Who is smiling now?

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST


India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation by George Perkovich; Oxford University Press Delhi, 2000; Rs.645.

A CURIOSITY of scholarship that synthesises modern Indian history, including the good books, is that most technical, scientific or industrial works of history since 1947 are underplayed and undervalued. Even the military receives insufficient attention i n these broad works interpreting the past 50 years. This is probably so because there are few published case studies of major programmes (such as the nuclear programmes), of major institutions (such as the Department of Atomic Energy or the Planning Comm ission), or of major figures (such as Homi Bhabha or Vikram Sarabhai). It is ironic that this kind of work has not been encouraged (or even discouraged), because these are the stories of the Indian elites, and these individuals and institutions have had great influence on the country and abroad. Integrative work about the broad sweep of politics, economics, and society do not contemplate these dimensions like the nuclear programme, and so we misunderstand, to this extent, the larger picture of modern In dia.

Enter George Perkovich, preceded last year by Itty Abraham's The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb. India's Nuclear Bomb by Perkovich enables us to compare the circumstances of the first Pokhran test in 1974 and the second tests in 1998. No two nuc lear bombs or tests are the same. Perkovich shows clearly what happened in the volatile 1974-1978 period. Here we see the complex international reaction of nuclear powers to their long-held expectation that India 'would go nuclear', along with their earl ier sense that India 'couldn't do it'. This paradox affected all the original players with an interest in nuclear India in 1974, except Britain. Their expectation about India's 'going nuclear' was coupled to another idea that it might never happen. Moreo ver, some thought, India might acquire the ingredients, yet not actually make or not test atomic bombs. Even the fascinating disagreement over what the 1974 test's yield and the size of the first bomb was, and how the uncertainty surrounding it was actua lly used by interested parties, is part of Perkovich's analysis. Here we see the relations of politics and science at their most complex.

Within four crucial years of India's first nuclear bomb test in May 1974, changes occurred both to delay and accelerate India's nuclear programme, thus creating an image of India as a 'nuclear enigma' until the more famous nuclear tests 20 years later, i n 1998. 'Why did India not weaponise its nuclear capabilities?' outsiders asked curiously, echoing or questioning calls in India to do so. Those more interested in India's history asked 'how did it build its nuclear capabilities?' And those interested in a global system of effective control on nuclear proliferation, asked 'what is India's impact on proliferation elsewhere?'.

PERKOVICH'S monumental book leads us to the answers to these and many other questions, and thus enables us to re-read and re-think India's modern history. But before considering the book, think about what inspired him to study this subject. In a recent c onversation, Perkovich told this writer that though he had studied the politics and economics of 'nuclear weapons establishments' of the United States and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) since 1982, he did not find room in conven tional international relations theory for the historical and anthropological dimensions that would help explain the behaviour of those establishments. Ten years later, in 1992, he came for the first time to India, and found it "fascinating and rather enl ightening. I had no prior interest in India or knowledge of it." He met the top scientists and military specialists, and found "they thought about nuclear weapons differently than the U.S. or Soviet experts did, and differently from what the literature ' allowed'. Perkovich said: "They avoided the hyperactive, abstract military calculus of deterrence that we created, and instead saw nukes as largely political-symbolic instruments. This is what they are elsewhere, too, I believe, though our governments tr y to pretend otherwise. The Indian approach seemed more reasonable, if not also strange in places." Inside this large book is a concealed doctoral dissertation, and it shows all the attention to detail which is expected of such projects. As he told me, " the PhD was written with the book in mind".

The first Pokhran test and its consequences foreshadowed what was to come, and suddenly revealed the strange combination of public disapproval and private acceptance by nuclear powers, as seen more recently in 1998. Part of the sequence, relying on Perko vich and some of my own findings, was as follows:

May 1974: India exploded one small nuclear bomb under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's orders, the explosive yield of which remained uncertain and unexplained for many years. Doubting the official announcement about the costs, Perkovich concludes th at the probable cost was Rs.1.76 billion over the preceding five years, or $220 million in 1974 values. (for which Perkovich cites a study by N. Seshagiri, page 181) Canada suspended cooperation on a reactor and heavy-water plant; France sent a congratul atory telegram (and then withdrew it). Protests from the U.S. and the USSR were muted and more neutral.

June 1974: The Aid India Consortium voted an increased aid budget at the World Bank-managed Paris Club meetings; the U.S. sent its routine delivery of enriched uranium fuel for an (ill-functioning) American reactor near Bombay;

August 1974: Canada eventually began quiet negotiations to restore nuclear cooperation with India, to work on an (ill-functioning) Canadian reactor in Rajasthan; U.S. Congress directed U.S. representatives to the World Bank to vote against loans t o 'any country which develops any nuclear explosive device' unless that country adheres to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;

September 1974: Following severe problems with the supply of heavy water for reactors, India again approached the USSR as a source for new supplies.

