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The nuclear guarantee episode

Published : Jun 09, 2001 00:00 IST

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More than three decades after India began its quest for a guarantee against nuclear attack, there is no clarity in its policy with regard to its nuclear programme.

"The Indian purpose in these Washington talks is to point out the need for security assurances. The present Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is 'not saleable' in India, but he hoped the Indian recalcitrance would not be seen as hiding a secret desire to build a bomb. The Secretary said he accepted that Indian statement; the difficulty is that people don't see their own self-interest. Dr. Sarabhai said that the developing international nuclear situation possesses the characteristics of a Greek tragedy in which the actors are drawn inexorably to fates which they are seeking to avoid."

THE Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Vikram A. Sarabhai, spoke with transparent sincerity at a meeting with U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara on April 18, 1967 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's envoy L.K. Jha went on a mission to Moscow and Washington in quest of a guarantee against nuclear attack. Ambassador B.K. Nehru was present, as was Prakash Shah, Second Secretary in the Indian Embassy.

Sarabhai pleaded: "If disarmament is not going to be the next step, then India is reluctant to give up the option of building the bomb. The NPT with its discriminatory inspection compounds the asymmetry of the power balance, and makes the treaty very difficult to sell."

All that was then on offer was President Lyndon Johnson's statements on October 16 and 18, 1964 following China's explosion of a nuclear bomb on October 16, 1964.

McNamara opened the meeting by expressing the U.S. awareness of the need for assurances against nuclear threats. He would like to see the Soviet text which Jha had brought along. It is reproduced here, for the first time in India (see box). One would have expected the Government of India, present or past, to publish a Blue Book as a record of India's exertions in the cause of nuclear disarmament and of its quest for a security guarantee. But, as ever, one has to rely on American sources.

The latest South Asia Volume (1964-68) in the series Foreign Relations of the United States must be read with an excellent compilation, the National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 6 entitled "India and Pakistan - On the Nuclear Threshold" compiled by Joyce Battle, the NSA's analyst for the South Asia Nuclear Project. She is also the analyst for its documentation projects on the Gulf and U.S. policy towards Iraq. (This writer would like to acknowledge a considerable debt to the National Security Archive and to Joyce Battle, personally.)

The issues involved were clear. Would the guarantees be linked to the NPT? Would they be issued jointly by the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or as McNamara suggested "parallel declarations" by the two, plus Britain and France? Would they be implemented through the United Nations Security Council?

On the Indian side, in the light of recent disclosures, doubts persist. Was it a quest in earnest or a bid to show up the Great Powers for what they were? At no stage did India offer a text of its own. Indira Gandhi loathed nuclear weapons. Was it possible that, given a credible guarantee, she might have accepted it? But, then, how credible can any such guarantee be? During the Congressional hearings on the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson made it clear that U.S. response to an attack on an ally would not be "automatic". It would depend on its assessment at the time the guarantee came into play. The only "automatic" guarantee was in the Pact of Steel between Nazi Germany and fascist Italy on May 22, 1939. If one side is attacked the other "will immediately rally to his side as ally and support him". Such a fact has not been concluded since.

Neither Jha nor Sarabhai minced any words on the NPT, as the minutes clearly record:

"Jha said, with respect to the NPT, that there are two major obstacles to Indian acceptance; one is the security problem vis-a-vis China, the other is the fact that India has developed nuclear technology which contributes to Indian confidence and prestige, but which appears threatened by serious curtailment if India adheres to the NPT. He said the NPT is 'a rough treaty', that is, strongly discriminatory against the non-nuclear weapons states. The Secretary said the only discrimination is with respect to peaceful explosions; there is no inhibition on the development of nuclear power plants. Jha replied that discrimination lies in the fact that the nuclear weapons powers do not submit their peaceful facilities to inspection, whereas the non-nuclear states must submit....

