A dialogue in Bangalore

Print edition : June 05, 1999

A year after Pokhran-II, experts from India and the United States meet and discuss the sensitive question of nuclear weaponisation and international security.

IN an initiative aimed at opening channels in "track two diplomacy" between India and the United States on the sensitive question of nuclear weaponisation and international security, a closed-door 'dialogue' involving leading scientists, former bureaucra ts, academics and retired senior military officials from the two countries was organised by the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Bangalore from May 19 to 21. The Indian organisers appeared unusually nervous about the media interest in the dialogue and discouraged the press from covering even an open panel discussion on the first day.

The dialogue itself was held under the Chatham House rules, a protocol which imposes a degree of confidentiality on its proceedings by barring views expressed at the meeting being attributed publicly to those who expressed them.

The U.S. delegation, noteworthy for the range and depth of expertise in nuclear issues that it represented, consisted of 11 members and staff from the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), a standing committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The CISAC, created in 1980, consists of members with substantial experience in nuclear policy. Most of them are still involved in security-related issues.

The first such exercise in non-official interaction on policy issues connected with India's nuclear programme, its strategic concerns with respect to agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and so on, was held in January 1998. Pokhra n-II changed the terms of the nuclear debate to a large extent, but it also sharpened the need, according to prominent participants, to continue a dialogue on nuclear issues and security concerns. In October 1998 the NIAS and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences agreed to hold another round of discussions in May.

Prominent among the members of the U.S. delegation was General George Lee Butler, former Commander of the U.S. strategic nuclear forces, who has subsequently become a leading advocate of the abolition of nuclear arms. The delegation, led by CISAC Chair, Professor John P. Holdren, included weapons and arms control expert Richard L. Garwin, East Asian policy specialist Jonathan D. Pollack of the RAND Corporation and Indian-born laser physicist C.K.N. Patel, currently Vice-Chancellor of Research at the Un iversity of California at Los Angeles. The Indian team, which had several members who are on India's National Security Council Advisory Board, included Raja Ramanna, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission; Roddam Narasimha, Director, NIAS; K. Su brahmanyam, former Director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, Arundhati Ghose, India's Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva; and General Satish Nambiar, who was Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Bosnia .

The meeting was divided into four sessions. The first session was devoted to a discussion on recent developments and directions in the nuclear weapons policies of the U.S. and India; the second discussed the efforts towards nuclear zero with U.S. and Ind ian perspectives on disarmament; the third discussed accounting and verification arrangements for weapons and materials; and the last dealt with minimising the chances of accidental, inadvertent and unauthorised uses of nuclear weapons. A limited public audience had the opportunity to listen to some of the views expressed by U.S. and Indian participants at a panel discussion on nuclear arms and security.

The views offered by the two sides represented a reiteration of well-known and publicised positions, but with greater detail and substantiation than on earlier occasions. The CISAC delegation, as a non-governmental body whose members are free to differ p ublicly from each other on issues on which there is no consensus, differentiated itself quite sharply from several fundamental positions of the U.S. government on nuclear matters.

Members of the CISAC presented the experience of the U.S. strategic nuclear programme and explained how close the U.S. had come to a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union during the Cold War years, particularly during the Cuban missile crisis. They spok e about the current problems in the former Soviet Union, particularly Russia, where the Army does not have the financial resources to maintain nuclear arms, leading to the real possibility of unauthorised sale or leakage of knowhow and fissile material.

The CISAC has recommended that the U.S. Government announce a unilateral no-first-use policy on nuclear arms, a declaration the government refuses to give. In a major report, The Future of Nuclear Weapons Policy (published by the National Academy Press, Washington, in 1997), the CISAC strongly recommended that nuclear forces be confined to "core deterrence", that operational practices be changed in such a way as to reduce risks and that the U.S. and Russia make deep mutual cuts in their nuclear a rsenals within a short time-frame. CISAC members also clarified their vision of the pursuit of the goal of total disarmament which they preferred to describe in the framework of prohibition rather than abolition.

The CISAC's views, however, also differ sharply from the Indian position, particularly with respect to arms control agreements. The dominant view from the Indian side was that Pokhran-II was a continuation of the nuclear policy pursued by earlier Indian governments. A more critical view of Pokhran-II - that it represented a dangerous shift in India's nuclear policy and that it broke the national consensus on nuclear issues that had existed earlier - was also put forth. Unsurprisingly, opinions differed sharply on the question of India signing the CTBT. The Indian side expressed concern about the absence of clauses that would ensure fair verification procedures and its implications for national sovereignty.

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