Significance of the Indian nuclear test

By Praful Bidwai, MIND (Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament)


I feel privileged to be speaking to you in this great and beautiful country. Indeed, as a nuclear disarmament activist, coming here is something of a pilgrimage for me. But I speak with more than a tinge of regret and sadness because I come from a nation that has shamed itself by committing a grave wrong against its people, indeed what it itself called "crime against humanity." That's how India once described not just the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, but even their manufacture and possession.

May 11, 1998, will go down as one of the darkest days in India's history. The five nuclear tests conducted on May 11 and 13 with the clear purpose of developing and refining awesome weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) defiled our land and diminished all Indians. New Delhi firmly put itself on the inglorious path traversed by the five nuclear weapons states (NWSs), and opted for the supercynicism that goes with brute power and hegemonism.

The BJP-led coalition's decision to conduct the tests was strategically irrational, politically outrageous and morally repugnant. It marked a violent, razor-sharp doctrinal break with New Delhi's own stated nuclear policy of 50 years. If there was one thread of continuity in that policy, it lay in the forceful rejection of the view that nuclear weapons are legitimate, and that they are essential for the security of any state.

The Pokhran tests were devoid of a strategic-military rationale. There was no perceptible adverse change in India's security environment in recent years that can justify a radical shift of India's military posture. If anything, India is today militarily more secure than at the beginning of the decade, with the subsiding of the secessionist movement in Kashmir, and improved relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lank and, most important, China. Improved relations with China, exemplified by two major agreements on peace and tranquillity, were India's foreign policy breakthrough of the1990s.

It is disingenous to cite Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation as a reason for the tests. This is of a sporadic, largely non-strategic nature. Nor is it new. It is as absurd to speak of a Sino-Pakistani nuclear "alliance" or "axis" as to dub India a client of Russia because it has bought the latest Russian warplanes and wants to import two Russian nuclear reactors. And yet, A.B. Vajpayee did exactly that in his May 11 letter to Bill Clinton. This focuses entirely on the "threat" from China and Pakistan, and does not even mention the unequal global nuclear order, or the CTBT and NPT extension - the reasons cited by his apologists.

China has not so far treated India as a nuclear adversary: indeed, it recently discontinued its programme to develop the Dong Feng 25 missile with the right range to reach peninsular India. China is a threat in the same sense, that any big power, including the U.S., is always a potential threat to the world. The fact that most of those who invoke "the Chinese threat" conveniently forget American hegemonism, and indeed plead for a "bargain" with Washington despite the menacing nature of American power, only exposes the fatal flaw in their logic and their craven attitude toward Washington.

Even if India faced a tangible nuclear threat, New Delhi has itself long held, rightly, that nuclear weapons are no means of meeting it. They are not weapons of defence. Nor are they good, reliable deterrents. The notion of nuclear deterrence is fraught with danger: India has always called it "abhorrent". Deterrence is bound up with an arms race. By its very nature, deterrence has a degenerative, unstable character. To deter the adversary, you must keep on raising the level of credible threat of the damage you can inflict upon him. He, in turn, will "logically" raise his counter-threat level, to which the answer must be a further raising of your prepardness. That is exactly what happened during the Cold War when the NWSs amassed arsenals big enough to destroy the world 50 times over. Besides, deterrence legitimizes the possession of these horror weapons.

That is one great lesson which India wisely acknowledged until recently, but which the BJP-led coalition decided to erase. We are being asked to forget that nuclear weapons provide no defence against humiliation in unjust wars (for example, in Vietnam), and that their non-possession does not prevent tiny states from living in dignity. We are also being treated to other bogus arguments for nuclearization in terms of national "pride", "self-esteem", and a place at the international high table. But it is insulting to be told that our self-esteem is dependent solely on weapons of mass-destruction. How can gatecrashing into the Exclusive Nuclear Club, which the bulk of the world's 186 nations distrust, be the best way of promoting our national interests?

Another fallacious argument holds that nuclear weapons are an effective currency of power and a passport to high stature. However, nuclear weapons are at best a devalued currency; they do not provide real power - witness the bloody U.S. defeat in Vietnam, China getting a bloody nose in the same country in 1979, and the USSR beating a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. Indeed, the mighty Soviet Union could not ensure its own survival despite its awesome nuclear arsenal. Nor could nuclear Britain ensure that it would not get progressivelymarginalized into a second-rate power.