"Dr. Sarabhai said the NPT is often spoken of as a 'first step' towards disarmament, but India does not see anything beyond the NPT. For example, India does not see any indication that the USSR or the U.S. intend to slow down the growth of their own nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The Secretary said he thought this was not true, that there was in fact strong impulses in both countries for talks leading to restraint. Jha said the NPT puts the total burden of disarmament on the non-nuclear states."

On June 29, 1961, the State Department instructed its posts in Europe, Karachi, Colombo, New Delhi and Bombay to report any information of India's nuclear programme, "its capability and probable intentions". On February 24, 1964, the Intelligence and Research Bureau informed Secretary of State Dean Rusk that "within four to six months India will be able and may intend to produce weapons-grade plutonium free of any safeguards". There was no evidence it was about to do so, though Ambassador Chester Bowles suggested (September 16, 1964) "a quiet understanding" between India and the United States on a "nuclear umbrella" of the kind given to Japan. Ambassador B.K. Nehru informed the Director, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, on November 3, 1964 that the Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Homi J. Bhabha "estimated that India could develop a reasonable capability for $20 million." Nehru said that "the informal offer of aid (by the U.S.) could not be made formal since India, because of its non-alignment policy, could not enter a firm defence agreement with the United States".

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were against a joint guarantee with the Soviet Union. The U.S. Ambassador at large, Llewellyn E. Thompson, wanted Bowles to be cautioned about this and about any "specific unilateral guarantee to India" as well.

On December 3, 1964 Bowles reported that an Embassy officer was told in strict confidence that the Indian Cabinet "had instructed Bhabha to proceed with first stages of producing atomic bomb. Bhabha had previously reported that eighteen months would be required to produce bomb and once initial explosion had occurred, he could produce fifty in five years." Bhabha gave the same estimate of 18 months to Under Secretary of State George Ball on February 22, 1965. A U.S. intelligence estimate said "there is some evidence that the Indian Government has decided to proceed with work preliminary to a weapons programme, and we believe this is the course which it will follow during the next year or so."

Before he left for a trip to India, W. Averell Harriman, Under Secretary of State, was instructed by Rusk to ask Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri precisely what he wanted, since Shastri had raised the guarantee question with Prime Minister Harold Wilson in London in December 1964. Shastri told a press conference on December 4: "It was for the nuclear powers to discuss some kind of guarantee which was needed not only by India, but by all the non-nuclear countries." Harriman met Shastri on March 5, 1965. Shastri put the ball squarely in the court of those who were against nuclear proliferation. Americans were exercised about India's use of the Canada-India Reactor. In his instructions (February 27, 1965) to Harriman, Rusk set out the U.S. policy in detail:

"India should know that possession of a nuclear weapons capability by Communist China will have no effect on readiness of U.S. to respond to Indian requests for help in dealing with Chicom aggression. We will meet our defence commitments to India... Obviously we do not intend to stand by and watch India be threatened with nuclear destruction. U.S. support to India over the years against Communist China is well documented. President Eisenhower assured Prime Minister Nehru of our support when he visited New Delhi in 1959. Our response to India's request for help in 1962, with which you were clearly associated, speaks for itself. As Prime Minister is aware, following Nehru's request for U.S. manned aircraft to help India meet Chicom attack, U.S. carrier with attack aircraft was en route to Bay of Bengal when fighting ended in November of 1962. Our Air Defence Agreement of July 1963, in which we agreed to consult with GOI in the event of Chicom attack on India, is earnest of our intentions in future. So is agreement of November 1962 under which we currently are providing military assistance to India."

This contains an important disclosure. S. Gopal recorded Nehru's request to Kennedy, on November 19, 1962, for despatch of 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters and two B-47 bomber squadrons (Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 3; pp. 228-229). Units of the Seventh Fleet were asked to move into the Bay of Bengal by Ambassador Galbraith. We now learn that the attack aircraft were on the way when fighting ended.

Matters came to a head in 1966. Rusk cautioned the President (March 16) that "India may, at any time, decide to embark on a nuclear weapons programme". He should speak to Indira Gandhi about it when she arrived in the U.S.