April 1975: India launched its first satellite on a Soviet rocket from a Soviet launch site;

June 1975: Indira Gandhi declares a state of emergency owing to her apprehension of an insurrection, and suspends normal political activity; eventually thousands of political and labour activists, intellectuals, students, etc., were imprisoned und er 'Maintenance of Internal Security Act' (MISA);

Spring 1976: The Canadian Cabinet rejected an agreement, drafted and approved by senior Indian and Canadian officials, to reopen nuclear cooperation; evidence appears of the rapid advancement of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, a programme wh ich had actually begun in earnest in 1972. Indira Gandhi said that she did not wish to hear about any more Indian nuclear tests, when atomic energy scientists raise this question hopefully with her;

July 1976: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission opened hearings on the shipment of enriched uranium, and opponents caused a wide review of U.S. nuclear reactor export programme: the Nuclear Commissioners became divided over the decision to ship fuel for Tarapur;

March 1977: Indira Gandhi held national elections and was soundly defeated; 21-month emergency period was over.

July 1977: Prime Minister Morarji Desai, against some 'internal' opposition, publicly rejects any further bomb development programme, and is somewhat disregarded by scientists who continue to work on the bomb programme. Construction begins on 'Dhr uva', a new research reactor, to replace the Canada-India reactor as the source of plutonium for the weapons programme; Desai yields to the Soviet demand that further shipments of heavy water, and the ('Canadian') reactor for which it was destined, be pl aced under safeguards.

March-July 1978: U.S. Congress passed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act. Morarji Desai and President Jimmy Carter met in Washington, and discussed weapons. Congress approved President Carter's decision to allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ship enriched uranium for the U.S. reactor near Bombay; the U.S. finalises negotiations with France to become a replacement-source for enriched uranium reactor fuel for India.

AND there, in 1978, the enigma rested for 20 years. Everyone knew something was happening, yet 'nothing' happened. In Perkovich's words, "The Pokhran blast had put India in a mirror-lined box: the reflection revealed the frailty of India's nuclear capaci ty, and the primacy of other issues" (page 204). During this period officials and scientists knew which Minister was pro-bomb or anti-bomb. Scientists worked on their bomb objective, surviving occasional budget cuts and administrative changes. They went to extraordinary lengths, and at times devious lengths, to keep their programme going (as with clandestine contracts for heavy water in the 1980s). And some people gradually changed positions, as dramatically so in the case of socialist leader George Fer nandes (the Minister of Defence and deeply involved in the 1998 nuclear tests): after the 1974 tests he wrote (from prison) "And should any government discuss such a proposition (the bomb) seriously without first taking steps to provide all citizens of t he 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." In 1998, as Minister of Defence and deeply involved, he applauded the secon d tests.

During this ensuing period, atomic energy's contribution to the national electrical grid increased only slightly, as reactors came on stream: but this occurred at a great cost, given the delays and shutdowns. The Department of Atomic Energy remained the biggest financier of big science, and a lot of good science done in India, far outside its 'mandate'. Meanwhile the voice of the Jan Sangh and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), plus voices such as K. Subrahmanyam's waited for their turn, and, as we know , approved a bomb test after their election success in 1996. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee then cancelled that test just before Parliament's vote of no-confidence. But finally Vajpayee scheduled a nuclear bomb test immediately after their first electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led front in 1998. This electoral victory in March 1998, however, was not attributable to espousal of a pro-bomb policy, but more to issues such as the price of onions. The BJP-led front's re-election in 1999 also mi ght not have occurred but for a conventional 'war' with Pakistan on the high-altitude border of Kashmir - it is unlikely the 1998 nuclear tests would have had much effect at the electoral level. But the tests did add to an image of 'a strong India' in th e border clashes using conventional weapons. Is India still in a 'mirror-lined box'?

As important as the consequences of the 1974 test are, the other question of how the nuclear capabilities were built from the late 1940s by Nehru, Bhabha, and others is more important for the broad picture of India's history. Perkovich skilfully shows ho w the Atomic Energy Commission gradually built research reactors, plutonium separation plants, uranium fuel rod manufacturing and reprocessing facilities and so on, combining international assistance and domestic strengths. All of this required highly tr ained people. By the time of China's first nuclear bomb test in 1964, the U.S., Britain and Canada (and perhaps France?) thought there was a credible (if too expensive) capacity for India to build a bomb, as Bhabha announced in 1964. But as with his esti mates on the completion of reactors and the contribution of atomic energy to the energy economy, Bhabha exaggerated (sometimes deliberately) the speed and efficiency with which it could be done. After all he was expected to show something positive for al l his big budgets. Perkovich shows why it would take twice as long as Bhabha claimed, even had he not suddenly been killed in 1966. There were some ingredients, including plutonium, but there was no design knowledge, or basic equations, and no possession of explosive lenses for the bomb itself. Even then Indira Gandhi would probably not have authorised tests in 1967, 1968, or 1969 if Bhabha had lived, or so we can speculate from Perkovich's evidence. When she did, in late 1971 or early 1972, it took sci entists another two and a half years to achieve it.