Such irrational reasoning in favor of over nuclearization is meant to obscure the fact that by conducting the five tests India wantonly, cynically, violated the welcome political norm against nuclear testing. The world has expressed its strong disgust with the nuclear tests; these are deeply unpopular. By conducing the tests, India tried to blow a hole through the healthy post-Cold War global momentum favoring nuclear restraint. This was done in the interest of a higher principle, but for utterly crude, Machiavellian considerations of power. This momentum until May 11 was admittedly weak, uncertain, unsteady and fully reversible. But it was nevertheless new, real and important. Thus, three nuclear weapon-capable states (South Africa, Argentina and Brazil) opted for abstinence, while three others (Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) voluntarily disarmed, and over 20,000 nuclear weapons have been decommissioned or de-alerted.

A new moral-political norm has evolved against nuclear weapons. The NWSs have come under increasing pressure to live up to their disarmament commitments under the NPT. Opinion against nuclear armaments has been growing in a number of forums - from the International Court of Justice to the Conference on Disarmement, from the Canberra Commission to the December 1996 statement of 61 Generals from numerous countries, including Lee Butler of the U.S. Strategic Command. This remains the case despite the indefinite extension of the NPT.

Over the last three years, India has gradually moved in the opposite direction, resisting all proposals for nuclear restraint. Regrettably, some of the reasons for doing so - for example, that the CTBT is a mere "charade" and a "conspiracy" to perpetuate the NWS hegemony - were harnessed by strong pro-bomb lobbies in and outside the government to hack away at nuclear ambiguity. The result was significant shrinking of the "middle ground", which wanted the nuclear option to be kept open but not exercised. The BJP seized upon this, and violently pushed its own hawkish agenda with the utmost recklessness. Had the "middle ground" been more assertive, and defended non-exercise of the option more energetically and on principled grounds, May 11 may not have happened.

Today the "middle ground" has ceased to exist. You are either for the bomb or against it. And more and more Indians are against it - at last count 73%, according to a recent opinion poll.

India has shocked and outraged the world. The Pokhran tests have earned India opprobrium, suspicion, resentment and hatred, not respect - not just from the major powers, but from smaller non- and anti-nuclear states - which once regarded it as a leader and an exemplary moral force as a treacherous, deceptive, and hypocritical state with hegemonic ambitions.

In India, we know that the argument that India was forced to test by reluctance of the five nuclear states to disarm is a mere excuse. The real reasons for nuclearization were largely domestic and have nothing to do with challenging the unequal global nuclear order. India has not challenged that order. It only wants to join it as a junior member.

The BJP's actions have attracted sanctions. These are of course questionable on moral grounds in the U.S. case, because America has not decided to eliminate its own nuclear weapons. However, few Indians or Pakistanis grudge Japan its decision to impose sanctions. At any rate, the Indian people will have to pay the price for the BJP's misadventure. Sanctions have already affected aid and investment flows and credit ratings of both countries and are liable to cause grave hardship to the people, especially in Pakistan whose economy is on the verge of collapse.

Even greater would be the damaging impact of increased military spending due to nuclearization. Contrary to hawkish propaganda, nuclear weapons do not substitute conventional armaments. Rather, they are an additional burden, especially if they are deployed. (The costs of deployment, that is, through a command, control and communications infrastructure, can add up to half or more of the cost of a nuclear weapons program.) Even without a nuclear arms race, the cost of a "minimal deterrent" (a problematic concept, this) has been conservatively estimated to be 0.5 to one percent of GDP. This will add about 25 to 40 percent to India's military budget, which is already unconscionable and twice as high as Federal spending on health, education and social services!

A major nuclear arms race would aggravate matters further. But India now risks not one, but two nuclear arms race - a secondary one with Pakistan, and a primary one with China, a far more advanced NWS, with an economy three times larger. This could be ruinous.

With Pokhran-II, India has degraded its security, turned friends and allies into enemies, and diverted its resources away from urgent priorities. In return, it has gained no real strategic advantage. At the global level, India is guilty of sabotage of the nuclear disarmament agenda, in which precisely its real security lies. Only grotesquely insane reasoning can justify Pokhran-II.

Some of the damage can still be contained. New Delhi should avoid the temptation of looking for devious bargains that soften the blow but perpetuate NWS hegemonies and legitimize machtpolitik. It should solemnly pledge never to use, further to test, or deploy nuclear weapons. It should sign the CTBT and return to the global disarmament agenda with sincerity and fervor while supporting every measure of nuclear restraint and step-by-step disarmament. This is where India's security - and the path to sanity - lies.

But to do this, India's ruling coalition must be made to abandon its macho nuclear fixations, its arrogant nuclearism and its delusions of grandeur. It must be denied a consenus. Political leaders and citizens of liberal and Left-wing persuasion have a special role here. And they are playing it.

And citizens' movements from all over the world are indispensible. We all have a special duty to put nuclear disarmament back on the agenda. As we recall Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must make a firm resolve to fight collectively for nuclear disarmament.-end--