A memo mentioning Dr. Homi N. Sethna's remarks in May 1966 is instructive:

"Sethna himself has pointed out, India cannot just detonate one or two devices and stop. Small nuclear bomb program worse than no program at all because would invite pre-emptive Chinese attack. In terms of Sethna's own figure 150 bombs for credible deterrent, operating costs soar. Twenty plutonium fission weapons per year would increase annual operating costs alone to $100 million, exclusive of delivery system."

India's National Security Council is still "in a formative stage" three years after its birth, as Jaswant Singh said on May 23. It is a disciplined, functioning body in the United States. Papers are prepared in advance listing the options. A decision is taken and responsibility for implementation is clearly assigned in a formal directive. George Ball prepared a paper on "The Indian Nuclear Weapons Problem: Current Issues" for the NSC's consideration on June 9, 1966. The President directed further study. A N.S. Action Memorandum was issued the next day. Rusk's advice (July 25) was "no dramatic steps to discourage the Indians from starting a nuclear weapons program," Johnson agreed.

Eventually, on April 19, 1967, Jha met Johnson who found the Soviet draft "very interesting" - to the State Department's dismay. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko met Rusk on June 23, 1967 and discussed the guarantees among other topics. Gromyko said his draft "was based on and rooted in the Charter of the U.N." Rusk found difficulties in Congressional endorsement (two-thirds vote) and preferred a Security Council Resolution. Gromyko wanted a linkage with the NPT. Rusk suspected that India was opposed to it. The guarantees affair soon petered out. Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai "discounted officacy of Security Assurances" to Rusk on September 15, 1967.

On June 17, 1968, representatives of the U.S., the U.K. and the USSR made identical declarations in the Security Council. Two days later the Council passed a resolution embodying the moth-eaten guarantees. Algeria, Brazil, France, India and Pakistan abstained.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Embassy official, Weathersby, met Homi Sethna, then Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, on May 7, 1968 in Bombay and got an earful on the Indo-Soviet nuclear agreement. It was vintage Homi at his sparkling best. "Sethna characterised agreement as quote seventeen pages of crap unquote. Said he expected very little to come out of accord since quote Soviets are neither forthright nor honest in their dealings in nuclear field. Unquote. Sethna observed that on every visit to date made by Indian atomic scientists to USSR quote we have been treated like kings and lied to as if we were children unquote. He said Soviet obsession with secrecy in their nuclear programme would make value of collaboration quote almost meaningless unquote from Indian point of view." Sethna was strongly opposed to the NPT. The Soviets wanted "to obtain Government of India's data" on China's nuclear tests.

Despite Pokhran-I on May 18, 1974, there was, a U.S. intelligence note of June 13 found, no clarity on policy in India. There is none even after Pokhran-II in May 1998. The last three documents in the compilation (January 22, 1975; January 30, 1976 and June 23, 1983) record Pakistan's drive to catch up with India. Today, in mid-2001, none can tell how the Greek tragedy, which began 35 years ago, will unfold in the days ahead and what toll it will exact when it ends.

TAKING into consideration the wishes of the non-nuclear states that in conjunction with the renunciation by these states of the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons according to the Treaty on Non Proliferation of such weapons appropriate measures might be taken to safeguard the security of non-nuclear countries and also bear in mind that any aggression accompanied by the use of nuclear weapons will endanger the peace and security of all states, the Soviet Union declares the following:

In case of an attack by a nuclear state accompanied by the use of nuclear weapons against states not possessing nuclear weapons or a threat of such an attack an essentially new situation will arise in which the Security Council and above all its permanent members possessing nuclear weapons will have to act immediately under the U.N. Charter which provides taking "effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threat to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace". Any aggressor who embarks on the road of the threat of using nuclear weapons or dares unleash a war accompanied by the use of nuclear weapons and thus breaches the peace and security of nations will not go unpunished.

It goes without saying that, as it is provided in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, the States who fall victim to an attack, a nuclear one included, have an inherent right of individual or collective self-defence until the Security Council has taken measures ultimately to maintain international peace and security.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 09, 2001.)

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