevitable. But we must not get carried away by the notion that we ought to weaponise in a big way and then keep on escalating. What we should really do is to engage in bilateral discussion with countries of consequence in the nuclear area and try to limit the extent of weaponisation.

Deterrence is recognised to be a matter of perception. Is it sufficient to have a certain knowledge and a certain institutional depth to ensure adequate deterrence? Was Pokhran '98 necessary, when Pokhran '74 had already made the point?

I would say that 1974 of course was our first experiment, and the device then used could not have been the prototype for devices with any military significance. There are questions of size and weight and suitability to the delivery system. So our scientists and technologists had always wanted another opportunity to test out their research and to validate the computer codes they had developed. But the decision to test is a political decision. And the handling of the post-test situation could have been done in a much more subtle and persuasive manner. An impression has been created that we have been carried away and become very impulsive.

Do you think there is scope for a rational debate in the mood of jingoism that has been unleashed?

This is very unfortunate. There has been a national consensus that we should not sign on to discriminatory treaties like the NPT. We have also been firm in our resolve to develop basic capabilities. The decision to test has been taken by the present Government, and of course, there has been general support for the tests. But I do not believe there has been any national consensus on the subsequent pronouncements.

A threatening posture was assumed in the neighbourhood following the tests. But can the two really be separated? Or was the mere fact of testing sufficient to convey a sense of threat in the neighbourhood?

There would have been some dismay in the world with regard to the tests. But there at least we were on firmer ground, because even China, France and the U.S. had done tests just before they signed the CTBT. What we did was not significantly different. We could have explained our tests in this context, since the country's nuclear policy needed a certain affirmation in the context of global developments. In this sense, we could have said that the tests had no connection to problems of the immediate neighbourhood.

Do these tests queer the pitch for our stand in the global debate? At one time our credibility stemmed from the fact that we had the capability, but an abundance of restraint. Does that posture still survive?

Our position will continue to be respected provided we play on that basis, which is that we would still like to see nuclear weapons eliminated. We do not want to see needless weaponisation. And we should not be distracted from the peaceful applications.

Pokhran-I in 1974 also created certain difficulties for the civilian nuclear programme. Collaboration for the Rajasthan plant was cut off midstream, technology denial regimes were introduced...

There is no doubt that our nuclear power programme suffered. Even in recent times, access to civilian nuclear technology is denied to countries that have not acceded to the NPT or have not accepted full-scope safeguards. So to an extent, that particular embargo is affecting India and Pakistan, though it does not affect China. These are justified on the basis of the present international regimes, but really they do not stand on any logic. The U.S. or the Big Five deploring our nuclear tests is sheer hypocrisy. They are themselves sitting on piles of weapons and they have done nothing to dismantle them. Now unfortunately, both India and Pakistan have played into the hands of Big Five weapons powers, to some extent because we have not shown the statesmanship to come to terms on our own with our bilateral problems.

In a way, have we invited the mediation of external powers in our neighbourhood relations?

The word "invited" is perhaps too weak. They seem to have given a carte blanche, as it were, for the others to impose their will. If they had sat together earlier it would have been a negotiation between two parties, whereas now it is going to be very difficult to play the game with so many umpires who are neither trustworthy nor neutral.

The bargain we have sought in the global forum - to have a non-discriminatory nuclear regime - is it going to be more difficult to drive that bargain now?

In spite of all that has happened in the last few weeks, those who understand these matters know that India's nuclear programme is much broader and deeper than Pakistan's. But to some extent, the propaganda component of these tests will convey the impression that, oh well, we are dealing with two equal players.

Isn't that the reality of nuclear weaponry - that it establishes a deadly symmetry irrespective of the depth of your knowhow?

Well yes and no. China has a very small nuclear arsenal relative to the U.S., but both countries are still being treated on par. But if you analyse this, it is not necessarily the case that the U.S. recognises China as an equal power. Rather, the U.S. feels there is no real reason for it to look at scenarios of conflict, because there is a rather large degree of economic interdependence between them. So I think we ought not to look at these number games in that sense. India will continue to be eight times larger as a country, as an economy, and therefore in terms of inherent strength.

There is an ongoing global process of checking nuclear proliferation. The NPT set a certain mould which was strengthened by the CTBT. Now the next frontier seems to be the fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). Do recent events alter India's position in relation to these treaties? Or in the normative sense, would you say it should change?

The logic of our staying out of CTBT applies even to the FMCT. The objections that we had to the CTBT - that there was no linkage to nuclear weapons elimination - applies to the FMCT, because I do not think the U.S. is going to build any promise of disarmament into the latter.

Now the Prime Minister has said that we are going to engage in negotiations with certain nuclear weapons powers to enable India to sign the CTBT. It is not very clear what the amendments could be that would enable us to sign.

In terms of restoring global confidence or even neighbourhood confidence, do you think CTBT would help? This is apart from the factor of domestic public opinion.

Of course, the global community would be relieved that there will be no tests from India or Pakistan. Put another way, it would also mean that one is freezing technology levels at current capabilities, with the additional support base of analysis, theory, computer modelling and so forth.

Still, the international community would think that is some progress. But I have a feeling that it could cause very serious problems within the country, because the earlier objections we had were very serious ones, and they have not even been taken note of.

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