All through this period there was a rich interplay of individual and party political positions on how this nuclear capacity should be used. Perkovich shows how divisions within the Congress party used the bomb as a rhetorical device (but seldom spoke abo ut the cost of atomic energy), and how the Jan Sangh/BJP moved from the shadows into the foreground skilfully using, among other things, the bomb. There was a complex interplay among politicians, their top administrators, scientists and the military, as Perkovich shows: but it is not a unified picture, by any means. Unfortunately we do not yet have analysis of how this interplay worked in various states and regions, nor studies of the local society and economy surrounding these huge nuclear projects, as we do now have in all the other 'nuclear' nations (including the secret Soviet nuclear cities), except China. There is a vast opportunity for scholars in India if they turn their attention responsibly to this subject, in spite of its difficulties. Those who have already done this are opening new windows.

Where Perkovich excels is where he discusses U.S. strategic and military relations with India, and the effects of global American nuclear policies on India. Nuanced and exceptionally well informed, relying on ground-breaking interviews and rare documents , he provides a 50-year history of U.S. objectives in the region, the hopeless U.S. attempt to back Pakistan and India equally while cooling their desires for bombs and conventional weapons, and the shallow U.S. grasp (at the top) as to why India might b e preparing to achieve nuclear weapon status, that is, what a bomb might mean in India. Even with a surrounding scholarly and analytical community second to none, U.S. policy makers appear unable to understand South Asia, notwithstanding their internal a dministrative and tactical disagreements. Hinting at Indian duplicity in this ambiguous nuclear environment, Perkovich mirrors it with U.S. duplicity that had since 1965 contemplated 'approving' an Indian bomb in order to keep an influence on its deploym ent, and to shape the conditions of its use. Even after the 1974 test, Henry Kissinger feigned mild disapproval of the first nuclear test, and later feigned 'concern' about its consequences. Zbigniew Brzezinski was 'sympathetic' in the late 1970s, says Perkovich, to keeping India's nuclear option open for purposes of U.S. interest in regional security. Reading his close account of U.S.-Indian discussions in the late 1990s gives me an eerie sense of deja vu, based on my reading of thousands of secret do cuments from the 1950s and 1960s. But he does not provide the readers with a view of French or Russian relations with Indian nuclear history, because he cannot: those countries have closed their files as tightly as India has, and we have so little eviden ce to work with. Even Canada has not yet de-classified all its files from 1947 up to 1970.

The book concludes with a thoughtful assessment of what Indians have gained and lost in the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and in resembling other nuclear states. The conclusion is a very thoughtful essay about the thinking the nuclear powers have done (or not done) in the more than 50 years since the bombs dropped in August 1945 in Japan. What Indians lost, says Perkovich, was a set of illusions about nuclear weapons, science and technology, and their roles in Indian history. Some Indians had eagerly or reluctantly adhered to these illusions, and some non-Indians, including Americans, had actively participated in promoting them. He then critically examines four illusions inherent in some U.S. international relations theory and nuclear non-proliferati on policy, namely that concerns about national security decisively determine the efforts to acquire nuclear weapons (they do not); that non-proliferation is 'the flip side of proliferation coin' (it is not, because reduction of insecurity has not inhibit ed India's weapons builders); that democracy facilitates reductions on the spread of nuclear weapons (it has a more variable effect in different countries, and democracy actually makes it more difficult in India to 'unproliferate', to use Perkovich's ter m); and finally, that disarmament that occurs mutually and equitably among nuclear powers is not a prerequisite to achieve non-proliferation in other, less-powerful states such as India. To the latter, 'the grandest illusion of the nuclear age', Perkovic h responds that "India's connection of its nuclear policies to those of the 'major powers' is no more dubious than many of the arguments proffered by the nuclear powers", and says U.S. officials unrealistically devalue the idea that reciprocal and equita ble disarmament might or would be a cause for the action of other states (pages 465-466).

Perkovich laboured on his book against a strong taboo. A few courageous or confident people talked to him on the record, but others did so on condition that they be anonymous. Saying that "...no nation has debated more democratically than India whether o r not to acquire or give up nuclear weapons", he also writes "it is conceivable that sources of some of the information contained here could suffer reprisals if their identities were known." And of course, it is a shame that almost no Indian documents ar e available, even those older than the normal 30-year limit. It is important for India and Indians that this taboo about modern history be broken. Perkovich has been very persistent in bringing historians such as me many nuggets of precious information. I concede that 'true insiders' will have well-informed reactions that few of us will ever know, and that those experts might criticise this or that point. But theirs is a closed world, still. This book, assembling, synthesising and advancing as it does a lot of earlier work, will be a standard public reference for a long time to come.

Robert Anderson is Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada.

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